The Challenge of Taking Time Out

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.

Reading List

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.)

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4 Responses to The Challenge of Taking Time Out

  1. Julia says:

    Thank you very much for this. It is true that the human element sometimes comes too short. I have lived through 2 1/2 years of serious depression with not very much time off from work (though some was enforced by my doctor, and some just was unavoidably happening here and there), and as you say, the not wanting to let other people down both helps to keep going and hinders to take the rest and time off one might need. I remember trying to mark exams when I first got ill, and I literally could not move until 4pm in the afternoon, but then just had to somehow make it work and kept marking until midnight. I had a kind friend who came and sat with me, and made me dinner so at least I would eat something. On another occasion I found out who difficult it is to read maths essays when on cocodamol and other strong pain killers…
    I’m happily through that horrid time now, but it still affects my job prospects very much.

  2. Helen Cain says:

    Thank you for your honesty – this mirrors my own story from the time of my mother’s death now five years ago. I too chose to continue soldiering on, taking a Prac class briefing the day after her death and lecturing the day before her funeral. And, yes, in retrospect I would have done things differently but soldiering on seemed right at the time. For me it all came to a head several months later when the academic semester finished and the adrenaline dropped – and I needed a week off to find myself. A counselor told me there are no rules for grieving but we need to give ourselves time and space to do it. I hope your break helps. Best wishes.

  3. C says:

    Likewise, I feel like I’ve been constantly struggling to keep up since my mother died in March in Ireland after a few months of deteriorating health. I was fortunate that my 3 siblings were on hand and took on a lot more of the day-to-day caring and exhaustion than I had to, but it’s still been an exhausting few months being an internal and external examiner, submitting a grant application and a manuscript as well as a hundred other things. Thank goodness for the summer vacation to be able to slow down and feel more human again. Please enjoy your well deserved break.

  4. MJW says:

    Academia is indeed unforgiving. On 30 June my mother’s doctor contacted me, she had been found collapsed and unresponsive. He told me to “get my affairs in order and come immediately”. I live in Australia, my mother in the USA. I used up all of our savings and got to my mother’s side by 01 June (compassionate flights by airlines are a thing of the past). She never spoke but she knew I was there. Further tests revealed her heavy smoking had resulted in lung cancer which had metastasized to her brain. Five brain tumors actually. I sat by her side, night and day, for the 19 days it took her to die, I slept in the hospital and during the evenings I marked assignments. Tonight, one week after my mother died, I am marking exams. I will spend the rest of the month trying to catch up with everything that I didn’t get done. My employment as an academic requires me to do this. I’m sure there is some sort of “leave” I could ask for, but there is no way I could actually use it. Next term starts in a few days and I can’t afford to miss any time off work because deadlines, promotion, research, grants, term dates, paper revisions and more deadlines. Academia does not allow for grief, I’m afraid.