Grieving the term I was “supposed” to have

It’s human nature, I suppose, to believe that at some mythical time in the future, your life will be “better”. “Once I defend my thesis, life will be so much less stressful!” becomes “Once I earn tenure, I’ll have much more control over my time!” becomes “Well, maybe once I make full professor, things will calm down a bit and I can catch my breath….?”

Of course we know deep down this isn’t true. Our responsibilities and tasks change as we move through life. Sure, we may get rid of one set of stressors, but these are quickly replaced by a different set of stressors. As kids grow out of the toddler stage into the school-age stage, we parents don’t have to watch them quite so carefully or so much to make sure they don’t, say, run into traffic or eat something poisonous. But we trade this vigilance for the stress of helping them navigate bullying, friendships, schoolwork, failure. The stressors are much different, but they are no less stressful.

I’ve been around long enough that I can recognize when magical thinking starts to creep in, and I do a pretty decent job of nipping it in the bud.

But, I do have a somewhat related coping strategy that I trot out when I’m in the middle of a way too busy, overscheduled, how-is-it-possible-for-one-person-to-handle-this-load term (like Winter Term this year), that I’ve found quite successful. And that’s: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then X will be off my plate.” Or: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then I’ll still have X, Y, and Z responsibilities, but I will have much more control over my time.”

I like this strategy, because it acknowledges that next term won’t necessarily be less stressful, but it will be less full, or more in my immediate control. And that, I’ve found, is enough to motivate me to keep slogging through in the present, because I know there’s a future payoff. Also, it prevents me from falling too deep down the well of despair.

There were many things in this category that got me through a very difficult Winter Term:

  • Teaching only one 6-credit course in the spring, one that I’ve already taught twice this year, allowing me to use some of the time I’ve spent revamping this course the past 2 terms to do some long-overdue long-range planning for STEM at Carleton.
  • Fewer scheduled-in obligations in the spring, allowing me more freedom over how I spend my day-to-day time, along with time to schedule overdue face-to-face conversations with people I want to know better in my STEM Director role.
  • Working with my newly-hired research students in the spring to get them up to speed on the new line of research we’ll be doing this summer.
  • Meeting and getting to know the new crop of Summer Science Fellows, a cohort program I direct, in the spring.
  • Time and space in the spring to write up a couple of papers that are overdue to be submitted somewhere.

And of course, there’s always the joy of getting to know a new crop of students, to learn their personalities and quirks, and to engage with them in the classroom and office hours.

It was only yesterday that I finally recognized, in the middle of a telehealth call with my therapist, that part of what I was experiencing, the general malaise and sadness and anger and anxiety, was grief.

Grief, over the term I was “supposed” to have.

Grief, over the term I’d “earned”.

Grief, over all the things I’d looked forward to that would no longer happen.

Grief, over the necessary and fundamental changes to the way I work.

Naming my feelings as grief has been freeing. I still grieve, and it’s still hard, but now that I recognize that’s what I’m doing, I can deal with it more effectively. I can pin what I’m feeling to a stage of grief, and try strategies appropriate to that stage of grief to deal with it. I can be sad and angry over what was supposed to be, because being sad and angry is normal in grief. And I can feel hopeful some days and fatalistic others, because those are also part of grief.

Acknowledging this grief is also helping me as I frantically put together some semblance of my course for the start of Spring Term next Monday. As I develop reading quizzes and triage parts of topics and revamp my rubrics to be more specifications grading-like, I keep in the back of my mind that my students, too, are grieving the loss of whatever their expectations were for Spring Term. And while I always try to err on the side of compassion, remembering my student’s grief guides me to lead with compassion in all aspects of my course design.

Many of us are grieving as we navigate this new normal. Hopefully, remembering this will guide us to be more compassionate with each other, as we all figure out ways to accept and deal with our grief.