by Ashley Marinaccio
There’s no handbook on how to navigate graduate school when your mother dies. There’s no manual and no special clause under “extenuating circumstances.” There are a few websites of anonymous letters written by grieving graduate students trying to figure out how to navigate Ph.D. work in the new landscape. Some of them are helpful, some provide hope, while others present the barren hellscape of grief that I have come to know so well, only exasperated by difficult advisors and committees unwilling to be flexible with extensions, etc. I keep this in mind in my own work as a teacher for students who are going through something difficult, because too often we do not make space for loss in our lives or our syllabi.
I recently became part of “the club,” that club nobody wants to be part of, of children who have lost parents. And while I’m 34, and most certainly not a child, as the only child to a single parent, I feel untethered. The anchor to my childhood and history is now gone. Losing my mother has made me think about how we handle emergency situations and mental health crises in the classroom. At both of the universities where I currently adjunct the mental health services and resources available are completely insufficient, even a kind of joke amongst the students, not because the students don’t value or need them; to the contrary, they complain about long waits for intake meetings, bureaucracy, untrained staff holding work-study positions where there should be professionals, and the understaffing of such centers. At both universities, the students claim that what is advertised to them in terms of availability of mental health services before they enroll in college is not realistic for what the services actually are.
In my short time teaching, I have had three students (that I know of) lose parents in the middle of the semester. I have a handful of friends and colleagues who have also experienced that loss in the middle of their studies and have offered insight into their grieving process. Some of my friends who have experienced this loss while in school discuss an urgency to “return to normal,” “not fall behind,” and “check off boxes of things that need to get done.” Like many other “ugly” things in America, grief is something that people don’t want to see; you are expected to handle yourself, shove it under the rug and reemerge in public when you’ve “dealt” with it (whatever that means). Academic culture has embraced much of this ideology as well when it comes to grief. While my department, advisor, and community have been tremendously supportive, in situations where students don’t know how or where to reach out for help, institutions have a long way to go in terms of providing adequate mental health care.
I didn’t tell anyone at school that my mother was sick until she went into hospice and death was imminent. Any lack of transparency was completely on account of me not wanting to believe it was going to happen and so choosing to ignore it. I sent off some awkwardly worded e-mails to my advisor and professors, “Hello, I hope this message finds you well and you are having a wonderful week. I just wanted to let you know my mom is dying so I’m probably going to be out for the next week and will make up any work missed.” (It’s been five weeks and nothing has been made up yet, by the way…) Part of me didn’t want to admit that it was going to happen so soon as I had hoped she would see me defend my dissertation. Because she has a history of getting very sick and bouncing back, I didn’t want to sound the alarm too soon and be seen as “overdramatic.”
All together I missed two full weeks of school. I was transparent with my students about what had happened. I had let them know on the very first day of the semester that there was a possibility I would be away at points during the semester because her situation was terminal. I was matter of fact and direct: I presented it on the first day of class in between the syllabus clauses on academic integrity and what to do in case of an active shooter (yes – I have a clause in my syllabus about that at students’ request).
In supporting students through loss, it’s important to recognize that grief is different for everyone. There is no linear path. The 5 stages that are so often discussed in popular culture are cyclical and sometimes overlap. The earlier a student is provided with adequate support, the better their academic performance and chances of graduating will be. To cope with loss students need a community to understand and validate their feelings. They need access to grief counseling, bereavement groups, in addition to patience on the end of professors and administrators in allowing for extension of deadlines and meeting them where they are to ensure long term success.
Right now, I am trying to adjust to the new normal. It takes longer for me to get things done, especially smaller tasks. I have hundreds of e-mails piled up in my inbox. My attention span and short term memory are smaller. I don’t sleep much because the nightmares from her last weeks of life keep me up and thinking about what could have been done differently. It takes me longer to get things done. Sometimes I unintentionally repeat myself. Writing this blog post was hard. I missed the deadline. I’ve missed a few deadlines for various fellowships. I ask for a lot of extensions these days. I have a harder time returning e-mails and text messages quickly.
I can’t do the emotional labor I used to do. Instead of taking on student problems myself (offering insight, tutoring, etc.) I find myself referring them out to the university’s writing or counseling center for services, even though I know that they could get lost within the bureaucratic system. I try not to beat myself up over it (though that becomes difficult, especially in trying to meet the expectations of academia). I’m looking forward to summer where I can finally have a break as I went back to school nine days after she died because I was afraid of falling further behind or getting bad course evaluations.
Instead of reading one of the 80 books I’m trying to get through for my exam reading lists, I’ve taken a detour with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, Anderson Cooper’s Dispatches from the Edge, listening to anything by Andrea Gibson and Amanda Palmer, and playing a mindless iPhone game called Color Road where you drive a cupcake down a road and collect coins that match the color of your cupcake. I try to replace “Sorry…” in my vernacular with “Thank you for your patience…” because grief is not something I should be ashamed of, though our capitalist culture of productivity will suggest otherwise. I’ve also stopped being afraid of things that used to cause major anxiety, like talking in class and preparing for comprehensive exams. Losing her was my biggest fear and now that it’s happened, everything else I’ve ever worried about seems trivial.
My mother graduated high school but never had the opportunity to attend college. She thought Ph.D. work was superhuman, and quite frankly neither of us knew that advanced degrees were even an option until I entered undergrad. and my anthropology professor suggested I continue with graduate school (I am the first in my immediate family to attend college). We talked on the phone every day on my walk to and from class and she’d always want to know what I learned that day. She was very excited about her newfound knowledge about early modern theatre, Japanese theatre, and scenography through my Ph.D. work.
The last few months of my life have been so surreal that returning to school and teaching is a welcomed sense of “normalcy.” I think the biggest shock for me was that the world continued to move quickly after she died. My life had stood still for the two weeks that she was in hospice and then when she was gone and I emerged from the room that she died in, I was shocked that life went on. The noise was overwhelming. It’s cliché but sometimes I still find myself overwhelmed by how quickly everything moves and how loud everything is, from social media to walking down the street. I’m having a hard time catching up. Or maybe I’m just trying to adjust to a new pace.
It’s too early to know how all of this will affect my teaching, scholarship, and creative practice. I do know that it’s made me think further about meeting students where they are and understanding that grades aren’t a “one size fits all.” I work hard to establish a personal connection with every student that enters my classroom because as educators we don’t always know what difficulties our students are facing and how that shapes their class work.