I’ve been talking, the last few weeks, about the four things I say most often to leaving academics.
- You have more skills than you think.
- The best way to find out what jobs actually exist in the world is to ask people what they do and what they like about it.
- Of course you’re exhausted and grieving, and that is as it should be.
- Step one is always abundant, luxurious self-care, as much as you can possibly stand.
Today I want to talk about grief, because this is one of those topics that gets shoved under the rug. Grief is messy. Grief is inconvenient. Grief isn’t practical.
Grief is absolutely essential.
Grief does work
We have a tendency to think about emotions as extraneous. They’re what get in the way of thinking, planning, getting on with things.
And that’s sometimes true. When we’ve bottled up our emotions, when we’ve avoided them, they get kind of piled up and they just shoot out at the least convenient, most awkward times.
When we’re able to show up to them as they happen, however, they do work. Anger helps us identify crossed boundaries and re-sets them. Fear helps us identify the need for increased safety. And sadness and grief help us let go.
I don’t pretend to know how this happens, only that it’s true to my experience. Grieving is part of how we let go and move on. It’s part of how we acknowledge the shift.
But make no mistake about it: Grief is work. It is exhausting. It saps your energy, it dulls your interest in other things, it can make you want to do nothing but sleep. Within reason, let it. (As always, if it starts significantly impairing your ability to go on, please see a doctor. Grief and depression aren’t the same thing, but they can overlap or be triggered by one another.)
A tale of two griefs
When I left academia, I didn’t give myself any room to grieve. I worked my last day in higher ed on a Friday, and I started my new job, a couple hundred miles away, on Monday. That Monday evening, I went out to meet friends at an event, and that was the pattern for a long time. I worked, I did household stuff, I saw friends. I acted like it wasn’t a big deal. On some level I didn’t think it should be a big deal.
Of course it was a big deal. How could it not be? I had spent the previous eleven years of my life — more than a third of my existence — either being a professor or having professorship as my goal.
So my grief was in there, but I tried to ignore it and it came out at all the wrong times. When a friend’s husband was considering applying for the job I left, I got angry and tried to talk him out of it. I woke up in the middle of the night, sobbing for no reason I could identify. I alternately read everything I could on academia and wanted nothing to do with it.
Eventually, years later, I was able to slow down and show up to my grief. At that point it was like a spelunking mission. I had to dig it out, find the pieces I’d shoved down into the darkness. I had to make space in a life that had moved on. I had to untangled the grief from later choices, from new opportunities, from my health. I don’t recommend it.
Some years later, my sweetie and I decided to let go of a long-cherished dream of being parents. I must have gained some skills in the intervening years, because when the grief welled up — and it welled up off and on for years — I just … let it. I didn’t try to justify it or argue with it. I didn’t beat myself up or reconsider the decision or even start telling myself how awful it all was. When I was aware of any thoughts at all, they amounted to some version of “yes, I really wanted that, and it’s not going to happen, and that’s worth grieving.”
But here’s the difference: When each spate of grieving passed, it passed. I might feel a little emotionally tender for the rest of the day, but I was able to snuggle the babies of friends, attend baby showers, and generally celebrate and support parenthood elsewhere. I am not, all these years later, finding bits and pieces of that grief transmuted to bitterness that comes out an inappropriate times.
Sometimes, often, that grief looked like sadness and tears. Every once in a while, it looked like anger and I would shake my fist at the heavens. It’s not that it always showed up in the same way, and heaven knows it wasn’t particularly convenient. But when I was present to it when it showed up, or when I made space for it when I couldn’t be present to it in the moment, it did its work and dissipated.
If you’re leaving academia, you’re experiencing a great loss. It may be the best available choice. It may even be exciting and compelling. There’s still a great loss under there.
The more you can show up to the grief, the more you can let it move through you rather than trying not to have it, the easier a time you will ultimately have.
If your life is particularly full and you don’t have the room to experience the grief as it shows up, make a regular appointment with yourself and grieve. Wear your comfiest clothes, wrap yourself in a snuggly blanket, hide out in a room with all the lights off and blinds drawn, and grieve. Say to yourself, this is something I deeply wanted, it was important to me, and it is worth grieving. Let whatever comes up come up.
It doesn’t say anything about you that something you wanted didn’t work out. It happens to everyone. It doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you human.
Welcome to the ranks of humanity. We have all had things we wanted not turn out. We have all grieved. This is simply when and how it is showing up for you.
Be gentle with yourself, accept the grief, and know that it will fade.