How to Survive Losing a Loved One While You’re At Wharton

This article is meant to serve as a guide for Wharton students who may lose a loved one while pursuing their MBA, and for their friends and classmates

When I started at Wharton last Summer, I was both overwhelmed and excited by the challenges that lay ahead of me.  I was concerned with making the grade academically, landing an internship, and with getting back on the rugby pitch following an ACL tear.  Little did I know that my greatest challenge was one I had no idea that was coming: dealing with the unexpected death of my father.

Like most of my classmates, I had a very busy Fall filled with recruiting and club events.  I planned a trip to Italy over Thanksgiving break to decompress.  Since I was skipping the holiday with my family, I decided to take a trip home to Washington D.C. to visit my parents in early November.  Everything seemed like it was going according to plan when my mom picked me up at the train station.  We were looking forward to a nice family dinner and a weekend together.  When we arrived home, my dad was out of the house, but we thought nothing of it.  I went up to my bedroom and started working on some internship applications.  After about half-an-hour my mom began to worry, so she called his cell phone.  He did not answer.  I figured he had left it in his car, so I did not worry about it.  However, my complacency was shattered a few minutes later when my mom’s phone rang.

The person on the other end informed her that my dad had been involved in an accident and she had to come to the local hospital immediately.  We rushed out together and the 20-minute drive felt like an eternity.  I’ll never forget the drizzle of rain smearing the windshield as we wound our way to the hospital.  When we arrived, we were greeted by a paramedic who informed us that a park ranger had found my dad unconscious on a hiking trail.  “He’s going to be ok, right!?”  I remember shouting.  The paramedic did not answer and told us to wait for the doctor to arrive.

We learned that my dad’s chances of recovery were slim, and that they would do all they could to resuscitate him, but we should not get our hopes up.  At that moment, all my fears about LT’ing MGEC or not getting an offer from my first choice of firms evaporated.  My wife rushed down from Philadelphia to join us, and we spent the rest of the night with him huddled around, praying that he would pull through.  It was to no avail.  He passed from this world early the next morning.

As an only child, I knew it was my responsibility to get my mom through this experience, so I walked her to the car, and drove her home.  Exhausted and numb after a sleepless night, I collapsed into bed entertaining the faint notion that this was just a bad dream.  When I woke up, I realized this was not the case.  Here is how I handled this crisis from that point:

1) I made sure I closed out any outside commitments and let people know what had happened so I could focus on my family.  After cancelling my trip to Italy, I let my professors, academic advisor, and learning team know what was happening and that I would be out of class for a few weeks to help my family through this crisis.  Everyone at Wharton was extremely understanding and bent over backwards to help me out.  This allowed me to focus on my first priority: helping my family through the crisis by executing my dad’s will, taking care of his memorial, and closing out his financial affairs.  In hindsight, I was so busy taking care of these items that my mind was occupied and the fact that I no longer had my dad with me did not even really sink in.

2) Once everything at home had been taken care of, I went back to Wharton.  Since I had missed so much school, my teachers and academic advisor were willing to let me drop a class without penalty and delay some finals.  The school was so helpful and accommodating, I felt instantly at ease knowing my academic career would not be derailed.  My dad was a very stoic man who was proud of all I had accomplished.  He would have been disappointed had I not hardened my resolve and finished out the Semester on time.  I did just that with less than spectacular results.  However, I passed all of my classes and did not end up on academic probation, so I considered that a win.

3) I got help.  I have never sought out counseling in any form, but my wife pushed me hard to talk to a professional.  I am so glad I did.  Penn has grief counseling resources, and I went to the Cohen Clinic for several counseling sessions.  If you ever lose a loved one, I cannot recommend getting professional help enough.  I draw a direct parallel to my ACL surgery and recovery.  After tearing my ACL and getting it repaired surgically, I could have technically started walking again with no help, but I would have had a life-long limp.  However, I went to a physical therapist who had seen numerous people with my injury.  We went through a time-tested recovery regime that restored my full range of motion and function.  The same holds true for mental health.  If you endure a traumatic event, you must seek out professional help if you hope to recover fully.  My counselor and I discussed my feelings of sadness and guilt and rationalized the experience.  She provided me with mental exercises I could perform to help me through this difficult time which proved extremely helpful.  Although it will be some time until I fully recover from the loss of my dad, this counseling has set me on that road.

From the bottom of my heart, I hope no one reading this article loses a loved one while you are at Wharton.  However, if that tragic event should happen.  I hope you take something from my experience that will help you through the experience.

There is no “right way” to grieve and everyone will deal with this experience in his or her own way.  In my case, I felt immediate grief, followed by a numbness that helped me through the first few weeks.  Friends of mine stated that they thought I was “taking it well.” I now recognize that I was in shock.  Then, slowly but surely, deep sadness crept over me.  I felt better on some days than others, and that is something many people who are grieving will experience.

There is no time limit on how long anyone will grieve.  I’m still working my way through it, but I’m doing fine thanks to the love and support of my friends and family.  If someone you know loses a loved one, sending him or her a simple message to let them know you’re thinking of them and are available to talk means more than you will know.  I can’t thank my classmates and Wharton faculty enough for their support.  I’m a resource too, so, please do not hesitate to reach out to me if you need someone to help you through a tough time.

In closing I would like to leave you with one final thought: Wharton will overwhelm you with opportunities.  However, although school, jobs, and travel may seem like the most important things at times; I learned that they pale in comparison to the relationship you have with your loved ones.  Although you may be tempted to spend every break traveling the globe with your MBA friends or taking classes in exotic locations, I encourage you to take time to spend with your loved ones.  Even a simple call home while you’re walking back from class is a great way to connect.  You’ll have your whole life to travel.  You’ll never regret spending a few weeks a year with those who mean the most to you.

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, Fred Emmert.  I would not be here at Wharton had it not been for his love and sacrifice.  Until we meet again.




About Alexander Emmert, WG'20

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