By Lizzie Evens |
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a PhD student confronted with a problem must be in want of a dozen browser tabs following a frantic Google search. But, when confronted with the mammoth problem of bereavement, a search of ‘grief and the PhD’ returns references to the ‘PhD giving you grief’ and ‘post-submission grief’. It seems that in academia- ̶ much like in broader society- ̶ grief remains unspoken.
In the first week of my PhD I attended the obligatory induction sessions, which entailed the usual ‘discuss this topic with your neighbour’ section. An unwitting student from another department turned to me to discuss the topic of ‘when did you last feel stressed?’: a week earlier I had spoken at my dad’s funeral. This moment flashed in my mind, but of course I could not share this with the stranger beside me. It can feel like nothing quite isolates you from a ‘typical’ PhD experience (if such a thing exists) quite like death.
For those reading for interest, I hope this discussion is a useful for supporting friends, colleagues, and students. If reading as a griever, while every death is different, I hope this article based on my experiences proves useful in navigating this time.
During the grieving process, it is possible that you may need to interrupt your studies for a period, or perhaps it means that you don’t fancy those post-seminar drinks or prefer to work remotely. For this, you will want the support of your supervisor. Depending on your relationship, you may want to call or speak in person, however, a brief, plain account via email is equally appropriate.
I found telling peers more intimidating. I was grieving as I started a new course, at a new university, in a new city, and this was compounded by the fact that, as a rule, twenty-somethings are awkward at dealing with death! After telling someone my dad died, I was often met with ‘I am sorry’, to which I found myself automatically replying ‘oh, it’s okay’ (cue narrator: *it was not okay*). The truth is there is no easy way to tell someone. But, in my experience, although peers often didn’t know what to say, they were really supportive if I explained what I needed: I am going be patchy at replying to texts, I do/don’t want to talk about it today, or let’s have a routine coffee every Tuesday. Grieving might entail developing a new network or extending an old one, but it also relies upon and strengthens friendships.
Access University Services
At times, processing loss seems like an insurmountable task, and being a doctoral student working largely independently raises particular challenges. Most universities offer counselling services either through the student union or via psychological services, which PhD students can access for free.
I attended counselling for bereavement, and initially had many reservations; I thought it was ‘too soon’, it ‘wouldn’t help’, or I ‘wouldn’t have anything to talk about’. Even with a fantastic support network, I found talking to a trained counsellor to be instrumental in processing grief. My experience focused on practical advice and discussion on how to grieve while still being a good partner, friend, family member, and colleague. In particular, speaking with a counsellor for an hour a week helped prepare me for difficult conversations or anniversaries, as well as orientate my week to avoid disappearing into work or other new responsibilities. Depending on preferences, there are other resources available including Student Minds groups, student union support for carers, and you can call Nightline and Samaritans to talk through problems, including bereavement (links at the end of the article).
Productivity, or the lack of, and the associated guilt is a familiar feature of the PhD. The advice given in previous posts about productivity is perhaps all the more useful when grieving. In the first months of my PhD, I listed every task, however small; read three articles, meet friend for coffee, send email, go for a walk etc. This provided a much-needed focus and sense of achievement to ensure I did not get lost in the sea of tasks. Some days the usual and the mundane seems impossible, so physically writing down (and ticking off!) the tiny tasks can show how much you have achieved. When feeling unproductive, the best piece of advice I received was to extend yourself the same compassion and understanding that you would give a friend.
Ride the waves
Grieving is not a linear process, and in my experience you do not really ‘move on’, but bereavement has ups and downs, which often hit in waves. As a historian of the Americas, I invoke the Beach Boys to refer to this as ‘Surfin USA’. As time went on and the PhD work got in full swing, I found that I would sometimes push bereavement to the back of my mind, which was sometimes necessary but not sustainable for me. I therefore devised a strategy of designated-cry-time and unexpected-cry-time.When I want to think about loss, I look to certain songs, photos, or TV shows as a means of catharsis. However, at other times, grief can overwhelm moments before a seminar or teaching, and then, I look to podcasts or the Headspace mediation App.
- I found this BBC iPlayer clipuseful in explaining how grief touches every part of life
- Headspace bereavement series of thirty meditations on grieving and series of blog posts
- The mental health charity Mind has a guide to bereavement support
- Student Minds runs bereavement groups at Oxford, Bristol, and other universities
- University-based Nightline and broader public Samaritans
Lizzie Evens is a first year PhD student and Wolfson scholar at the UCL Institute of Americas, where she researches women’s role in regulating abortion in the Pre-Roe era. She tweets feminism, healthcare, and sometimes grief @Lizzieevens