Grief in Academia

cw: miscarriage, grief

You may have noticed a slight gap between my last post and this one. I was not certain I should write this post. Contrary to what my robust digital footprint might suggest, I am not one to post a lot of intensely personal information online. But it felt weird to simply resume posting about teaching and academic life after experiencing something so life-altering. I also felt that many of us in academia are likely grieving something and so, perhaps, I am in good company. To be clear, I am not writing this post from the perspective of someone who has emerged from grief, but rather of someone still mired in its gaping maw. I recently suffered the miscarriage of my first pregnancy. I was nearly at the second trimester when I started bleeding.

I struggled with how much to make this post about the process of miscarriage because there are so many different kinds of grief, none more horrible than the next. But I’ve found that there is so little understanding of what miscarriage is because no one wants to hear about it, and women, especially, don’t want to talk about it because of the implied shame (the name itself “miscarriage” would suggest that I did not carry it correctly). Even though I’ve known so many women who have had miscarriages, I still knew so little of what actually occurs. No one tells you that you’ll be at the doctor’s office for hours and hours while they confirm whether your pregnancy is no longer viable, that you’ll have to hear from three different people that there is no longer a fetal heartbeat, that you’ll go straight away to the hospital for a rhogam shot in the women’s center where you’ll see a waiting room full of smiling, happy mothers with their big, round bellies. No one tells you that you’ll carry a dead baby inside you for days sometimes before your surgery (called a D&C) is scheduled. Or that when you wake from the anesthesia, the first thing you’ll feel is severe pain while you wait for the new oral meds to kick in. Or that the surgery, while necessary, doesn’t preclude gushing deposits of blood and tissue that will have you running to the bathroom in the days that follow. Or that the bleeding goes on and on with cramps that can leave you sweating and white as a sheet. Or that after all that you will have many more weeks of severe insomnia, acne, and mood swings because your body is wracked with hormones, and it takes a while for your body to realize you are no longer pregnant. And that these are only the physical symptoms.

The grief itself breaks your brain. I had a hard time doing even simple tasks at the beginning. I didn’t do any actual work for weeks. One of my first coherent thoughts during this experience was “thank goodness it is summer because I can’t imagine going through this during a normal semester.” Others (1, 2, 3) have written more eloquently about miscarriage and academia. And while I have received sympathy and grace from every colleague I had to tell, the truth is that academia (and perhaps the modern workplace in general) is not designed for grieving. This has been made abundantly clear in the time of Covid-19, of course. Many have observed the hypocritical pairing of “mental wellness” emails from their institutions with an utter lack of regard for employees’ actual safety in practice. My own institution has thankfully mandated masks indoors because, I won’t lie, I was shaking with anxiety at the thought of returning with no masks in my present state. I’m already unsure how I will muster the energy and mental clarity required of me to provide a meaningful learning experience to 100 students without the added threat of Covid-19 to their health and mine.

As I mentioned earlier, I cannot offer any post-grief wisdom because I am still very much in grief. All I can offer is what has helped me so far. First, it is okay to tell people. In a professional context, this feels wrong – too personal and irrelevant, perhaps (and in my case, weird to tell them about the end of a pregnancy they didn’t even know was happening). But in my experience, it is better they know that you are going through this thing so they can manage their expectations of your professional contributions. It does no good to not tell them and then be resentful that they are demanding so much from you in your current state. In my experience, some will instinctively turn away from your grief and some will come to meet you there. Either way, the air is cleared and you can find a way forward that isn’t filled with resentment. Second, find someone to help you down the mountain. I recently read an article about how people who are grieving the same thing are like a bunch of people stuck on a mountain with broken bones. They can’t help each other down. They need to make it down the mountain on their own or find someone who doesn’t have a broken bone. My friends and family have been incredibly supportive. One friend came to my house the first day with armfuls of groceries to stock our freezer so we wouldn’t have to think about cooking. Another friend flew to be with me for a weekend so I could just cry on her shoulder. My mother and husband worked it out so I could spend some time in a tropical location to swim and sun and eat as many oysters as I wanted (the one thing I missed while being pregnant). But the truth is that they are also grieving for you and/or for themselves. They also have broken bones. They can commiserate, but they can’t really help you down the mountain until their bones heal. So I recommend getting a therapist. If you are a full-time faculty or higher ed employee, there is such a thing as Employee Assistance Programs that allow you free sessions with a licensed therapist. Just do it. You may still end up making your way down the mountain mostly alone, but it couldn’t hurt to have someone to help.

That’s really all I have for now. I am still figuring out how best to navigate this loss and my anxiety about the future (future losses, future struggles with fertility, fostering, or adoption). And how I will navigate work in the midst of so much uncertainty and pain. My intention is to keep blogging about life in academia and maybe start a new passion project, but I’m keeping my options open while I figure out what I can handle. Here’s wishing you a successful start to the new semester and comfort if you happen to be grieving.

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).

7 thoughts on “Grief in Academia

  1. Thank you for this honest and important post. I’m so sorry that you’ve joined this sisterhood of babyloss, but it’s a mighty group with much love and hope to spare when you’re feeling the loss of everything, all at once. You’re absolutely right that we speak too little of miscarriage–its realities and facts–and you’re so generous here speaking out of the midst of grief with connecting to others who might be struggling. I hope you keep being gentle with yourself as you take each step on this path of grieving and heal both bodily and in spirit in the months ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

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