Acknowledging Academic Grief and Hope in a Pandemic
By Stephanie Anne Shelton and Nicole Sieben, editors of Narratives of Hope and Grief in Higher Education
Many of us have had to re-evaluate and reprioritize the ways that our personal lives fit (or don’t) with our professional lives. A global pandemic will do that. And in that shuffling to try to put the pieces together, so many aspects of who we are at work have inevitably begun to overlap with who we are at home. Within higher education, faculty participate in virtual department meetings while children play (or cry) in the background, students defend dissertations as pets sit in their laps, and we glimpse portions of colleagues’ homes and families as we teleconference. Alongside the fear and concern borne from the COVID-19 crisis, these moments have worked to humanize us and our profession.
However, even as we have learned to see others and ourselves as more vulnerable and as more human, portions of academia have continued to demand productivity and ignore these elements of hurt, uncertainty, and fragility. Social media and some faculty email accounts insist, for example, that this pandemic is the ideal time to get new articles written, to produce new books, to write new grant proposals, and to finally get traction on those stagnated projects. This exemplifies a longstanding contradiction in higher education and so many other fields: these moments of touching humanization coming into conflict with unyielding professional expectations.
We have both experienced this paradox of “take care of yourself, but make sure that you’re working,” when we each lost our father in 2014. Much like now, we found ourselves overwhelmed by loving friends’ and advisors’ support, and by demands that we continue to teach courses, meet deadlines, and generate scholarship. Sympathy cards arrived alongside reminders of academic due dates. In our efforts to stay afloat, we found solace in one another’s understanding, and in the fact that we both recognized how very problematic these competing experiences were.
The social sciences, for all of their emphases on people and relationships, are not equipped to acknowledge or support grief. Individual people are, but not the overarching system itself. Particularly when those grieving are faculty, staff, or graduate students—whose responsibilities typically extend far beyond course work. Needing time to work through sorrow seems impossible when teaching, conferences, journal publications, job markets, and tenure and promotion reviews continue. The effect is that many end up grieving in isolation or not grieving at all, because the lack of resources and awareness imply that grief is rare in this space. It is not.
It is necessary, particularly in this historical moment, to pause and reflect on the many ways that grief shapes our lives, and the ways in which we are not—but deserve to be—supported. Our grief is not always based in death, though it certainly may be. Grieving may be prompted by loss of connections and relationships, by oppressive societal norms, by lost opportunities, or other experiences. The point is not to try to pin down how grief should look or be expressed—it often exists in many layers— but to emphasize that it exists, and that it matters.
Just as necessarily, hope exists and matters to those who are grieving. Navigating grief is inevitable to the human condition, but finding sources of hope while doing so is essential to healing, and to moving forward in meaningful and empowering ways. Hope, in its many forms, can provide companionship through grieving. To be clear, hope is not a panacea to sorrow, and just as there is no single way to grieve, there is no one way to hope. Hope calls on multiple pathways towards healing, and it activates our motivations to want to heal in the face of hurt, trauma, and loss. Hope also acknowledges that there will be obstacles to healing, that no pathway towards healing is challenge-free, but that the ways in which we navigate those challenges can make all the difference in surviving our hurt and ultimately experiencing full lives of meaning.
Our grief brought us together several years ago, and the shifting landscape of the world right now has many experiencing and working through their own pain. It is essential that these sources of hurt be acknowledged and supported, within and beyond higher education. Acknowledging sorrow is the only way to humanize it, and finding humanity in and through grief fosters opportunities to locate sources of agency and hope in our personal and professional lives. Through sharing stories that acknowledge grief, we show one another that the human components that make us who are in our world (and in our work) matter. In these unimaginable times, these narratives of hope are what not only sustain, but also empower us in our pain.
Stephanie Anne Shelton is Assistant Professor of Qualitative Research with the Department of Educational Studies in Psychology, Research Methods, and Counseling at the University of Alabama, USA.
Nicole Sieben is Assistant Professor of Secondary English Education and Coordinator for Graduate Programs in English Education at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, USA.