Disclaimer: The name of my article’s subject has been changed to conceal her identity. In an age of doxxing and the traceable digital identity, I hope you can appreciate the need for anonymity – especially when it deals with substance abuse and mental health issues.
The sudden loss of her mother pushed Jane Doe to hard drugs and unhealthy relationships at a young age.
She was 16-years-old and in grade 11 when her mother died suddenly, and her remaining family didn’t consider the option of grief counselling to keep Doe from spiraling out of control. Now 25 and settled in London, ON, Doe has learned through the study of death and grieving how to understand her emotions and self-destructive behaviour.
Following her mother’s death, she was often home alone while her father worked as a night-school instructor at a local college. Doe said she struggled with thoughts of suicide and was incorrectly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Drugs and alcohol took priority over her grades and attendance and her friendships fizzled out, she said.
“I lashed out at people because I thought the world owed me something for making me suffer through that trauma,” Doe said. “But it doesn’t. I think people struggle to grasp that concept after something catastrophic happens in their life. We are a very me, me, me culture and think we are all unique and special when really, we all have experiences that [we perceive as] catastrophic.”
In her second year at King’s University College, Doe was recommended by a classmate to consider courses in thanatology, the study of grief and bereavement.
The program website describes its areas of study: “palliative care, suicide, children and death, spiritual and philosophical issues, change and transition, popular culture, grief and trauma, and diversity and social justice.”
Personal trauma became an asset for Doe, who was eventually properly diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression.
“Learning theory versus applying it is a big issue in university alone. Having theory and then having my own experiences to apply it to definitely gave me an advantage,” she said. Many of her classmates, she noted, had also experienced some sort of loss and were understanding, genuine people.
Professors in the program had the same qualities. According to Doe, many of them were working professionals in the field and “practised what they preached” with a dedicated work ethic.
This inspired her to continue her studies into graduate school. As of this year, she is pursuing a Master of Science in Health & Rehabilitation Science with a focus on health and aging. While her undergraduate degree also covered a lot of relevant quantitative studies and social theories, it’s also different from her current field of study in certain ways.
“[Thanatology] didn’t talk about natural healing and death, but rather [it had] a focus on sudden death and trauma.”
The next two years will be decisive for Doe. She hopes that through writing her thesis and networking with people in her field she might decide whether to stay in academia or work in the field as a counsellor, or even a funeral director.