Dealing with Death and Grief During First Year of PhD

In January this year, I arrived in Stellenbosch in high confidence and hope of an exciting PhD journey. I had developed a relationship with my supervisor over some years and was excited to finally have a PhD fellowship to enable me take up full-time residence in South Africa. It was my first time studying outside of my home country.

I had a very warm welcome to the Department of Ancient Studies and had the privilege of sharing an office space with Dr Lunette Warren, who has become a friend and mentor. At my first lunch meeting with Lunette, she offered some advice on PhD life and mentioned that though we all hoped for a smooth sail through the PhD journey, some people experienced serious challenges during that journey.

While I expected to face some challenges, given that I had left family and dependants behind and was no longer employed, I never expected to face my worst moment just six months into my PhD—the loss of my dad. I hope it’s not too early to call this my worst moment on a PhD programme; after what I have been through this year, I cannot imagine myself going through anything worse than this loss.

Losing my Dad Six Months into my PhD

The first five months of my PhD journey was devoted to writing and defending a comprehensive proposal and attending seminars. By the end of May, I had successfully defended my PhD proposal and submitted it to the Higher Degrees Committee. It had been a rigorous process. Then on the day of my PhD cohort’s proposal presentation briefing to the Dean of Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, I received a text message that my son was on admission.

My wife Pat had travelled to Germany in May as part of requirements for her PhD studies in Ghana, and she was to be away for three months. Because of limited funding, she had left care of our son in the hands of her cousin and friend. They were doing a very great job looking after our son. But when I learned that he had been admitted twice in a row, I knew I had to be there with him.

My plan had been to return home in September to organise the international Classics conference scheduled for October and spend the remaining two months with family. However, given the situation back home, I had to leave as soon as possible. I sought permission for a longer stay so I could spend time with family, organize the conference, and not have to incur the cost of making two separate return flights within a few months.

The first person I called when I arrived in Accra in June was my dad, who lived hundreds of miles away. I had informed him that as soon as Pat returned from Germany in August, we would make a visit and stay with him for some weeks before I returned to Accra to start plans towards the 1st International Classics Conference in Ghana and inauguration of the Classical Association of Ghana.

But just a month into my visit, I received a call one morning from my dad that he had been assaulted by a young man. I asked him to go to the hospital and lodge a complaint with the police. It turned out, in fact, that the assault had been meted out by four young men with two others on the lookout, because of some misunderstanding between them and my dad, a vulnerable man, a stroke survivor on whom the effects of stroke were still visible.

The four locked him up in an enclosed space, kicked him several times in his chest and abdomen until a Good Samaritan who heard the scuffle from outside came to his rescue. After initial medical treatment, my dad was rushed to the hospital two days later and was pronounced dead on arrival on July 9. It was a devastating blow! My sister delivered the news to me, and I was speechless. Everything came to a halt, including my PhD work. I was overwhelmed with grief and anger!

The autopsy revealed the cause of death as hypertension and diabetes. We could have pursued the case further, but I was handicapped financially, and the support of my dad’s own siblings was nothing to write home about. We had to quickly organise his burial and funeral to avoid further costs.

I recall an aunt telling me, “He’s your father; it’s your shame if you won’t give him a befitting burial.” An uncle confessed, “If you think the family has any financial support to offer, you’re mistaken.” I understand that the family had held a funeral for an uncle some months before, but the lack of empathy for what we were going through at this time showed me what indeed those who claimed to be family were made up of. We were left to our fate, or should I say we were hated? As a PhD student, a firstborn, with family and two siblings to support, you can imagine the burden. The greatest responsibility had fallen on me.

Dealing with Loss and Grief

To be frank, the thought of quitting the PhD crossed my mind many times. But when I considered my motivation for enrolling, I knew I couldn’t give up now. When my wife heard of the loss of my dad, she wanted to seek permission to withdraw from the three-month summer programme in Germany, but I pressed on her to stay. I cannot thank her enough for her care, however remotely, in my dark and lonely moments of grief, and her continued support. 

Cee Connie, as I affectionately call her, was indispensable in her role as a mother to us. She has always come in for us, and this time too she showed her emotional, organisational and financial support throughout the process.

