‘What is Grief if Not Love Persevering?’: Making Space for Grief in Academia

For the past several weeks I – along with a large portion of the world, it seems – have been engrossed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest show, WandaVision. It might seem strange that I’ve chosen to focus a post for the SGSAH research blog on a television show, but I promise I have my reasons. (I can’t promise there won’t be minor spoilers from here on, so if you’ve not seen the show yet, save this post for later!)

Photo by Ashlee Brown on Unsplash

Throughout the nine episodes of WandaVision, we watch as two characters who had relatively faded to the sidelines of the MCU films are given much more depth. We watch as Wanda deals, subconsciously then very consciously, with the grief and trauma dealt to her in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. We watch as her grief consumes her, fills her up until it has nowhere else to go but out and into the lives of others. The image of Wanda losing control of her grief has resonated with me endlessly in the past couple of weeks. Never before have I seen something so accurately portray what it feels like to experience a grief so intense that it makes you want to scream in the hopes that you can rid your body of the pain.

It’s a grief I imagine many of us have felt. Especially over this past year. And that’s why, as we approach the anniversary of quarantine and lockdown in Scotland, I wanted to talk about it here.

As PhD researchers, we exist on a line of precarity. That line has grown incredibly thin, and increasingly harder to deal with, during the global pandemic. We’re meant to carry on our research in the midst of a travesty that has dealt out pain, financial and personal insecurity, death and isolation. We are reminded by well-meaning people and institutions to take care of ourselves as we focus on our work, but are we? Have we dealt with our grief, our trauma of the past year? How do we even begin to approach this healing process?

I’m not sure I have the answers.

What I do know is that in the twelve months since Lockdown was first initiated in Scotland, I’ve watched my PhD colleagues go through unimaginable loss. I’ve watched them necessarily exist in isolation. I’ve personally felt the pain of living through this pandemic in a different country from your family. Nevertheless, we have carried on with our research. We have met deadlines (who care if we had to extend them). We have endured endless Zoom meetings and participated in online conferences. We have worked and worked and worked and tried our best in a time when our ‘best’ might look like just getting out of bed. And I wonder, where is our space for grief in all of this? Where is our space to mourn loved ones, lost opportunities and exhaustion? Are our institutions prepared, beyond the implementation of mental health workshops, to guide us through and make space for this collective grief?

I’m unsure.

But when I think about grief, I think about a quote from Meghan Markle’s New York Times Op-Ed, The Losses We Share, that was published for U.S. Thanksgiving last year:

“Are you OK?” a journalist asked me. I answered him honestly, not knowing that what I said would resonate with so many – new moms and older ones, and anyone who had, in their own way, been silently suffering. My off-the-cuff reply seemed to give people permission to speak their truth. But it wasn’t responding honestly that helped me most, it was the question itself.

“Thank you for asking,” I said. “Not many people have asked if I’m OK.”

Sitting in a hospital bed, watching my husband’s heart break as he tried to hold the shattered pieces of mine, I realized that the only way to begin to heal is to first ask, “Are you OK?”

‘Are you OK?’ is such a simple question, one we often ask a person in passing, that I think we sometimes forget the power held within those three words. This question can open a door, even if just a crack, to provide a sliver of light in an isolating dark. This question can teach us how to care for each other when we might not know how to care for ourselves.

Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels.com

Though Wanda Maximoff is a fictional character, her grief, and her processing of grief, represents a reality many of us have lived with. Wanda shows us that not confronting our pain can lead to catastrophic consequences for ourselves and, sometimes, those around us. Even if that’s not our intention. That is a reality I don’t wish for any of us.

So, as we embark on this one-year anniversary of a traumatic event and prepare to confront the research we did or didn’t accomplish; the lives we might not have gotten a chance to say goodbye to; the pain we’ve tried to stifle with baking, binging tv shows, exercising or digging ourselves deeper into our research, I hope we are, above all, kind to ourselves and each other. I hope we can look at our friends and family through the tiny lenses of our computer or phone cameras, speak to them through those tiny, built-in microphones, and ask ‘Are you OK?’. I hope we can look in the mirror, or even just inside ourselves, and ask more honestly, ‘Am I OK?’. And I hope that, whatever those answers might be, we help each other process them, that we advocate for one another to our institutions, that we never forget to make space for our grief.

Because I’m not OK. Are you?

If you are in Scotland and are feeling particularly alone in your grief, Samaritans have a free phone line and email service to guide you through.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the SGSAH Blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk for more information.

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