An academic struggling to cope in the grip of grief (opinion)

When my mom, at 65, abruptly succumbed to the leading cause of death in the United States just three days before Thanksgiving, the experience felt brutally uncommon. With its swift and unpredictable onset, sudden cardiac arrest can leave surviving loved ones in a fog of disbelief and despair, as Joan Didion beautifully captures in her 2005 exegesis in grief, The Year of Magical Thinking.

As I found myself launched into a new reality necessitating decision making as rapid as my mother’s Irish goodbye to the earthly realm, one of my first tasks was to determine how to proceed with the remaining weeks of the semester. I immediately thought of my students throughout the years who had lost parents at far younger ages than I; I can scarcely recall a semester in which I didn’t have a student gripped by grief in some form.

Samira Rajabi, a media studies scholar of trauma and grief at the University of Colorado, pinpoints how the pandemic has left many people with a profound sense of ambiguous grief. Countless among us invisibly contend with indelible losses that are difficult to characterize and name after a fatiguing two years. Of course, students, instructors and staff are not exempt from this development, which compounds more concrete and decipherable losses, such as the deaths of loved ones. As I’ve said numerous times in the past several months, I feel like I’m on grief overload.

I have always approached my students with compassion and flexibility, especially since March 2020, but I wonder: How supportive and accommodating have I truly been during their darkest hours? How should institutions best support grieving students, as well as instructors and staff members, particularly during this period of crisis? For instructors, especially contingent faculty, where does individual responsibility begin and end in this capacity—both in support of grieving students, but also when managing one’s own grief?

It is vital to underscore that social location and identity markers related to race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation and their intersections profoundly shape experiences of grief and the likelihood of one’s bereavement appearing intelligible or worthy of support within the structure of higher education. In the days that followed my mother’s death, I had to consider what was fair to my students while navigating the relative affordances of my own social location and position at my university.

Grief Is Normal, Not an Aberration

Grief and loss are fixtures of human existence, but their consequences are rarely built into American institutions. Amid the unrelenting fallout of the pandemic, a recent Business Insider headline declares, “America’s lack of bereavement leave is causing a grief crisis.” In the article, Marguerite Ward notes that “the average HR policy grants between one to five days of bereavement; the most popular policy is three days.” Tenure-track junior faculty like myself receive considerable flexibility and support—advantages I know my non-tenure-track and adjunct counterparts, including my spouse, lack.

For example, my chair generously worked with me to complete the final three weeks of the fall semester asynchronously. The road map for pivoting to asynchronous learning had been charted with the onset of COVID-19, and my students were already accustomed to sudden shifts in instructional modality. Despite the appearance of generous time off, the academic calendar makes it quite difficult if life happens during the 32 weeks of the year when primary instruction typically occurs. The fact that my mom also died three days before Thanksgiving provided a cushion of sorts with a scheduled break. Sadly, in the immediate and agonizing aftermath, I acknowledged to myself that she died at a “convenient” time during the semester.

However, in the months since, I still have struggled with cognitive deficits commensurate with bereavement, including brain fog and disorganization. Like many academics, my job forces me to live more than 500 miles away from family. That has posed an ongoing challenge, as my mother served as my father and brother’s primary caregiver. Grief and bereavement experiences are as complex and unique as the individuals involved, yet broader social forces inform the degree of systemic support assigned to the bereaved. Since my mom died, it has felt strange to admit that I still need workplace support and accommodation, despite this being perfectly normal.

Psychotherapist and grief advocate Megan divine rightfully pushes back against the dominant tendency to pathologize grief, especially in service of making it intelligible to workplaces. (As an aside, her work remains invaluable for me.) In a recent tweet, Divine pinpoints that “the short answer of why we’ve even got a pathology-based view of grief, backed by the medical industry, is capitalism. If you’re sad for too long, you’re not ‘productive,’ and your emotional state is a real downer to the people around you.”

To say that interactions with my students and colleagues feel like an emotional powder keg is an understatement. When I pass a colleague in the hallway and they cordially ask how I’m doing, I resent concealing my true emotional state. The pressure to behave as though everything is fine feels untenable yet inescapable. I frequently misspeak to my students about deadlines, as I regularly confuse my three different courses. I struggle to recall student names—recognizing students I see on campus from prior semesters seems like a futile exercise. I echo many of Nancy Lynne Westfield’s observations from her firsthand account of what it is like to teach amid grief. Given that grief is so common, what can we do to support those enduring one of life’s most challenging facets?

Teaching in the Grip of Grief

Since March 2020, neoliberal discourses compelling workers to erect boundaries between their professional and personal lives have proliferated, including in higher education. Many human resources departments and upper-level administrators have encourage academic laborers to implement boundaries and practice self-care while concurrently expecting more mental and emotional labor from their employees amid crisis conditions.

In their 2021 book, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home, Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen critique the rhetoric of individualized boundary setting in the face of pandemic overwork and people’s tendency to equate employment status with personal identity. Warzel and Petersen insist that institutions must establish guardrails to protect workers from exploitation. As the authors explain, “Boundaries are personal. But guardrails are structural (emphasis in original). I argue that when it comes to grief and bereavement, we absolutely need guardrails. The thornier and more complicated question remains: What might grief guardrails look like in higher education?

A framework that I’ve found helpful, and one that Warzel and Petersen spotlight, originates from David M. Perry, a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Perry proposes that institutions adopt an approach of “universal design for work-life balance.” Warzel and Petersen characterize Perry’s notion of universal design for workplace leave as “creating policies that allow set time for leave, no questions asked—whether it’s for something that others deem virtuous and necessary, like taking home a newborn or a medical emergency, or you just need it for … something else.” In short, for this approach to work, employers must trust that employees are requesting leave or workplace accommodations in good faith.

Perry encapsulates the dilemma of codifying a standard of worthiness when it comes to requiring leave. Because bereavement needs are highly individual and personal, administrators must be willing to work with instructors in a spirit of trust and understanding—there is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially when it comes to grief. This also requires a team-based mentality, wherein workloads must be fairly assigned with an expectation of reciprocity within an academic unit. Developing a flexible department culture where this arrangement can work is neither simple nor straightforward, but as Perry explains, it is necessary for sustainability, especially as burnout envelops higher education.

I can attest that my department chair permitting me to teach classes asynchronously at the end of last semester was a lifeline. For an untenured junior faculty like myself, temporarily adjusting service expectations and advising loads can also make a tremendous difference. In terms of teaching, I know my chair trusts me when it comes to communicating adapted expectations to my students while still meeting course learning objectives.

In turn, I extend this level of understanding and flexibility to students as their needs change, especially if they are directly impacted by illness or death. I have scrapped punitive attendance policies, allowed students to complete alternative assignments (there are always multiple pathways for assessing a learning outcome), implemented generous deadline extensions and trusted their accounts of their experiences. In essence, I work with them, as my chair did with me, under the assumption that they are expressing their needs in good faith.

I also model openness and vulnerability with students when it comes to my grief process. At the beginning of this semester, I informed all my new students about my mom’s death and noted how my grief might manifest in the classroom in terms of organization and memory issues. I also shared that it helps me to talk about my mom—encouraging them to ask me any questions they might have about her, our relationship and how my family and I continue to fare. In essence, I normalize discussions of grief and name its effects. I can only hope my approach makes students feel somewhat less alone in a culture besieged by yet seemingly impervious to grief.

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