Nothing in the world can prepare a person to lose a loved one. Sure, mental health professionals can explain the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance)1, but the path and duration of the journey is entirely individual – in my experience it’s like wading through a heavy substance. On good days you can move forwards slowly, one step at a time. Other days, it’s easier to stand still, or move backwards into the path you’ve already created. This can make it difficult to see a future, and it can feel like everything becomes more challenging. You can see then how this type of scenario could impact a person in their early academic career, which is already widely regarded as an extremely challenging time.
I sadly lost both my parents in my late teens which had a huge impact on my wellbeing and an even bigger impact on my career decisions. Now, it may have taken me a very long time to be in a place where I feel comfortable enough to talk about those experiences, but I now feel that it’s important for me to raise awareness in the hopes it may help people understand how to support individuals in similar circumstances.
Challenge #1: Living with The Loss
The first—and possibly most long-term—impact of an experience like this is coping with the loss itself. I remember feeling hopeless and guilty a lot of the time, and I was wracked with regrets. Things I wished I’d done, things I wished I’d said (or wished I’d not said), and looking to the future felt like a bleak, pointless adventure. I was suddenly facing an early existential crisis and became very anxious about my own mortality. I’m proud to say that I did seek advice from a counsellor at the time, which I think helped to keep my mental health relatively afloat, but I had changed. I had learned a horrible truth, that life could be taken away at any moment, and unfortunately I was at a really pivotal point in my early academic career meaning it was necessary for me to keep moving forward in order to set myself up well for the future. This led to a lot of internal conflict which (slightly unsurprisingly) eventually grew into anxiety. This affected my sleep, my eating, and eventually the stress led me to develop irritable bowel syndrome.
Unfortunately, the only healer here is time, and everyone is different. The best way to give yourself a good chance of getting through unscathed (and hopefully without developing IBS) is to utilise support networks and seek professional help.
Challenge #2: Low confidence
To be brutally honest, I never felt that I made my parents proud of me. I can say that I’m sure that in their own way they were proud of what I did, but I never felt that I’d impressed them which meant that their loss left me feeling very wobbly. I felt that aside from the emotional connections, I had also lost a resource. Who would tell me if I was making sensible decisions? Who would tell me if I was making them proud? Well, the answer is that this was something I lost. Other people in my life attempt to step in at times, which helps, but it isn’t the same. This means that my mental health took a bit of a nose-dive, as I felt compelled to make my parents proud of me but had no way of checking whether or not I was achieving it. This has been an ongoing struggle for me, which a counsellor only very recently was able to help me to work through, but the unexpected advantage was that it made me work very hard to get what I wanted. The downside, however, is that all decisions felt far more daunting as I felt I was making them unguided by adults. This, for me, led to a constant sense of insecurity, but for other people I believe could lead to depression and a belief that you aren’t good enough.
My advice for helping to get through these kinds of feelings is to utilise professional support services, and to seek mentors who can support you and provide positive reinforcement in your decision making. It’s also worth trying to break down big tasks into smaller, more achievable goals to rebuild motivation and confidence during this period.
Challenge #3: Housing
Another huge challenge I faced was losing the safety net of a family home. For those without tenure, one of the downsides of an academic career is job insecurity and associated feelings of uncertainty. Academics in their early career often complete their PhD studies on very small stipends, and then are rewarded by being offered fixed-term contracts. This is not an attractive model for many people, but people can survive if they have a back-up option. For me, when my parents passed away, we had to sell the family home, which meant I no longer had a place to go if my job didn’t work out. I remember that this was something that really worried me at the time, and had a huge impact on my wellbeing because I was facing a conflict – should I pursue my dream job and risk homelessness, or should I give up on everything and play it safe? In the end I took the risk and I’m fortunate it paid off, but the worry took a toll on me, and I believe that academia could do more to help support students in a similar situation – starting with better-paid stipends and looking at providing scholarships. It worries me that students might be denied opportunities simply because they’ve suffered a negative life event like this, which shouldn’t be the case.
Challenge #4: Moving Might Not Be An Easy Option
Similarly, I remember throughout my time as a PhD student, senior academics would always offer me the same advice: “You need to move around to be successful in academia”. Now, maybe that’s true, but what about the dozens of reasons people might have for not being able to move? What then? For me, I have two younger siblings and for a long time I was unwilling to move away from them as I didn’t want them to feel abandoned, and I didn’t want to be away from them. Eventually, in time, we all grew a little stronger and I managed to build up the courage to move two hours down the road, but this was a huge step. The potential difficulty here is that experience at other institutions is frequently valued, but I think it would be helpful to consider personal circumstances, just as we would consider time taken for maternity leave.
