A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post on so-called “trans-widows” which got nearly 40,000 hits and also made a lot of people very angry that I had politely asked, as a real life widow, for them not to call their partners transitioning a bereavement. I might suggest they get to grips with the idea of an analogy, where you can draw a comparison between two things without equating them. Crazy, I know! So today, here is an analogy between bereavement and the academic job market that occurred to me, as someone who is a battered veteran of both.
I have noted before the strange persistence in the idea of “doing well” when you are bereaved. So many people have told me “you’re doing so well,” which I assume means that I appear to be relatively functional. As a culture, the West – particularly, I would say, the northern Protestant west, which has fewer traditions of collective mourning than Catholic countries – has a very conflicted idea about what grief is “meant to” look like. On the one hand, loss of a spouse is seen as utterly incapacitating, so that if in the initial weeks after a major bereavement one is able to dress, see friends, write blog posts, you must be doing so well. On the other hand, as a culture we are uncomfortable with grief that expresses itself too loudly or too long, and there is very clearly a cultural cut off point beyond which someone should be “moving on” or “letting go”. My bereavement support groups’ experiences suggest people usually get 6-12 months before these responses kick in.
(That’s nothing to do with the job market, but don’t worry, the analogy will eventually kick in, too.)
The thing about grief, though, is that it isn’t linear. It would be nice if we could see a straightforward map through grief and chart our way through it, knowing each month would get easier and easier until suddenly we were recovered. I am only four months in, but I can already tell that grief follows its own strange trajectory, outside of normal space and time. The second month was easier than the third month, for instance. You can chart your way around expected obstacles, too – big dates like birthdays, anniversaries – but sometimes you’ll just be poleaxed by something utterly mundane. It would be easy to read those moments as going backward, somehow, in a journey; previously you were swimming forward and doing “well”. Now you are swimming backward and doing “badly”. This is not true, but it’s a hard narrative to resist.
The fact is, while you can do a lot to make your grieving process healthy, there is also a large part of it that just sucks and has to be endured. (I can feel the job search analogy approaching!!) Something that really hit home for me in month 3 was that, no matter how “well” I was doing this grief thing – how healthily I was working through my feelings, how successfully I was managing my return to work, how many sensible outlets for my emotions I was nurturing like painting and seeing my friends, none of it would actually bring Kieran back.
That sounds stupid, right? I never had a single moment, after the initial shock of learning he was dead, of forgetting it. I have never once thought “I will just tell Kieran that”. I have instead lots of times thought “I would tell Kieran that, but he’s dead.” His death has been a fairly constant presence, and it’s only really been in month 4 that I have been able to sometimes go for several hours at a stretch – maybe two or three – without thinking about him being dead. So I have always known that. But I think it took my emotions a while to catch up. You see, I am a doer and a trier and someone whose relentless optimism overcomes obstacles. I am not a Pollyanna, but I have always had a positive mindset even in some very dire times, and at the end I have come through my times of trial and been able to breathe a sigh of relief. The thing with grief, though, is that getting through it just means making the best of an entirely new life. You don’t ever get to go back to your old one. That is a hard mental adjustment to make. No matter how hard you try, there is no going back.
I was reminded of how three years ago I had two job interviews back to back, and one I really wanted and I very nearly got. I was told it was a close run thing. I know I put my all into it. I also know I was absolutely brilliant at the interview. Sometimes you can just tell. And I didn’t get the job. Because there was another candidate who for whatever reason was a whisker better on the day. I couldn’t have prepared any more, or done anything better. I met all the criteria. But these days, there are a lot of us who meet and exceed the criteria, and there just aren’t enough jobs. There is still far too much “advice” around the academic job market that encourages us to be and do more and more, that suggests that with just a bit more effort, just a bit more sparkle, you will get the job. But you know what? Most of the time, you won’t. Not through any real fault of your own. Of course there are ways to make your CV shine and to improve your job performance on the day. But in a neoliberal society that is devaluing the humanities, where there are fewer jobs and more pressures, a lot of the process is out of your hands.
In many several years on the job market, I was very frustrated by that feeling of helplessness. I’m a person that wants to do things, to fix things. Realising that there wasn’t anything else I could really do to improve my chances was a very bitter pill to swallow. I think grief is a little like that – though, obviously, a million times worse (much as I feel sorry for everyone job hunting right now). I do think I’m “doing well”, in the sense that I’m taking as much care of myself as possible. But some of this process is out of my hands, and no matter what I do, some of it – a lot of it – will suck. It does suck.
Well. I don’t think you were expecting an upbeat conclusion from a post about both grief and the job market, were you?! I don’t think I have any especial wisdom to impart, except that you can do yourself a favour, in grief and in finding employment, in letting go of the irrational hope that you can control the whole process, and do your best to come to terms with what is uncontrollable, leaving your energies for that which you can shape and change. Sometimes self-care is about letting go.
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