Thoughts on Grief, One Year Later

Around this time last year I wrote a blog post about the grief I felt about leaving academia. It wasn’t a thinking piece. It was a feeling piece about how the grief of losing dreams can be so strong that it hijacks your life for a while.

Rather unexpectedly, a lot of people read that post. Many people wrote to let me know that they too were experiencing grief about becoming involuntary academic exiles.

Many said that they’d never named their feelings about leaving as grief. Talking about feelings remains taboo in academic circles, as if even having them is dangerous and subversive. It’s hard to get through grief when you can’t talk about it. As academics, we’re often so comfortable with intellectual work and deeply uncomfortable with emotional processes. As a former therapist told me once, the secret to processing emotions is less thinking and more feeling. For people accustomed to thinking rather than feeling, the prospect of swimming in a dark sea of grief can be terrifying indeed. You can’t think your way out of something so wild and powerful.

Having though a lot about grief over the past year, I find myself impressed by its sheer power and faithfulness. When we’re brave and trusting enough to surrender to it, the river of grief will carry us to the doorstep of acceptance entirely on its own. Coming through grief isn’t a moment; it is a process.

I thought this week about what’s changed for me since I first wrote about grief.

Some things haven’t changed very much at all. Our current neoliberal version of higher education continues to implode. In a weird slow motion deja vu, I’m now watching other people process their own heartbreak after being steamrolled by the academic job market. Plenty of truly talented and amazing people are grieving because they didn’t get the jobs they’d hoped to get and won’t ever chance to live the lives they’d envisioned, as in this heartbreaking post about same. Others continue working in exploitative jobs in hopes that they’ll be the exception and beat the system at its own destructive game. Ferocious Twitter matches have erupted about whether we all should have known what we were getting into. It’s a strange spectacle from a distance, a sort of sad and weird Lord of the Flies meets Survivor mashup with no real winners.

Other things have shifted a lot.

Because of the collapse of the academic job market, my career as an academic ended before it ever really started. At one point, I felt that my PhD was the denouement of my personal and professional story, but one forever tainted with the stench of “failed academic.” Turns out, life does go on. My PhD is now a part of my story. But it’s not THE story.

I’m no longer in that dark place of grief, though thinking about what might have been sometimes still hurts. If I’d continued, I might have eventually have won the academic lottery and gotten a tenure-track job in a place I wanted to live. I’d have published interesting books and articles, taught great classes to awesome students, and given yearly conference presentations to nearly empty hotel conference rooms.

 I feel more strongly than ever that deciding (unwillingly while kicking and screaming loudly) not to continue pursuing academic dreams was the right decision. Since I’m now three years out of academia, the chances that I would ever get hired for a faculty job are negligible at this point, as I’m now a washed up has-been with passé research.

Instead, I’ve had to figure who I am again. I both am and am not the same person I was without my academic work and identity. Over the past year, I’ve often felt like I’ve been peeling an onion, layer by layer, to find my new self. Who am I without this work that defined me? Who am I without these colleagues I thought I’d always have? Who am I now? What do I care about now? What will I do next?

I wrestled with these questions for a long time. Many people I talked to in those first terrifying few months told me that it might take a few years to readjust to life as a non-academic. Turns out, they were right. I felt intensely rejected and bewildered for far longer than I’d expected. The process out of academia involves not only loss, but also learning new lifeways. I've had so many moments of despair, desperation, and absolute total panic.

However, I woke up one morning recently with the unexpectedly deep conviction that I was going to make it. “Self,” I said, “You’re going to make it.” And I meant it. Hearing myself say those words felt shocking because of all of the times when I’d seriously doubted that they would ever be true. And yet somehow, I was making it in the world without academia.

The biggest gift of my non-academic life has been learning to take responsibility for my life and choices. As a graduate student, I was quite content jumping through other people’s pre-defined flaming hoops because I didn’t have to make many decisions about where I wanted to go. [This is, of course, not to say that being an academic allows one to abdicate personal responsibility for one’s life. It’s just that your career trajectory is often pre-determined with well-defined milestones instead of a confusing array of paths that all lead in different directions.] When I stepped off the academic track, I had to get real about what I really wanted and how I would do it. I suddenly had to be in charge of my life in a way that I’d never had to be before. I’m working on taking more flying leaps and inspired action in my life and being my own best advocate instead of just wishing things were different and complaining loudly. I’m trying every day to make decisions that move me closer to creating a new reality that I loved more than being an academic.

I quit my day job six months ago to focus on my business. I quite literally had no idea where to even start, but through a series of small, directed actions combined with community help and support, I'm slowly figuring it out. I’m learning more every day and I think(hope) I’m getting better at being a small business person. Starting a business has actually been really good for overcoming learned helplessness because if I don’t take action, I don’t have clients and don’t get paid. It’s been a joy to be able to create work that’s intellectually stimulating, heart-centered, and pays more than adjuncting. My success and failure rest largely on me (to the degree that they can given our current gig economy).

I’ve taken some turns that didn’t work out. I worked a bunch of weird temp jobs. I had a permanent day job that ultimately didn’t fit me very well. I tried freelance writing, but I am a better historian than a journalist. I’m a slow thinker; books are about as fast as I want to write. I’ve made some mistakes with my business, but none have been fatal. I’ve had to let go of a lot of things, including old dreams and a well-developed sense of learned helplessness. I still have made no progress on converting my dissertation into a book because I continue to argue with myself over whether it’s a vanity project. I might rewrite it all together as a trade book. Or not.

As I wrote here, I have a nagging feeling like my life and work as a pseudo-academic support person to help other people achieve their academic goals and dreams won’t be the last thing I do. I’ve been fighting letting go of academia completely because I genuinely am not sure what will come next. But moving forward often involves letting go and loss of what was even when embracing new and exciting things.

I’ve come to new feelings of acceptance and some healing. Like so many grief processes, you don’t get over grief. It becomes part of who you are. You learn to live gracefully with that which still hurts. We call it healing.

Photo credit: Photo by João Silas on Unsplash