For this post I want to address the topic of grief in graduate school in the hopes that it will encourage others to more openly talk about their grief.
What is grief after all?
Let’s start with defining grief. Grief refers to a complex set of emotions that include sorrow and pain related to experiencing a loss. As Megan Devine reminds us in her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand**, there is no right or wrong way to grieve**. In my youth, I would often associated feelings of grief with losing a loved one, and for me it included losing my father to a sudden brain aneurism when I was twelve years old. While this kind of loss was massive for me, over the years I’ve experienced enough formative moments and life altering events that I’ve come to experience other forms of grief, namely related to non-death loss and non-finite loss.
Non-death loss refers to losing something significant in your life and does not involve someone’s passing. Non-finite loss is “grief that persists and changes as aspects of life continually fall short of expectations” (Bruce, E. J., & Schultz, C. L. (2001).
In graduate school and as I transitioned out of a tenure-track trajectory, and then eventually out of higher education, I found myself experiencing forms of non-death loss and non-finite loss. One major form of non-finite grief I experienced was developing a chronic illness and grieving the loss of the able-bodied life I once had. Learning to come to terms and accept life as a chronically ill person living in an ableist world isn’t easy. It’s been twelve years already and the grief continues to ebb and flow. Another form of grief was becoming a mother and grieving the life of being child-free. It sounds strange since I had planned my pregnancy but once you have a child, your life completely changes in ways that you can’t always predict. And I don’t think we talk enough about the grief that new moms experience. And then yet another form of non-finite grief I experienced was the feeling of complete disappointment and disillusionment with the academy. I realized near the end of my graduate school journey that the academy was a capitalistic system and like so many institutions, it relies on the exploitation of others to survive. In each of these cases, I had to come to terms with the feelings of emotional ambivalence I was experiencing. Especially in higher ed, I learned to accept that a space could be both empowering to first-gen BIPOC folks like me and at the same time toxic and hurtful, and I aim to shed light on both.
Recently, I’ve heard from so many of my close friends who are also first-gen women of color and children of immigrants with PhDs how they have struggled with a wide range of non-finite losses as they advanced in their careers. Behind closed doors, they are sharing about their estrangement from family members, changes in their financial status, struggles with their physical and/or mental health, loss of friendships, divorce, and more. And a big part of me wishes that we had more of these difficult conversations in public.
What do we do now?
One way for me to advocate on behalf of speaking out about our grief is to do so via my podcast. Last week I brought in a guest speaker to talk about her experience with grief. If you haven’t listened to it, check out episode 178 of the Grad School Femtoring Podcast with Dr. Reka Barton where she shares her experience with grief after losing her brother, Greg, during her doctoral program.
If you are experiencing grief, please know that you are not alone. I hope you are able to find the right people and places to talk about it. I also highly recommend finding ways to prioritize your wellbeing and get support. This can include working with a licensed psychologist, communicating with your department just enough to get accommodations, or leaning more on your loved ones.
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