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.