This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Shakirah Mujahid is a recent graduate, single mother, teacher, and a mental health advocate. She is the first female in her family to achieve a graduate degree.
Kay and I were making a long drive back home from my job when I mentioned I was thinking of going back to school and had fears that I could not get into the school of my choice. I had spent a great deal of my childhood being ill and had been contemplating for a year to become a child life specialist. A change into the medical field would require not only a degree covering specific courses but a license. Both of which I had little confidence I could accomplish. I had struggled to get my undergraduate degree due to getting married, having a child, leaving anabusive marriage, and then raising an infant while going to school full time. My bachelor’s degree transcripts were marked with dropped classes, a D, and a few marks for retaking classes. I did not feel confident in my abilities to be a good student at this point. Kay was still staring at the road when he told me I had a one-track mind. I remember looking at him with wide eyes, rearing up to snap back. At which point, while stopped in traffic and seeing how upset I was, he said, “I just mean when you set your mind to something, you go after it. If anyone in your family can get a graduate degree, it would be you.” Kay came from a family in Palestine, and education had such an embedded importance to him. He was the one who pushed me into applying for graduate school. In fact, he bought me a cap from the school I would attend a week after I applied. He had full faith that I had what it takes to get into graduate school.
I had already been struggling with my mental health before I applied for graduate school, but the pressure and idea of returning to school made everything much worse. In May 2017 (the same week, I got accepted into graduate school), I was diagnosed with general anxiety. I was eating less than 900 calories a day, sleeping three hours over an eight-hour night, and could not stop cleaning; and that did not change because of graduate school. In fact, it got worse because, on top of my classes, I was also dealing with the side effects of medication for my anxiety, the constant demands of raising a son as a single mother, and the physical need and effort of working full time. It took almost three months, blood tests, multiple doctors visits, and testing out medication and doses to get my prescription right. At this point, I was close to failing my first class. I could not stay focused, could not remember anything I read, and when I remembered enough to finish an assignment, my thoughts on paper matched the thoughts in my head, which were all over the place and, in some cases, had nothing to do with the topic. If I was honest, I couldn’t remember anything from that class. There were some doubts about whether or not I had made a good decision to go to graduate school and if I needed to take some time to focus on my mental health. However, I had a wonderful and caring support system rooting me on, so I kept going. By the time I started my second class, all those doctor visits paid off, and I was on the right medication and doing well. I breezed through the next few classes. And I was motivated, but that did not last.
On the evening of October 27, 2017, around 10:00 pm, I was preparing to get ready for bed when I heard two loud sounds. A few seconds later, I heard a big thud immediately followed by the voice of Kay screaming for my sister. My sister and I ran out of our rooms and met in the hall just above the stair landing. I followed my sister down the stairs, but before we could reach the bottom, we heard Kay yell, “Don’t come down, I have been shot!” I went back into the room, my son Noah and I shared and checked on him to see if he had woken up, which he had not. I could hear my sister on the phone, and once she headed down the stairs again, I followed. “This is not happening, this is not happening,” were the thoughts that raced through my head as I was holding one of my son’s baby towels to my roommate’s upper torso as his gunshot wound bled.
He spoke of the pain while my sister had a 911 dispatcher on speakerphone, and she was asking questions about what happened. Kay summarized between short breaths of pain that a man had knocked on the door, and when he opened the door, the man tried to rush into the house. So, Kay pushed his body against the door to close and lock the door, at which point the intruder shoot through the door. As they talked, the only thing I could think was this is not real; this cannot be happening. My son had been playing with my roommate just an hour before, and the reality that all our lives were now going to be different was hard to comprehend. I knew our relationships would be different, that we might need to move, that my roommate might need physical therapy, and who knows what else. All of that was racing through my mind, while another part of me just wanted to get my son and run. Run anywhere that would take me away from this.
When the police arrived, one of them took over holding the towel. I just needed to get away from the crying and the blood. I went and checked on Noah (who was still asleep). A short while later, the ambulance showed up. I could see the lights from my bedroom window, so I headed back downstairs. Kay was not talking a lot but was mumbling some to the paramedics. Part of me was relieved he was going to receive the medical attention he needed, and I was already preparing for the visits to the hospital to see him. The police then advised my sister and me to go upstairs. They were going to process the scene, and a detective was on their way to talk with us. We sat in the hall, mostly silent for almost an hour with just our thoughts to distract us. As the adrenaline faded, fear began to set in. Sitting on that landing, past conversations with Kay played through my mind. The one that was the most vivid was the one we had on the drive back home from my job earlier that day. We had talked about him going back to school for music. It was something he had always been passionate about, and he was finally going to give it some attention. We also talked about taking a trip to Washington State with Noah as a gift when I graduated from school. My thoughts were interrupted when a junior detective, who was on the case, showed up after 11:00 pm and talked with my sister and me. It took her about half an hour before she informed us that Kay did not make it. That he died en route to the hospital. After she said that, I can remember her asking if she could hug us, but I did not respond. I just thought, “What am I going to tell Noah?”
