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Channeling Her Grief:
How a Widow Is Advancing the Study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Written by Judy Tierney

Tracy Diefenbach watched her husband Joshua, a United States Marine Corp staff sergeant, fall apart after his ninth combat tour. A recipient of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for wounds he suffered in Afghanistan, his career came to a halt after a traumatic brain injury and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) left him disabled.

Tracy Diefenbach (PhD, Marriage and Family Therapy, Candidate)

“I was at work when I received the call that he had taken his own life, and police were on their way to pick me up,” Tracy recalls of the tragic day five years ago.

One of the most difficult parts was that in a note left behind, Joshua blamed Tracy for his death, for not being there when he needed her the most. “I had to work to help support us,” she says. “And the guilt I was carrying was horrifying.”

Tracy immediately shut down. She began working from home and stopped socializing, essentially cutting herself off from society. Therapy was expensive, and she walked out on each therapist after one session. “People just didn’t understand,” she explains, “and I couldn’t sit there in front of someone who pretended to know what I was going through.”

Tracy turned to education to help her with the grieving process. “A doctoral journey would protect me from the outside world and allow me time to heal without the pressures of a social life. I knew I would be engulfed in my studies for at least five to eight years.”

An online search of PhD programs led Tracy to Northcentral University. “I saw ‘education by experience,’” she says, “and I’ll never forget those words.” NCU’s mentoring, one-to-one teaching model was the perfect fit. “I didn’t want someone who had never worked in the field as a mentor. I wanted a mentor who would coach me through the most difficult time of my life.”

When she started, she was not ready emotionally to be on a rigid schedule and needed a program that would allow her to work on her own issues without being around others in a classroom setting. Tracy credits NCU, her dissertation chair, Dr. Daniel Pitchford, and all of her mentoring professors with giving her the flexibility to take things at her own pace, while still pushing her forward.

“A doctoral journey would protect me from the outside world and allow me time to heal without the pressures of a social life. I knew I would be engulfed in my studies for at least five to eight years.”

What started out as a path to avoid social interaction has turned into what Tracy calls “healthy isolation.” Every mentor in each of her courses has encouraged her to seek the outside advice and resources that she needs to succeed, based on her own comfort level. “I was actually getting back out there and talking to people, but it was for my purpose.

“My mentors have taught me to hone in on my work, to work harder, to be smarter, to push myself beyond standard mental expectations, teaching me to truly find out who I am, and what I am made of,” she said. “All of them have had very high expectations that you don’t find at other schools.”

Now in her fourth course of the dissertation stage, Tracy estimates that she has three to four years left in the program. Knowing that she will have devoted eight years of her life to understanding her husband’s illness is her motivation for making it to the end. Working with Dr. Pitchford, with his background in PTSD and trauma, has been her saving grace.

Tracy describes her interactions with Dr. Pitchford as what she calls the three-year-old kid syndrome. “The kid is running in all directions with no structure. And then the child finds someone who is very empathetic, but provides those boundaries.”

“I am the child and Dr. Pitchford is teaching me to channel my thoughts and feelings and the hunt for answers into producing high-quality work,” she explains. “He had detailed feedback, and I feel like he truly cares. Rewrite after rewrite, things get clearer and clearer every time I do it.”

Dr. Pitchford was also instrumental in connecting Tracy with other students, which further motivated her to continue her program. “It was very powerful,” she says. “At NCU, you are not just a number in a PhD program. You are an apprentice of great minds, learning to master the field together.”

“At NCU, you are not just a number in a PhD program. You are an apprentice of great minds, learning to master the field together.”

Emotions still weigh heavy as Tracy learns more about her husband’s condition. While she continues to carry the guilt of his death, she says she no longer feels like a failure and knows that she will ultimately be free of this burden.

“My husband felt there was no way out…no hope of recovery,” she says. But with the help of her mentors, Tracy hopes to transform her own experiences into brand new research that will save the lives of others.

After earning her doctorate, Tracy plans to pursue a field in therapy to work with those in our military who have PTSD and who are suffering from the same things as her husband. She is also keeping a professional journal and plans to write and publish materials to support veterans. “I want more resources out there for veterans,” she says. “I don’t want another family to go through what I went through.”

For Tracy, the doctoral journey thus far has been more than an academic assignment, more than an extensive paper…it is her grieving process elaborately conducted in stages. She has learned that she has the perseverance and dedication to invest in herself, and she says she is stronger than she ever thought.

“I am so thankful for my experience at NCU. This journey has not only changed my life, it has saved my life. It is giving me hope to help someone else. And that hope is what I need to keep going.”