Writing a script to help handle grief (opinion)

The emails I’ve received since my brother David’s unexpected death last summer often begin with some variation on the same kind of sentiment: “I’m so sorry to hear about your brother’s passing.” Many go on to arrive at a request, such as “Can you serve on this review board, chair this search, assess this department?” As my inbox filled up over the past months, I found these messages difficult to answer.

My brother and I were extremely close: we could convey our thoughts with just a glance, sometimes immediately bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Now I’m faced with an immense void that I am still learning to cope with. Even when I think I’m OK, I find myself more absentminded than usual: I arrive at meetings too early or too late or in some cases forget them altogether. Soon before writing this piece, I started to make coffee, left the kitchen and forgot what I’d begun. I had neglected to put water in the stove-top coffeepot, melting the coffeepot into a smelly, sticky mess.

When the academic year resumed in full force, I was clear about my situation with my chair, colleagues, advisees, board members, collaborators and friends. I even published an op-ed on the loss of my brother. But openness has not kept me from feeling fragile. And as the requests for work as usual began to pile up, I found myself feeling more and more overwhelmed and even angry.

To be clear, there was nothing insensitive in my colleagues’ emails: they asked open questions and did not assume I would be available. But my sense of obligation to soldier on and say yes was intense—and not, I know, particularly unique. We see it everywhere in contemporary workplaces, under neoliberal pressures to be entrepreneurial and shoulder increasing responsibilities alone, however possible: people doing the jobs of eliminated positions plus their own while needing to learn, incorporate and adapt to new technologies; parents who forgo parental leave and grade papers with a baby on their lap or while breastfeeding; people squeezing work into time on a train or a plane while traveling to visit a sick parent; people teaching on Zoom while fighting COVID, while on hold with medical insurance companies or even while lying flat on their back in pain in the hospital.

I know individuals who have managed their work under all those circumstances. Sometimes it comes from a lack of other meaningful options: the absence of robust leave policies, precarious employment due to the lack of contracts or fear of distancing colleagues who will vote on your tenure or promotion. And sometimes it’s just part of how we’re socialized.

For many of us, academia can seem distinctly flexible. Outside of teaching and attending meetings, we can do much of our work anytime, anywhere. (Teaching-intensive universities and traditional liberal arts colleges that expect faculty to be in their offices regularly, as well as those with labs, operate in a different environment.) But that can lead us to set unreasonable expectations for ourselves: surely we can squeeze in one other thing, we tell ourselves, wherever—and however—we may find ourselves. Besides, the culture of academia is built on a system of patronage and reciprocity whereby you depend on the actions of others for feedback, recommendation letters, nominations for honors and awards, and invitations to give talks, for example. Our jobs can also include substantial service—a word that suggests benevolence and obscures the fact that this is still work—done, as studies show, in disproportionately high amounts by women and people of color.

Many of us act this way out of even older habits. Those of us who grew up in immigrant families, for example, often served as intermediaries in dealing with authorities or institutions, and we learned to be dependable and high-achieving. We also do it because of personal commitments. My primary field of Latino studies is small, born from social movements and struggles; many of us know each other and are rooting for our collective success.

If we’re all in this together, why was I mad? My meditation teacher suggested, “Consider that your anger may not be about them but rather a reflection of something within yourself.” He was right. As I told a friend, riffing on a horror movie where danger lurks inside the home, “I’ve traced the calls! They are coming from inside the house.” This emotional revelation highlighted that my anger was not about external circumstances or other people, but rather a reflection of my own discomfort. My normal sense of obligation and drive, coupled with intense grief, had created a perfect storm. I felt like I was falling short of meeting my obligations—a sensation not uncommon in academia, where the demand for service can feel unrelenting, akin to trying to drink from a fire hose.

I had developed basic, flexible scripts for declining invitations in the past that ensured I didn’t keep people waiting for a response, allowing them to make other plans. But those tools had their limitations. For one thing, I often wanted so badly to say yes to someone with whom I had a strong relationship, whose work aligned with my values and who represented the change I aspired to see in the world, and I wanted my answers to reflect that. What’s more, grief was changing things, prompting me—as most of us have done at any big transition in our lives, whether we’ve become a parent, lost one, navigated a pandemic and on and on—to question and re-evaluate my identity. I wanted to bring whatever this new self of mine was to the process rather than compartmentalizing my personal struggles because they didn’t seem relevant to my work.

So I made myself a new script to adapt—one that would infuse a more personal touch and affirm my connection to the individual and gratitude for their project but that would also convey my incapacity to undertake additional commitments, particularly in the context of my grieving process. Here, too, I was learning from meditation practice, specifically the principles of empathy toward others and equanimity for oneself. The same was true when I was accepting requests because I wanted people to know that I might need extra space and time to fulfill my commitments. In such cases, I asked people to provide any necessary materials, clear and detailed instructions, and deadlines for whatever they would need for me within a bounded lead time. I would also add something like “My current circumstances following my brother’s passing have added complexity to my schedule and energy levels as I honor my existing commitments and navigate this challenging period.”

You might be thinking, “I already communicate under what circumstances I can or cannot fulfill a request.” So, I thought, did I. But at moments when we are already stressed and challenged, an email or text asking something of us can feel insurmountable, and I’ve found it helpful to have a script to fall back on so that I don’t have to think and feel my way through the same thought process again and again. Of course, we may not want to, or need to or even find it wise to share our personal lives with everyone. But I found that at least coming up with ways to do so makes it easier to honor the relationships I have, to be gentle with myself and preserve a little more time and energy.

Some people still may not understand. Not everyone has experienced the same circumstances, and the structural challenges of a university, such as budget cuts coupled with unchanging workloads, can lead to persistent requests even after you’ve clearly communicated your boundaries and limits. And the inequity of university life plays a role, too. I hold the rank of a full professor at a major research university. Contingent faculty, already in precarious positions and typically lacking benefits like bereavement leave, invariably need a different set of strategies.

If David were still here, I realized, he would have been the first one to remind me to take it easy on myself. He’d gently say that no one can do it all and would probably encourage me to take a break, like going to a Dodger game or on some other fun outing with him. He had an unwavering commitment to ensuring my well-being, often reacting vehemently to any perceived mistreatment.

Indeed, people say that a loved one will always be with you, and I understand that differently now. My brother’s memory can help me recognize that setting boundaries is an act of self-care and that I can—and should—see myself as he saw and cared for me.

Natalia Molina is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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