Coping with loss in dental school


It was a cold, blustery winter day in the city of Buffalo. I had just completed my first RCT on an extracted maxillary incisor as part of a pre-clinical endodontics course when I received an unexpected phone call. My normally calm brother spoke with a tremor: “Dad has liver and kidney failure.” Shaking and with tears in my eyes, I rushed home to Pittsburgh. Two days later, my dad passed away.

Where to begin? What do I do? I was a typical type-A dental student accustomed to having my life neatly planned out, but at that moment, I felt the exact opposite. For anyone who is going through or has been in a similar situation during dental school, I hope the following lessons I learned through the process of healing are ones you can connect with.

  • Rely on others. This was something that I rarely did before my dad passed, but a choice that I’m glad that I made. So much love and support, both emotional and tangible, came my way in the following days and weeks. It was comforting to know that friends and relatives were thinking of me and my well-being.
  • Take care of yourself. In the days that followed, I kept myself busy with a full day’s worth of activities. This often left me exhausted, allowing me to sleep better at night. Each day, I also reminded myself to take deep breaths every hour. These actions helped me fully embrace the sadness and anger that I felt. I knew that suppressing those thoughts and emotions would have only prolonged the grieving process, and I am thankful that I allowed myself to truly feel each emotion.
  • Keep busy. Immediately after my dad’s passing, I wanted to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh to be closer to family. I wanted to take a semester off from school. I wanted this nightmare to be over and to resume my life like nothing happened. But for the sake of my professional career, I knew that I couldn’t. I chose to stay enrolled at the University at Buffalo and focused on my rigorous pre-clinical projects to prevent myself from dwelling on the grief. With the help of faculty and classmates, I completed all my lab work on time and excelled at my competency exams. Looking back, having successfully navigated that semester during such a personally difficult time was one of the highlights of my dental career.
  • Utilize school resources. As time passed and my life returned to a normal routine, my classmates and friends assumed that my emotional wounds had been healed and as such, they stopped reaching out. I was thankful for their initial outpouring of emotional support, but I found that the lack of it eight to 12 months later only magnified the loneliness I felt. I chose to utilize my university’s counseling services during this time to help me move forward with the healing process. While my personal support network had provided me with many shoulders to lean on, being able to talk to a professionally trained counselor helped me to stand on my own.
  • Be true to yourself. I am thankful that I fully utilized the resources around me because I believe they made a world of difference. But, I also understand that each person grieves differently. Remember that understanding the importance of your personal well-being and knowing how to reach a better state of mind is your number one priority during this time.

The experience of coping with the loss of a loved one while going through a 30+ credit semester of schooling was challenging, but rewarding in its own way. For one, it has allowed me to empathize with and support others in similar situations. Fellow students facing the loss of a loved one were not alone, and I always made sure to lend an ear so they could speak freely about what they were going through. More importantly, I have learned that the human spirit is truly resilient. After having walked across the graduation stage, I am now certain that even under the most difficult times, we can not only survive, but also thrive.

~ Dr. Winston Liu, Buffalo ’16

For more on dental student wellness, visit ASDAnet.org. Also, ASDA is holding its first-ever Wellness Month this September. Click here to register your chapter and receive a wellness packet.

Winston Liu

Winston is a graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, Class of 2016, where he has actively written for the UB SDM ASDA publication, Impressions. He is currently at a GPR residency in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Away from dentistry, Winston enjoys eating food, drinking red wine, and people watching.

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