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.

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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.

Making it in academia: holding the tension between vulnerability and imperviousness

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.*

I was reading a piece on Medium last week about the mysteries of packaging and writing academic job applications, especially for scholars from contexts very different from those they are applying into. In amongst all of the very true and useful points in the piece, I was struck by one sentence that has stayed with me: “Making yourself vulnerable to critique is a central part of academic life”. Vulnerable. That’s a scary word for many people. Especially, if you have had experiences of making yourself so and feeling trampled on by harsh feedback, neglect or even overt unkindness. Academia is not the same boat for everyone; it may be the same sea but there are many different boats and also different kinds and sizes of crews that we are sailing with. For some, being vulnerable is much more scary than it is for others and I think that needs to be recognised and talked about. In many cases, we may feel that we need to rather be impervious, invest our energies in developing that thick skin people are always telling us is vital to survive in an academic career.

This has got me thinking about all the ways in which academics are made vulnerable or have to make themselves vulnerable and what happens when they do. What do we do about the tensions and contradictions inherent in all these processes and acts that ask us to be vulnerable but at the same time tell us to pull it together, be tough, be impervious to the feelings of hurt, frustration and sadness that the different forms of feedback can cause? Can we make this act of making ourselves vulnerable less scary for those already in more precarious positions, like early career researchers, casual staff, women, scholars in minority groups on campus?

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One of the main ways we are asked to, and have to make ourselves vulnerable is through asking for and getting critique, as suggested in the quotation. We write thesis chapters for supervisors and a final thesis for examiners, we write papers for journal editors and reviewers, we stand up in front of peers at conferences (or sit down at our screens in front of peers, these days). We also, if we are teaching academics, have to ask students and sometimes peers to evaluate our teaching, our course materials, our knowledge of what we are teaching. We may also write funding applications for committees internal and external to the university. We apply for jobs and submit ourselves to committees of strangers for evaluation. There are many ways, then, in which we are made to be vulnerable, open to rejection, to criticism and judgement, to both kind and unkind feedback responses.

But, we are also told that, at the same time as we have to make ourselves vulnerable and open in so many ways and to people we know and do not know – often people relatively more powerful than we are – we must be tough, impervious to being hurt and feeling rejected and sad. We need to have a thick skin and be resilient, make peace with rejection and head back out again to ask for more critique, feedback and possibly more rejection. Over and over this seems to be the cycle. I ask for feedback, it’s not good, the paper needs more work, the grant or the job is going to someone else, the opportunity is lost. And instead of wallowing and feeling sad and sorry for myself, I have to pick myself up, be philosophical about the whole thing (Ah, academia, such is the life), and move forward as if I’m not all that bothered. This imperviousness makes me seem successful and strong; it may even be admired, especially if I don’t share my failures or feelings openly.

But I am bothered, and not just for myself. I am bothered for the casual staff for whom one bad course evaluation or loudly unhappy student can mean no more contracts. I am bothered for the early career scholar for whom one harsh and unhelpful peer review can mean giving up on a paper that could be useful for readers in their field. I am bothered for all the postgraduate students studying outside of their more familiar ‘home’ contexts and feeling misunderstood, misheard, misrecognised by homogenous systems that reward conformity in various ways. I am bothered for non-mother tongue writers of English for whom not-so-subtle comments about needing to have an English speaker ‘fix’ their paper may mean feeling pushed aside or put down by an institution that finds many ways to create us and them groups, insiders and outsiders. I am bothered for every academic who is asked, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to conform to an elusive way of being, speaking, reading, writing, dressing that somehow marks out belonging and not-belonging in academia. And more and more in this cycle it is the individuals doing this difficult emotional labour who are asked to shoulder the responsibility for responding “appropriately” to this system. Individuals who have relatively less power to set the rules or change the state of play. Don’t cry when your supervisor is unnecessarily cutting in a meeting or in their written feedback. Crying is not appropriate. Don’t talk back to peer reviewers or journal editors who use their power to break down instead of building up or helping. That’s disrespectful. The unequal ways in which the system itself works thereby become normalised and when individuals or groups break with this system to try and push back, ask for more or different or better, they are the ones who are the problem, rather than this system itself.

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I think this makes for a pretty unfair and biased game, myself. It’s becomes quite clear, over time, that academia is not a game created by everyone, for everyone. It’s a game that a few people created for themselves and a few select others a long time ago, and while they have over the years allowed others to join in, they have been pretty slow in sharing all the rules and sharing the field. Even more so in being open to making real and meaningful changes to the rules so that the game isn’t quite so uneven, opaque and frustrating for so many people to play.

There are very big changes that need to be made – many of these beyond ordinary people like you and me, perhaps – at the levels of funding policy and allocations, challenging biased ranking systems, creating more just policy and governance environments and practices. But there are smaller, meaningful changes we can start making, us ordinary folk. One clear change is in how and how often we give feedback and to whom we offer it. I have seen several Twitter threads about grant applications that take so much time and work and when they are rejected have no feedback attached that can help applicants be more successful next time. Perhaps that’s a starting point: offer some feedback on unsuccessful grant and job applications on issues that can be worked on, like how the project is framed, the extent to which the criteria were and were not met, writing style & jargon use, etc. Even a few clear lines can make a big difference to the applicant and their chances (and confidence) on the next try. Another change is peer review and how editors manage this process. I see far too many threads on social media about unkind peer review and editors just letting the unkindness happen. As an editor myself I know we have the agency and the knowledge to both encourage and guide better peer review and to mediate (or even choose not to share) poor, unhelpful and even spiteful reviews.

These may seem like too-small changes, but they may begin to make a meaningful impact if we commit, more collectively, to two things, at least. The first is to commit to creating openings for new voices, new scholars, different knowledges, different bodies, rather than making efforts to diversify seem more cosmetic than truly transformative. But to do this, we need to make a second simultaneous commitment: we need to look long and hard at what we make legitimate and reward or reproduce – what knowledges, what ways of being, speaking, writing and acting, what bodies and histories, whose stories. And then we need to start thinking about how we use critique to punish some forms of vulnerability and reward others, and in so doing, continue to set up the game to favour those who already know how to play it or have the means to somehow figure it out. We continue to make vulnerability core to academic life, but this act is not rewarded for everyone who undertakes it. That’s a problem we need to address, together. And we can. This is not utopian thinking. I think that undertaking the kinds of work, individually and collectively, that make genuine steps towards transformed ways of being an academic and working in this space is crucial to keeping university connected and relevant to the communities and societies it is part of, and to taking the academic project forward with and for the many, rather than the few.