Within the Ivory Towers: Managing Grief in Academia

I don’t really know how to start this post but I certainly feel the need to write it. Yesterday I learned that one of my best friends since the age of 13 passed away. He was one of those people who was just good. Better. And he never got a fair shot in life. He had been ill for quite some time, so while his passing is not a surprise, the sadness is the same.

It’s a similar sadness to what I felt when my grandfather passed away during my first semester of graduate school. I was not able to attend his funeral because there was a snow storm and my flight was canceled. My current state is a lightweight version of the extremely deep pain I felt (and continue to feel) when my brother passed during my fourth year of graduate school.

Friends and colleagues of mine have experienced similar grief, but I’m always particularly aware of grief when it happens within the rigid walls of academia.

To make a long story short, there is no space for grief in academia. With every loss, I felt a simultaneous anxiety around having to step away from my 1st year project, dissertation research, and first day of class. Some might say that I am using my work to distract from my grief and perhaps yes, that is true to an extent. But when I examine my pain more intensively, I know I am not avoiding my grief; I am saving it for after work hours. I also know that this pattern is in part, my need to continue forward because if I pause to cry at my desk, my sadness will overwhelm me.

I cannot afford that.

I cannot afford to appear weak. In graduate school, it was about proving my worth. I did not want my advisor or my committee to think I didn’t have the fortitude to do what needed to be done. One sign of weakness could be my exit point off the PhD highway. It may sound dramatic but it’s not. PhD students fight continuously for respect from faculty and sometimes, one another. I was a 21 year old first year PhD student who was accepted into the top program in the field on her first try straight out of undergrad. I was rare. I was black. And all eyes were on me.

While I did not share my grandfather’s passing with anyone in my program, I could not help but share my brother’s death. That grief could not be hidden so I had no choice but to leave for a bit. And I do mean a bit. I went home for about 5 days and then took a pre-planned vacation to Miami for 4 days. After that, I was back on the grind. I told myself it’s what my brother would’ve wanted (which is true. He wasn’t one for wallowing in things you can’t control), but it was more because I knew I couldn’t lose ground in my program.

The department knew what I was going through yet not a single person besides my advisor offered even a word of condolence. I was told they would send flowers to his funeral. They did not. I was not offered extensions on looming deadlines, nor did I receive an email of sympathy or even a clichéd line of encouragement. I was given nothing.

At 24 years old, struggling to complete a PhD I wasn’t sure I wanted anymore, I didn’t have the emotional strength to fight that battle. I accepted their behaviors as par for the course and used it to strengthen my resolve to get the hell out of there ASAP. And I promised myself that if I ever became a professor, I would never treat my students or colleagues that way.

But ‘that way’ is the norm. As a faculty member now, I see colleagues experience grief and for the most part, they too suck it up and come to work as if nothing was amiss. Those rare few who take some time off are whispered about at faculty meetings. Words like ‘dramatic’ and ‘depressed’ and ‘absent’ are complemented by expressions of disdain and scorn. How dare they not be at the meeting? It’s been a month since his son died! It’s been THREE months since her partner died!! They should be back by now!!!

My campus has experienced a lot of loss in the last few months. Students and colleagues leaving Earth far too soon has made everyone emotionally vigilant. And while academia encourages us to create a student experience that engenders the happily educated image of a coed, the same cannot be said for faculty. While we create task forces to deal with ‘campus issues’ and hire third party firms to conduct research on the ‘campus climate’, where are the support groups, counseling sessions, and offers of leave for faculty? I cannot even request these things without appearing to be some depressed weirdo who can’t handle the challenges life throws because that is the culture of academia.

We academics are tough. We are committed. We are expected to approach our personal lives in the same informed and educated fashion we approach our profession. We should be well versed in grief and ensure we move through those stages properly—in our own time.

The divide between who I am as a human and who I am expected to be as a professor is awful. It makes me feel ashamed of the two tears that escape my guard and splash onto my desk. It makes me feel awkward when friends ask me if I’m okay and if they can give me a hug. My mind is saying ‘I shouldn’t need a hug’, but my heart is saying ‘yes, please’.