Growing up, I did not deal with death directly. I mean, people died around me, but I was kept away from it. Neighbors, children, or husbands would get killed, but I was never allowed to attend the funeral. In fact, in the first 27 years of my life, I went to two funerals. One was for a great grandmother, I met only a handful of times, and the other was for the father of a friend. I was able to hold on to the idea that people stay, and I knew my son was not going to have that comfort. The question about what to tell Noah was what pulled at my heartstrings, and, believe it or not, I did not tell my son what happened. I could not find the words. My older sister had to tell him. I can laugh a bit about the irony because my first class (the one I barely passed) covered talking to children about death, but at that moment, I grappled with how to mention it, which left me unnaturally silent. Though the hours seemed long that night and everything was at a standstill, time still passed, and I still had to care for my son, attend work, and complete school. In hindsight, I can see that I am one of those people who do not immediately react to life situations. It took a few weeks for my feelings about Kay’s death to manifest outside of my feelings for my son. I found myself dealing with two conflicting emotions regularly, one of fear that I will never feel safe again and want to live life to the fullest. The thing that was the hardest was what was left after Kay was gone. His house, his cars, and other things that he spent his life working for were gone. It felt like Kay had spent his whole life doing what he had to do (paying bills, going to work, etc.) and what others wanted him to do, but never doing what would make him happy. Seeing someone not exist and not make an impact on the world they wanted is unfair and heartbreaking.
The last year of graduate school was spent in counseling. I was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I had to learn how to grieve in a healthy way so that I could be an example for my son as he goes through the grieving process. One of the steps I took on my healing path was uprooting our lives and moving away from a home that no longer felt safe and was stained with the harshness of loss. Unforeseen circumstances forced us into a new reality and new surroundings yet, with all the change around me, I became even more determined to complete my studies and graduate. I did not take time off from school after Kay’s death; at first, it did not seem to affect school. My classes became this escape where no one knew what was going on, so I could be the person I was before.
However, the PTSD symptoms changed as did the reality that I could no longer pretend nothing had happened. Nightmares kept me up all night, and anxiety would take over when someone shut a door. I found myself crying in Walmart and having dreams of children dying. I took classes centered around helping children who were dying, sick, or dealing with someone else dying. I had to be open and honest with interactors when topics became triggers. Finally, I ended up changing my child life degree path to family and human development. It was a hard decision spent on the phone in tears with an advisor, but the reality was I could not deal with death. How could I work in a hospital and be scared? I learned three major things that still apply to my life today. First, if you find yourself dealing with mental illness and struggling, ask for help. I felt that reaching out for help, allowed me to be able to finish my studies. I knew early on (due to my undergrad degree) what PTSD looked like, but my symptoms were beyond my skill level to manage. Second, be honest with school officials about what is going on. I made sure after my roommate’s death to be honest with instructors that I was struggling with things outside of school. Not only did they work with me but gave me the support that I needed. My last bit of advice is to be honest with yourself about the path you are taking and if the goal is mentally sustainable long term. I cannot say that after I graduated, I knew what I was going to do. I just knew my roommate had believed in me and supported me, and I was going to finish for him.
My last year of graduate school became more about ending a journey than just a degree. I was honoring Kay’s life by believing in my education and myself. It was also a way to prove that when things got hard, I could get through it. I could not get my roommate back, and my son could not have a friend back, but we could take comfort in what his life meant to us and what his death could mean to others who have suffered a loss. Using my graduate education, I started teaching in lower-income areas where children are likely to have experienced trauma. In this class, I had chosen to continue my education with the hope of helping mothers who have dealt with trauma. In the years following my roommate’s death, I have had many people—co-workers and parents alike—open up to me about their own struggles with mental health. The one common theme was not seeking help because of the fear no one would understand their life journey; they feared they would not be looked upon favorably. I would like to take my understanding both on a personal and professional level to help Black and other minority mothers living with mental illness and trauma. I can be an advocate; I can be the support system they need. In fact, as I write this essay, I am waiting to hear back about my acceptance into a PhD program, and in the back of my head is my roommate’s voice saying, “I told you so.”
He used to say, “I think you’re going to be a doctor,” and I would laugh. But I guess he was right. If anyone in my family can do it, why can’t it be me?