Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Handling Personal Tragedies Around You

Full full 06092014 disclosure

In academia, as in any workplace, you encounter the personal tragedies of the people around you. Colleagues experience illness, divorce, death, and more. As much as anything I’ve written about in this series, those traumatic events interrupt the life of the mind.

Academics lead uniquely solitary work lives. Yet at the same time, we are uniquely tied to our work — and therefore to our colleagues. For example, we form long-lasting relationships across time and space: We stay in touch with our advisers and fellow students long after leaving graduate school behind. Our fields tend to be closed universes in which relationships grow across institutions, states, and national borders.

All of which means that, in many ways, academia is like an extended family, not just a job. For the sake of our extended academic families, I decided to learn more about how to react better to personal tragedies in our midst. I reached out to two academic professionals who have experienced significant personal tragedies during their careers. It’s normal to have trouble saying the right thing when someone near you is suffering. These colleagues have given some simple guidelines to help make things easier.

Guideline No. 1: No Ostriches — Or, Don’t Fear Peoples’ Pain

The simplest way to explain the No Ostriches guideline is this: Don’t be afraid to say words like “sick” or “died.” Speak plainly to people who are suffering. Don’t skate around their pain.

Speaking plainly about personal tragedies might take practice. It can be hard to say things like, “I’m so sorry to hear that your wife died.” Those aren’t words we are accustomed to saying. So you will probably need to practice that sentence before you speak to a grieving spouse.

Soon after “Adeline” (a pseudonym) began her academic career, her son died unexpectedly. Before that heartbreaking tragedy, Adeline told me, she made the ostrich mistake just like everyone around her: “I was completely afraid of mentioning the unmentionable”—her son’s death—“as though me not mentioning it meant that it didn't exist.”

After her son’s death, she learned what a problem silence can be. Hiding from personal tragedies, she said, “creates a situation in which the person experiencing loss or suffering ceases to exist, because people stop talking to you, afraid of what they might say, fearing that it will upset you — as though you weren't already upset, or their ignoring your presence wasn't upsetting.”

Many people didn’t know what to say to Adeline about her son’s death. So they said nothing at all. And by saying nothing to her, she felt like she completely disappeared when she needed others most.

Adeline did encounter “a rare handful of people who knew how to handle such tragedy.” This small group had been taught by parents who had experienced death, for example, and knew how to face it head-on. “Most people are simply ill-equipped,” she said, “a state that is culturally reinforced.” From her own experience before her son’s death, she knows that “we come by this awkwardness with death honestly. We are not taught well.”

But there was another aspect of fear that Adeline encountered — fear of the tragedy itself. Adeline told me, “I felt like I was an object of pity (not that I could argue with this stance, since it was all indeed quite pitiful), but gazes were averted to avoid having to face one's worst fear, as though my person became the embodiment of those fears.” I’m sure most parents reading this column would agree that having a child die is indeed their worst nightmare. But, as Adeline experienced, her colleagues and friends sought to escape their worst fear by escaping from her, with frustrating consequences: “So to hide from me, in order to hide from yourself, means I become invisible and totally alone.”

“Rachel” (a pseudonym) suffered a different sort of personal crisis. In graduate school, she spent nearly a month in the hospital after a neurological trauma. She received lots of visitors, which she thought “was great until I went back to work and realized just how many people had seen me disheveled and bra-less.” Based on that experience, Rachel added a corollary to the No Ostriches rule: the No Ravens rule. In short: Help protect anyone enmeshed in a tragedy from those who might just want to stare out of grim fascination — to pick over the bones, so to speak.

As a graduate teaching assistant at the time, Rachel was one of the lowest-ranking members of her department. Once she returned to work, she felt exposed by her hospital stay and illness. In retrospect, she thinks that “people in a position of authority should send flowers, or messages with others, and then stay away until they are invited in.” Her boss, for example, could have waited until she was clean, and up and about, before coming to visit.

