My mom died unexpectedly in 2006, when I was in graduate school. I’d just finished up my second year as a PhD student at Rice, and I’d submitted my seminar papers: one on Rochester and syphilis and another on deferral and serialization in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. I was a TA for a section of Eighteenth-Century British Literature, and that week we’d finally wrapped up the semester. When my dad called my Houston apartment with the news, all that stood between me and freedom was a set of undergraduate papers.
Sometimes the phone just really sucks.
More than a decade later, I’m in a place where remembering mom hurts but feels survivable. But her death remains a fissure in a lot of different timelines. Four days after my dad called my apartment was mom’s birthday. I’d already bought her a Mother’s Day present, which I’d return a month later, annoyed by the fluorescent brightness of the mall, trying to keep my voice even as I talked to the salesperson. Mom had been at the bridal salon earlier that year when I chose my wedding dress, but she wouldn’t be there when I returned to try it on –– I stubbornly went alone, which was probably a mistake –– and she wouldn’t be there that October when I got married.
Despite all these interrupted narratives, when I remember mom, I remember that jolt at the end of PhD, year two. Which, honestly, is kind of stupid. More Important Things were happening. While it seems that grad school should feel like an expendable luxury, something to immediately back-burner at times like that, it… well… wasn’t. I knew that, in the face of the black hole that had just devastated my family, it didn’t really matter what my dissertation advisor thought about my analysis of Count Fosco. That someone else could worry over the topic sentences in those undergraduate papers. (Someone else did, kindly and invisibly.) But there is something about the unstoppable forward motion of the academic year, aggravated by the intensity of a PhD program, that makes loss feel impossible, or unplaceable. Or maybe the panicked “I can’t do this now” of grieving in grad school felt more manageable than the truer statement: “I can’t do this ever.”
I mean, obviously losing someone important to you is just the soul-sucking worst under any circumstances, but I do think there are things about the ecosystem of academia that inflect grief, twisting it into odd shapes –– sometimes awkward, sometimes sort of beautiful. On the one hand, if you’re in a graduate program that doesn’t teem with snobbery and aggressive competitiveness, you have a cohort that will silently organize. Once I’d hung up the phone and packed a bag, my friend Pamela, a fellow second-year graduate student, drove me to the airport, letting me sit numb and mute in her passenger seat. Someone had sent along a baggie of cookies that I couldn’t eat.
Then again, even in the friendliest of programs, it’s always a little tightropey to be a graduate student navigating relationships with faculty, finding the balance of between professional and personal rapport. A death, especially an unexpected one, demands a certain degree of disclosure, and in the sleepwalking state of grief I didn’t feel like I had control of that mental faculty that helped me determine what I should say or what I might keep to myself. I was a walking bruise, and I both desperately wanted to talk about mom and definitely didn’t want to. Not in the copy room. Not in the hallway. Not during a meeting about my seminar paper, even though the idea of writing a seminar paper, even months after I’d returned to Texas, felt both impossibly important and completely trivial. Ignoring the volcanic eruption of that summer felt wrong and dishonest. Acknowledging it risked the humiliation of a breakdown. So perhaps grief in grad school is, like pretty much everything else in grad school, awkward. Just with higher stakes.
I’m not sure there is, exactly, a failure in this post, aside from the fact that I meant to write it back in May, as a reflection on the end of PhD year 2, but I didn’t. Or couldn’t, both because of the seemingly unstoppable academic year and because mid-May is an emotional minefield for me. (When my very good-natured spin instructor dedicated our May 13 ride to all the mothers out there, I kind of wanted to rip his face off. Must everything return to mothers, even in this stupid black-light studio? Couldn’t I pedal to Lady Gaga in peace?)
But I guess the failure is a potential one. Because now I’m on the other side of things –– not the other side of grief, because that doesn’t exist, but on the other side of graduate school. I’m surrounded by smart MA and PhD students who have complicated lives that, like mine, break down now and then, or shift and resettle in painful ways. People can be walking bruises even if you didn’t witness the impact, or hear about it through the exchanges of departmental gossip. And it is inevitable, I think, that I’ll fail in the face of their grief, because I think everyone does.
And I’ve failed at blogging, per usual. I hope this post means I’m back in the saddle. I promise to fail at something more lighthearted next time. I’ll see (many of) you at ChLA!
2 thoughts on “in which Count Fosco shouldn’t count, or, grieving in graduate school”
May 13 was the day my dad died in 2002. My colleague Chris Nagle, took my Monday night Studies in the Novel class on the 14th, but I was Grad Director, so I went back to work on the 15th. I knew my dad’s cancer had advanced to the point where his passing was eminent, but it stil rocked me to the core, and it wasn’t until I finally went into therapy in 2009 that I worked through the grief. That was 7 years too long, actually. Your description of the initial grieving process is so spot on, and I wish I were there to give you a hug. Academic work seems to facilitate sublimation and repression – after all, one can research a topic endlessly and use it to blunt out anything else.