I have been marking exams. However much students may and do hate taking the exams themselves, marking is also a very stressful period for those of us who have to do it. We wish to do it with the utmost rigour, yet the sheer number of scripts piled up on the desk makes that a formidable challenge. This year, for reasons beyond my control and that are irrelevant, I faced a particularly demanding task ending up with unexpectedly having to do a lot more than I’d anticipated and in a compressed time frame.
The trouble is that for any of us, ‘reasons beyond our control’ may intervene. Sick children, elderly parents, broken limbs, let alone catastrophic fires can disrupt the best laid plans. Last year I marked my scripts within a week of my mother’s death. Interestingly, I appeared to manage to do this with zero errors in transcription into the mark book, I hope an indicator of the overall accuracy! Marks are always checked by a second examiner and this was a better record than I am usually able to muster, demonstrating just how hard I was concentrating when my mind would have preferred to be free-wheeling elsewhere on sombre thoughts.
And that is a problem. For all of us at some point in our life, personal tragedy can get in the way, yet academia is pretty unforgiving. This applies to the students (for instance the girl who was described as doing her GCSE exam in her pyjamas on the morning after the Grenfell Tower disaster) as well as to the markers. Indeed it will apply to any member of academia who is under constant and indefinite pressure to write grants, meet students, write lectures, attend committee meetings, travel to conferences, read papers, mark student work, travel to committee meetings, give a seminar, referee grants, check health and safety reporting, attend professional training, fill in paperwork, upload data, write manuscripts, correct student papers, meet funders, referee papers, write letters of reference…..the list goes on and on. Academics just don’t get time to think, possibly upon occasion even to sleep. There is certainly little time for personal tragedy – and yet it happens.
Over the past year – as is probably clear from some of the posts I’ve written – I’ve been trying to snatch time to reflect on life, death and grieving. I have read many books on the subject, although few, however strongly recommended by others, have really struck a chord (I’ll put a list of some of the ones I’ve found more helpful at the end). Grieving is personal. Individual circumstances mean my reaction to death, and my relationship with my family, can never be the same as anyone else’s. Yet somehow one hopes that by reading about another’s experience one’s own will make more sense. The one thing that is helpful is to know that, a year on it is hardly surprising that my mother’s death is still close to the top of my mind regularly if not incessantly. Had one lost a loved one in an untimely or brutal fashion, how much more difficult it would be to assimilate. I know I have it ‘easy’ – it doesn’t really help to know that, in case you’re wondering, it just doesn’t make it worse.
I find myself reading all kinds of articles online I would never have considered before. For instance, this one about how much time for compassionate leave employers provide upon a death really struck a chord. It indicated just how long-term and unpredictable the grieving process is. And it demonstrates – given the extent of the different tasks academics must master – just how hard it is to ‘fit in’ anything that perturbs one’s peace of mind, despite the trivial observation that we all must do so. This isn’t just about grieving, but could apply equally well to family long term ill health, unhappy children, divorce or other personal trauma. Yet we rarely speak about such things.
I can confirm the fact that for many people a quick ‘how are you?’ muttered in embarrassment is all the recognition some people, however kind and well-intentioned, feel able to give; that comment to be made once and never again. We aren’t automata yet sometimes the system expects us to behave as such. Or, as I fear in my case, we expect it of ourselves. I could have dropped out of marking exams last year; I wouldn’t have been ‘blamed’, but it didn’t seem reasonable. I was physically capable of doing it, it was a specialist paper for which it would have been hard to find an alternative particularly at short notice, and so I did it. Likewise many other tasks I did not drop out of although, with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight I probably should have done. I have put that burden upon myself because, as with so many academics, I don’t like to let people down. I am not trying to claim any virtue because I didn’t drop out of stuff. A year on, on the contrary, I wonder if I made some really silly decisions and would have picked up faster if I’d been kinder to myself from the outset. I’ll never know.
What I do know is that I react very differently to people in comparable positions than I would have done previously. Everyone has to make their own decisions about what works for them. For many, soldiering on is probably a good thing to do rather than indefinitely to sit and weep, but not for everyone and certainly not for everyone all the time. I am looking forward to making more time for myself over this summer. Last year, with the immediate aftermath of the death to deal with and a house to empty and sell, this was impossible. I will start with a week’s holiday away from Cambridge before Graduation in Cambridge next weekend, when it will be time to don gown and bonnet and rehearse my Latin once more.
On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the five stages of Grief. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler (Probably the most resonant for me; I had read E K-R’s book on Death and Dying many years ago, an absolute classic. I only discovered this more recent work comparatively recently).
Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving. Julia Samuel (newly out this year, and also a book I found helpful, though not as much as the reviews ‘promised’ me.)
Losing a Parent. Fiona Marshall
Death of a Mother: Daughters’ Stories. Rosa Ainley (I found the introduction particularly helpful, more so than the individual accounts).
Loss of a Parent: Adult Grief when Parents Die. Burchett Jackson
Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Max Porter (more literary, well-regarded but it didn’t speak to me)
The Grief Book. Debbie Moore and Carolyn Cowperthwaite
The Glass Mother: A Memoir Rosie Jackson (Less immediately about grieving, but by implication strongly so).
And of course H is for Hawk. Helen MacDonald ( A searing account of personal grief, rather than a self-help book, which I had read a while back and reread looking for my own answers – which I then couldn’t find.)