Birds aside, Rachel emphasizes: “Don’t be afraid to be human.” One of the most prominent members of the faculty reached out to her shortly after her return to work. She describes the moment with joy: “If this professor could not only come into TA offices (where professors rarely go), but also give me a hug, and tell me to call him at home anytime, then I am pretty sure anyone can.”

Guideline No. 2: Don’t Make Presumptions — Or, Ask What People Need

We often make presumptions about what someone in a personal crisis needs — and those presumptions are often incorrect. They may serve only to make us feel better, not the actual person suffering. We tell ourselves things like, “He needs to be alone right now, so I’ll just stay away.” We take control away from the person in need in order to comfort ourselves.

Adeline notes that, after her son’s death, “I found myself wishing for a Victorian year of black dress, or a black armband to indicate to outsiders that I was in an abnormal state: Tread lightly.” She thought that an external marker would help others treat her with more care in dealing with the loss of her child.

But Adeline discovered she was wrong. An external marker would likely have made no difference. She met for lunch with a friend who had survived breast cancer. “I'm embarrassed to admit,” Adeline said, “I actually felt jealous that her pain and anguish were visible, marked on her body by hair loss and sickness.” But then she had a surprise: “I asked her if these visible markers were helpful, and she said, No.” Adeline had thought those markers would spur people to reach out to help, rather than turn away. But instead, Adeline’s friend felt as alone with her cancer as Adeline did with her son’s death. In fact, strangers — not friends — most often recognized the markers of cancer and offered comfort.

After her hospital stay, Rachel also had to deal with the incorrect presumptions of colleagues about what she was — and was not — able to do at work. Some hard-earned work responsibilities were taken away from her without her consent. Losing those responsibilities felt patronizing and even degrading, especially after she had worked so hard to regain her standing in the department. She felt particularly vulnerable that her injury was to her brain.

It seemed, she said, like everyone believed: “She needs to recover, so I am going to determine what she is and isn't capable of.” In many ways, then, Rachel’s problem was simply one of communication, and it would have been easily overcome had her colleagues simply asked her what she needed, instead of taking her decisions away from her.

Guideline No. 3: Give Comfort — Never Demand It

In How Not To Say the Wrong Thing, Susan Silk and Barry Goldman propose the “Dump-Out” rule of comforting others. This is the basic premise: You cannot expect someone who is suffering to comfort you. Comfort those who are closest to the trauma, and dump your suffering on those who are farther away from it than you are. Silk and Goldman even drew a nice illustration consisting of concentric rings to show how this “Kvetching Order” works. Comfort In. Dump Out.

When Adeline’s son died, people did turn to her for comfort for their own grief about his death, as though, absurdly, anyone’s grief could trump a parent’s. Adeline has a theory about why we tend to focus on ourselves when faced with someone else’s pain: “The only socially viable avenue of discourse about death and loss takes the form of sharing one’s own personal pain.”

But today, years later, Adeline continues to find it necessary to take care of others around her when the subject of her son’s death arises: “Even now, I work hard to help people avoid falling into my landmine of conversation. If I sense questions in the hall tending toward the subject of family, then I gently move the conversation back to the academic, fearing that I might have to explain: No, I don't have kids. I did. But not anymore.” As her listeners figure out what she means, that she has a child who died, she tells me, “I cannot abide their pain as well as my own.” And Adeline has learned that her listeners don’t know how to not put their pain onto her.

Rachel sums up her experience succinctly: “If you can't deal, don't visit.” She lost a friend because her friend couldn’t cope with Rachel’s illness. “I remember her palpable sense of discomfort, horror, loss, pity,” she said. “I knew nothing would be the same. Even if I had a full recovery, she was never going to see me the same way.” This was a colleague Rachel had trusted, a junior faculty member she looked up to as a mentor and spent time with as a friend. She can’t remember the last time she and this former friend spoke — because Rachel’s illness was too hard for her friend to deal with. That’s a classic case of dumping in the wrong direction.

As Rachel’s and Adeline’s stories show, it’s not that hard to comfort our friends and colleagues who suffer personal tragedies. We just need to learn what to do. Keeping these three basic guidelines in mind will go a long way toward making your department a more humane place.

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