At the end of 2018, my partner died unexpectedly. I had just applied for a PhD scholarship. I was 23 and a widow, two facts that seemed incompatible. My whole world changed. I was deeply grieving the loss of someone I loved dearly, who was also my biggest support and who had encouraged me to apply for my PhD in the first place. A few weeks later I received my PhD scholarship offer, which was equally exciting and terrifying. I knew grieving was going to be difficult. I knew doing a PhD was going to be difficult. How could I manage to do both?
As PhD student Lizzie Evens writes here about her experience with grief, when researchers are faced with a problem, our natural tendency is to research it. In those first few months I found great support, information and resources for grief, and separately for managing the stress of a PhD, but not much about both together. I hope that by sharing what has helped me, I can help others who are also dealing with difficult circumstances. I was initially reluctant to raise my personal struggles in a professional context but I also believe it is important that we all be open about mental health, and other “difficult” topics.
This is my personal experience and is not professional advice. I also know that I have been extremely well supported by both my community and professional support services, which unfortunately is not everyone’s experience. Everyone grieves differently, and what helped me might not necessarily work for others. However, reading about other people’s experiences helped me and I hope that by opening up in this blog post, my experiences may help others too.
The first thing I needed was some time off my work as a research assistant. (The standard bereavement leave in Australia is two days, which was not enough time in my circumstances). I met with a person in my workplace who was understanding, and who could advise me about leave and re-assign some of my responsibilities while I was away. With my permission, they also told the rest of my team what had happened – this was a great help that made it easier for me to return to work.
Also, I needed to take time off occasionally over several months for appointments and paperwork to finalise my partner’s banking, tax and other matters. This is a surprisingly large job for the official next of kin because most organisations are only open during business hours and are not always efficient at dealing with this kind of situation. My communication with my supervisors needed to be frequent and accurate. I didn’t have to talk about my emotions if I didn’t want to, but I did need to let them know what was going on for me, and what I needed. As I might have needed to organise extensions or make changes to assessments, I also needed to make sure the university knew what was going on. I am very grateful that my university and supervisory team were incredibly understanding and accommodating where possible. During this time, I found that telling people what practical help I needed helped them to understand and support me (in a variety of contexts).
At this time, I had to decide whether starting this PhD was still the right decision. I thought about this a lot and discussed it with my research team, friends, family, and grief counsellor. What helped was knowing that I had the option to pause (intermit) if I ever needed to. I also already knew my supervisory team well, and how supportive they were. For me, I still very much wanted to do my PhD. Going back to work gave me a place where I felt valued and capable. My PhD gives me something that I am passionate about, and a team I love being a part of. Also, it was something that myself and my partner had been really excited about, and I knew he would have been upset if I had missed out on this opportunity. However, going back to work was also difficult as I had to accept that my performance would be reduced.
I was not able to do as much as I could before. And that was okay! Because I am only human, and something really terrible had just happened. Nora McInerny says that “the most important way you can take care of yourself right now is to stop saying yes to the sh*t you don’t want to do”. Grieving made me re-evaluate my priorities. I had to stop wasting time and energy on things and people I didn’t like, in order to look after myself and be able to do my PhD. I used to thrive on being extremely busy and feeling capable of doing A LOT, and so losing my drive and energy was really tricky. It was reassuring to hear from others that it would come back. In the meantime, I had to do things to make it easier on myself. And one of them was saying “no” more often. I also needed more rest and sleep than I did before. I found it really helpful to take breaks (like weekends) and holidays when I could. Even getting out of the office for a quick walk or coffee was helpful when I needed a moment to myself.
In the first few months, I outsourced whatever “life admin” I could. For example, my best friend helped me to organise getting my groceries delivered, which involved a lot less work for me, and less abandoned shopping carts. In quieter times I made a list of helpful things that I needed to do or have done so I had an immediate answer when people said, “Let me know how I can help”. People appreciate clear direction on what is needed. My sister did all my laundry for me, which was a godsend. People cooked for me, helped me with paperwork, and bought me things I needed for my new place. I received lots of beautiful messages online, and my mailbox was full of letters and gifts.
At times it felt overwhelming, but I learnt to let people help. It made things a lot easier for me, and allowed my loved ones to care for me and feel useful in a time where I needed them most. I received so much kindness from so many people, and I did not know how I could ever repay them.
