Working, writing, PhD-ing through grief and loss

This is very personal post, and it carries a trigger warning of the loss of a parent/loved one.

I am writing this from a friend’s couch in Durban, near where I grew up. I have been here for almost three weeks, I came here from my new home in England because my mother is dying and I needed to say goodbye. This is unbearable and impossible: how do you say goodbye to someone you are not ready to let go of? But the focus of this post isn’t actually this awful thing that is happening; the focus is on what it has been doing to my mind and my ability to actually cope with all the other things that don’t stop, like work, parenting, supervising, and writing.

Many students, supervisors, researchers, lecturers experience grief and loss in some form or another and cannot just take a year off to process everything: they have to keep showing up, writing, researching, marking, teaching, reading student work and offering feedback, counsel, and care. And this is mightily hard, and not just because of the emotional toll that grieving a loss takes. It has a mental toll as well. I have been reading quite a bit recently about what grief does to your brain. For the last several weeks, I feel like I have been descending further and further into a brain fog I can’t seem to shake. I walk into rooms and can’t recall why I am there; I put things down and can’t find them again; I open my email to do one thing, end up getting distracted and then can’t remember the thing I opened the email for. Not even my lists are helping. I feel scattered, half-here and half-somewhere else. It’s hard to trust my brain right now, which is scary for someone who relies on her brain to make sense of the world and her place in it.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

This is all very normal, though, for a person who is processing a loss or, as in my case, an impending loss. A colleague said to think of my brain a bit like a computer that is doing a lot of background processing that isn’t obviously visible but takes up a lot of the CPU’s energy. That feels about right: there’s just no space in my brain for much of anything ‘thinky’: I can tick over on the basics or just above basics, but anything new is too much – new reading, new writing, things I have to really think about and process deeply. According to neuroscientists, this brain fog is part of what is termed ‘grief brain’.

‘Grief brain’ is basically a process that can last up to a year, sometimes longer, which allows your brain the time and space it needs to help you move through the most immediate and painful parts of loss. The process essentially sidelines your prefrontal cortex – which you use to make decisions, remember things, be a functioning person out in the world – and allows your limbic brain – which is your more primal, survival functioning – more freedom than it usually has. Essentially, in order to help you survive as you grieve, your brain temporarily rewires itself to mute painful memories and thoughts so that you can actually function in a day-to-day sense: you can cook, get dressed, see friends and family, and begin to carry on. As this process becomes less about survival and more about living again, your brain begins to filter back the memories and thoughts of your loved one, and you can begin to come to terms with the loss and how to shape your life around it as you move forward.

But, when you are in the midst of grief, with your limbic brain in the driver’s seat, you may experience life as if in slow motion – you live for a time in a fog of confusion, disorientation, and maybe even delusions (what Joan Didion termed ‘magical thinking’). Understanding that this is not only normal, but your brain’s way of helping you survive and recover from your loss is helpful. I can be less frustrated with my forgetfulness and give myself time to process all of this. I can try to be brave and ask for time at work because I can understand more clearly why I need it; I can tell myself it’s okay to not be able to do anything that feels meaningful (i.e. my research and writing papers) rather than telling myself to ‘buck up and soldier on’. I can also offer people who are brave with me – colleagues, students, peers – this same support and kindness as they work through their own grief.

This is important because grieving is not limited to loss through the death of someone you love. Many people are grieving loved ones, friends and colleagues lost to Covid-19. But they are also grieving lost time, lost experiences, lost moments with people they love in places they love. They are grieving a world that may never really come back to us in the form it took before March 2020. We need to be kind to one another and to ourselves maybe now more than ever. In academia, this is hugely important given how unkind an environment many universities feel like to staff and students alike right now. Part of that kindness, I can see now, is understanding that grief is not a process that progresses neatly through clearly defined stages (the 5-stage model of grief has been pretty much debunked by newer research). There is no easy or clear end to it either, especially when you have to make peace with a different life than the one you had before, with profound loss.

Writers who explore grief and grieving like Joan Didion, Joanne Hichens, Helen Macdonald, and Lisa Shulman will tell you that experiencing profound grief and working through it changes you in ways you may not expect or see coming. In the loss, there can be growth and learning, opportunities to find gains and newness – new hobbies, new experiences, new people. You may well become a different version of you. But this is not an easy, linear or predictable process. For me, in this in-between space right now, my main preoccupation is how to find the space in my busy brain to write, to create, to meet my commitments to my students and co-authors without letting them and me down. How do I do this when my mind just can’t sit still enough to focus on ideas and words that keep slipping past me? How do my students do this if they are also in this place? How do I support them, support myself, write through the grieving, fog and sadness? I’m not sure I know. But acknowledging this feels important, especially out loud to people beyond myself.

It feels important given where we all are in the world right now – and some of us are really struggling to make peace with and sense of the last 19 months – to acknowledge that it’s okay to not be okay. And that being not okay won’t last forever, especially if we can support one another and create and hold spaces for people to be where they are and work their way through it, knowing they are not alone. If you are in a similar space, I see you. You are not alone. And you – we – will be okay.

4 thoughts on “Working, writing, PhD-ing through grief and loss

  1. Fatima says:

    I enjoyed reading this thoughtful post. Many of the ideas expressed resonated with my own musings about dealing with difficult life events and Sherran captured the emotional effects of grieving quite accurately.

    Sorry to read about the impending loss of a mother. You are in my thoughts

  2. Anthea Adams says:

    Strength to you and your loved ones, Sherran. Thanks for sharing this personal experience and giving a voice to what some of us have experienced. I’ll treasure your advice of being “kind to one another and to ourselves maybe now more than ever” and your encouragement that “you – we – will be okay”.

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