So to those who’ve offered hugs, sent emails, delivered a clichéd message of support, surreptitiously squeezed my hand, called, and made me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry, thank you. You make it possible for me to get out of bed and go to work and be the scholar academia forces me to be.







14 comments on “Within the Ivory Towers: Managing Grief in Academia

  1. leighpatel says:

    Reblogged this on Decolonizing educational research and commented:
    One of the central tenets of coloniality is demarking distinctions of worth. Academia unfortunately animates this ethos by being a fundamentally individualistic, competitive, and therefore, judgmental cultural context. Grief can be a complex set of emotions, unrelenting in their reminding you you’re alive. Grief should, then, always provide an opportunity to slow down, to support, to rehumanize.

  2. […] to revisit when I can: managing grief in academia. […]

  3. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for your loss. All of your losses. Take those hugs. They help.

    The conditions in the academy you describe are appalling but true. My (estranged) dad died the day I got my big national scholarship announced during my PhD. I had one of my friends tell everyone, so that I would never have to talk about it directly with anyone. I took no time off.

    Now I’m a tenured professor. I am trying to find a way to stop splitting myself in half, and to, also, model my wholeness for my students and my colleagues. I lose a lot of face, probably, but that’s a battle I’m willing to fight, I think.

    Again, I’m very sorry for your loss.

  4. gingy says:

    Please accept my sympathy for your loss. I always felt heartbreak should allow time out from academic commitments. I was a grad student suffering with depression and even though I expressed this to my professors, they basically told me to “suck it up.” I’ve seen them treat white male students who were high and/or drunk at conferences w/ more reverence. As a POC, all you can do is keep on keepin’ on and like you I promised myself, I would never treat my students the way my professors treated me.

    • Thank you for you words of encouragement. The mantra of ‘suck it up’ is so pervasive in academia that it’s hard to even recognize when you’re empowering that ethos. I have to catch myself being callous or unsympathetic to students or colleagues because my negative experiences have hardened me so much. I sometimes say ‘if I had to endure this, you should too!’ But then I realize how selfish and negative that is and instead, reach for compassion despite my experiences.

  5. I know we don’t know each other, but your blog post really moved me. I am so very sorry for your loss, and I can relate to your thoughts on grief in the academy. When I got pregnant with my second child a few years ago, I had a miscarriage. I was an emotional wreck, but I still went to faculty meetings, didn’t miss one class, and generally hid my devastation. I was untenured, and although some of my colleagues were beyond wonderful and kind, I sensed that not everyone would understand, and might potentially see me as a “less serious” academic who was more concerned with following “the mommy track.” I hear you, and I share your desire to change the culture of the academy to make room for seeing ourselves and each other as whole human beings with lives beyond our work. Thanks for sharing this, and I hope it sparks conversation — I know I’ll be discussing this with others.

    • Cara, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. That must be one of the worst experiences of loss I can imagine. I too hope we can spread the word and slowly affect change in the academy.

  6. Many others share your experience, but that doesn’t make it better — just worse. I’m so sorry for your grief and the lack of basic concern showed to you. Especially not sending flowers to the funeral when they promised. Many hugs.

  7. Ella Mosby says:

    Your words, “The divide between who I am as a human and who I am expected to be as a professor is awful” were killing me softly as I read this, for I saw myself in a very similar vein as a former police officer and a pastor. Sister Ivyleaguelady, make no apologies or excuses for being HUMAN. Don’t be ashamed of your tears for they are your release valves to keep you from blowing a gasket. God gave us tear ducts because God knew we were going to have some tears to shed. My heart went out to you while I was reading this, and is still going out to you. I am so very sorry for your bereavements and pray that God will continue to send both friends and strangers to assauge your heart’s need of a BIG HUG! Blessings to you, my sister, and may you feel the loving, comforting arms of God hugging you as you are reading this.

  8. We are not very good a grief in the US –in other words things aren’t much different in corporate America (though I must say when my dad died, my employer at the time was very supportive and allowed me much time off with pay and without depleting my vacation time). We (as a society) seem to rely on the myth that we “get over it”. Grief, however, is lifelong… we just need to learn to carry it. My condolences for your losses and for the lack of support among your colleagues.

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