It can be difficult to accept help graciously and not feel awkward or indebted. My mum helped me realise that these people were helping me because they cared about me; sometimes I had helped them in difficult times in their life or they had been helped by others and were keen to pass it along.
In the first few weeks, I experienced some short-term memory loss which was frightening, but apparently normal. I had a serious case of “Widow Brain” which meant I had a lot of trouble remembering things and making decisions. My brain was so full of emotions and lists of all the things I needed to do, so I had to try not to overload it. I asked people to make simple decisions for me such as picking the cafe where we would meet for lunch. I told people I would be forgetful, and asked them to remind me if we were meeting or I had to do something. I’ve always loved lists and keeping plans in a physical diary, and found that writing everything down was especially helpful at this point.
When I was feeling so overwhelmed I would just freeze and be unable to work, I found the Pomodoro technique for time management was helpful. This helped me to break big pieces of work into smaller pieces, and work on one thing at a time. It alleviated my anxiety about beginning, and guilt about use of time. I have an app on my phone and also use pomodoro-tracker on my computer: it’s set up so you can see the time left on your browser tab.
It was also important to look after my physical health by eating well, sleeping, and getting exercise. My sleep and appetite were really affected, which is normal. I started walking instead of commuting to work. This gave me gentle exercise, and time to decompress (or cry). Sometimes it was hard to realise when I was physically unwell because I was so fatigued from grief. I saw my doctor because I felt even more tired and sad than usual, and found out I was iron and vitamin D deficient, which were both easily fixed.
Grief, like the rest of life, isn’t straightforward, and is a rather messy and complicated affair. I found some days I was okay, while other days I spent crying uncontrollably while listening to ‘Someone You Loved‘ by Lewis Capaldi on repeat. Grief is not a linear journey of improvement, moving neatly through the five stages. It comes in waves (a cliché I heard a lot). I found anniversaries and birthdays especially hard, and it was helpful to have a plan for approaching these days. I had to learn to be kinder and gentler with myself. I also kept a journal which helped me to express how I was feeling.
I am really thankful that I was able to access amazing support services. While talking to family, friends and colleagues was helpful, I also found peer support and counselling valuable. Peer support (The Hot Young Widow’s Club) helped me realise I was not alone. Grief counselling (Support After Suicide) helped me to understand and process my emotions. I was also offered free counselling through my university, which I knew would be especially helpful if I needed to discuss how grief was affecting my studies.
If you are reading this and you are going through something difficult and life-changing, please remember that you are not alone. It is okay to reach out and seek support. I hope you can be kind to yourself, and to find what feels right for you. No matter your circumstances, the following quote from Support after Suicide captures my experience with grief and I hope that it provides you with comfort too:
“You will never be the same again, you will never get over it, but you will have a life again, you will wake up in the morning and feel good. You will start to make plans for the future. At some point, life will feel normal again; not the old normal, the new normal.”
I found two other blog posts that dealt specifically with grief and PhD study. Both authors lost a parent.
Coping with Bereavement as a PhD Student by Giulia Arsuffi
Grief and the PhD by Lizzie Evens
We don’t “move on” from grief. We move forward with it by Nora McInerny
(This talk is so true, so funny, and so sad. I can’t even read the transcript without crying because it reminds me so much of my story. I think everyone should watch it)
Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales
(Shows how everyday people dealt with incredibly traumatic events)
The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny
(I loved this book as it deals with widowhood with sensitivity and humour. It showed me that sometimes it is okay to laugh about the weirdness of grief)
Terrible, Thanks for Asking by Nora McInerny
(Deals with a range of difficult experiences)
Life After Suicide by Dr Jennifer Ashton
(Specifically focuses on losing someone to suicide)
Let’s Talk About Suicide by Hamish Blunck
(Has a particular focus on suicide bereavement in LGBTQI+ communities)
Online Support Networks
Refuge in Grief: grief support that doesn’t suck. by Megan Devine
The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny
Jasmine Schipp is in her second year of her PhD at The Australian Centre for Behavioural Research in Diabetes, on a joint program between Deakin University and the University of Copenhagen. Her thesis is on the challenges that people with type 1 diabetes navigate when they are using open-source technologies (AndroidAPS, OpenAPS and Loop). In her spare time she enjoys roller-skating, music festivals, and brunch. You can find her on twitter @JasmineSchipp where she tweets about diabetes, technology, and psychology.