My PhD cohort, Ghana maties, my friend Gideon Asamoah-Asante, my supervisor Professor Philip Bosman, my colleague Dr Lunette Warren, my friend and mentor Dr Alexander Nuer, and friends too numerous to name were very supportive. In the midst of my depression and sorrow, they listened to my rants, my cries, and empathized with me.  They were part of the reason I regained faith that I would bounce back.

I was at my spiritual low during this period, but the fellowship, support and encouragement of my pastors Erasmus Mensah Laryea and Emmanuel Adjetey Quaye, leader of our bible study group Mrs Caroline Kitcher, and the rest of the council and membership of the Presbyterian International Worship Center, provided me space to thrive and reflect.

My colleagues in the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana provided me space where I could still find encouragement in pursuing my academic interests. While there was little I could do on my dissertation, the thought of not giving up was a step in the right direction. Thanks to them, our first ever international classics conference in Ghana was a huge success.

I had not given myself enough time to heal after my dad’s funeral in August. I had lied to myself that I would be okay to resume work on my dissertation after the funeral and conference were over. The preoccupation with organizing both events had covered up my deep-seated grief. After all was done and everyone had left, I found myself totally exposed.

I just couldn’t concentrate on the readings. My mind was just clogged, and it was in those moments that I cried for the first time since my dad’s demise. I was helpless! I realized I had been holding a lot of things back. I thought I had to be strong for my siblings, for the conference, for everyone but not me. And now that the funeral and conference were over, it was my turn to grieve my loss … alone. And I did.

But I needed to return to writing, and at this point all I wanted was to be away from the familiar faces and familiar environment, go into hiding for some weeks and spend the remaining energy I had on my dissertation. It was Reverend William Ameka who came to my rescue. Reverend Ameka is one of the few non-Classicists who has taken interest in my professional growth. And he has done this, serving as mentor since my undergraduate studies. 

In a country where the Classics is despised, Rev Ameka has been more than encouraging. When I was looking for a place to stay and in conversation I happened to mention it, he quickly offered his place at Osu for any number of days I wished to spend. Over the past few weeks, this is where I have worked from and I have done much to my satisfaction. More than ever before, I am confident that I will successfully complete this PhD on schedule.

Now, I can make the eight-hour journey with my wife and son to Sefwi to spend the Christmas and get some rest. We thank you for the support you gave us this year and wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Destiny Aborted, Mission Unfulfilled

God has several ways of getting our attention, and today he did get my attention. I had an emergency that landed me in the children’s ward with my son. Few hours after we got there a little girl of about 3 years lost her life.

Her mother cried uncontrollably. She could not believe that her daughter was gone, I mean gone forever. She screamed and screamed, then went into a state of denial. She assumed her child was just sleeping so started calling her pet names to get her to wake up. That was the point everyone in the ward could not hold their tears back. I looked on, not knowing how to process what I was observing.

What is the difference between this pretty girl who lay on the bed and the other kids in the ward? 

Breath!

It’s that which we take for granted. That which we forget to thank God for.

Breath!

As she was gathered and sent to the morgue, I saw a future cut short, a destiny unfulfilled, a purpose forfeited. Whose fault was it? Very difficult to tell!

It was then that the Holy Spirit got my attention.

What I was observing was the sad truth about humanity. How often we die before our time, how often we die without accomplishing our call and assignments. How often we go back to God with unused talents and unfinished businesses.

This realization saddened me but also got me scared as I examined my own life.

I wondered if I had been living the life God wanted me to live, whether I had touched the lives God wanted me to touch. And whether I had made the difference God wanted me to make; whether I had not pretended to hear, or given too many excuses in responding to, his voice in the first place. And whether I was not too consumed in acquiring degrees and making family, all of which are important yet count very little in the face of eternity.

How easy it is to lose focus, to be too familiar with our environment so much that we fail to make any impact. How often we postpone that which we ought to do today for another day. I could not help but ask for grace to be all God has called me to be, to live my life to its fullest not only in years but with purpose.

It is now your turn for self-examination.

I pray that God brings comfort to this little girl’s family. I pray that God protects all children over the world and secure their purposes on earth. May they become what God wants them to be in Jesus’ name. Amen.