Challenge #5: Debt-aversion
Nobody likes to be in debt, and whilst nobody would choose to be in debt if they could help it, there are some circumstances in which we’re happy to take on debt because the benefit outweighs the cost. Student loans for undergraduate degrees and mortgages for houses are good examples here. The problem is though that people in poor financial circumstances have more to lose by getting into debt so they are often more debt-averse as they feel less confident they can pay off the bill2. When I lost my parents, we didn’t come from a wealthy background, and suddenly my situation felt much more frightening. I was already part-way through my undergraduate degree so I was committed to that, but I felt unwilling and unable to take out a loan to do aMaster’s course. Unfortunately I was doing a psychology degree, and so it’s quite unusual to skip the Master’s and go straight for the PhD. This meant that most advisors I spoke to were trying to counsel me to feel comfortable with the debt – “Yes it’s a loan, but it’s for your future”, “Maybe you could get a part-time job alongside your studies”. Thankfully though, one of my mentors seemed to pick up on my concerns and he offered me much better advice – to look outside of my own field. It was this advice that helped me to secure a PhD in an optometry department, which changed my life in every way, and crucially, helped me avoid debt that would make it difficult for me to survive. Here, the key message is to find advisors who can empathise with you, and don’t feel pressured into doing something that will be a burden on your well-being.
Challenge #6: How Others Speak to You
If you had to think about it right now, how many people do you know who lost one or both of their parents when they were young? It’s probably not very many, but probably more than you think. For years I kept my family situation to myself. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) talking about things makes them feel more real, so as long as I didn’t say it out loud then it felt like it had less power, and (2) whenever people found out, they usually said something upsetting. I’ll never really understand this one, because as an adult I’ve never known anything different, but there seems to be a real sense of negative expectation surrounding people who have suffered loss. People who have known me a long time will still catch themselves making comments like, “It’s amazing how well you’ve done given the circumstances”, which I believe they intend as a compliment regarding my resilience, but what I hear is, “We expected your circumstance to limit you”. Now, my other half will attest that I can rant about this all day, but it’s important to say that whilst I do acknowledge that some things have been more difficult for me – that’s what this whole blog is about – it’s not helpful to make comments suggesting that people shouldn’t be able to achieve things. If you replace “the circumstances” with “your gender” in the quote above, it becomes wholly inappropriate, which I think nicely highlights that this is an unkind comment to make. I think that if we want to be supportive and considerate of people dealing with loss, we need to think more carefully about what we say and get into “good habits” of being inclusive with our language. For example, if you don’t know for sure that someone has parents, keep your queries vague (e.g., instead of, “Will we be seeing your parents at graduation?” you could say, “Will we be seeing your family at graduation?”). Similarly, if you want to compliment someone on their achievements, just say that without mentioning anything else. Their circumstances are irrelevant and you may risk upsetting them by bringing it up.
Challenge #7: Adjusting is Painful
For me, experiencing this loss made me reassess my life. It made me very serious about my studies, and also made me very worried about finances, whether I’d be able to enjoy life again, and everything in the future. This obviously meant I wasn’t exactly the life of the party for a while, which is to be expected, but my friends at the time seemed to take it very personally which ultimately left me feeling even more isolated than was necessary. The important thing here is to recognise that this is an extremely challenging time and people aren’t themselves. For example, if you have a PhD student who experiences loss, they may become irritable, unpredictable, they may lose motivation; there are all manner of possibilities. The important thing to remember though is that they are not being difficult; they are struggling. Practise forgiveness and empathy, and encourage them to seek support, because this is the time when they need kindness the most.
The good news, however, is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I still feel the pang of grief on key dates and important life events, but I’m growing stronger every day and I’ve found happiness. The key things for me were seeking help, finding positive mentors, taking pride in small steps forward, and having something to aim for. This helped me to make positive, proactive decisions for myself and seek opportunities which, combined with some good luck, led to a successful outcome in the end.
In summary, bereavement can lead to a number of potential challenges, but I’m hopeful that this blog will contribute to conversations about how academia can better support people with loss and bereavement, and the consequences for their careers. Let’s aim to stop limiting the options of people who need support, and instead focus on providing the support that they need.
If you’re experiencing loss at the point of reading this, please do consider reaching out to a counsellor or other healthcare professional. You may also benefit from seeking support from dedicated charities like Cruse Bereavement Support (https://www.cruse.org.uk/).
- Cruse, n.d. Understanding the five stages of grief [online]. Available at: https://www.cruse.org.uk/understanding-grief/effects-of-grief/five-stages-of-grief/ [Accessed 13th July 2022]
- Callendar, C., 2017. Poorer students aren’t applying to university because of fears of high debts. [online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/poorer-students-arent-applying-to-university-because-of-fears-of-high-debts-78694 [Accessed 13th July 2022]
Dr Sam Strong is a lecturer in the School of Optometry at Aston University. She has a degree in Psychology (University of York), a PhD in Vision Science (University of Bradford), and she is currently completing an MEd (Aston University) alongside her work. Her research focuses on how the human brain processes visual motion signals, and in her spare time she is a scientific illustrator and writer. You can follow Sam’s scientific and pedagogic adventures (and pictures of her cats) on Twitter @samanthastrong.