The past two weeks have found me returning to a bit of work. It’s an annual job that runs for a few weeks, and I’m able to sit at home in my pajamas, use my brain a little, and get paid. It’s not a bad opportunity; in fact, the extra money is always welcome. When I received the inquiry about my participation in this year’s program, I initially scoffed at the idea of working, It was after all, just after Caemon had died. But the reality of finances began to settle in. While we have nearly paid off all of our medical expenses, and while we had enough to move, the fact that I have not worked regularly since last August is beginning to show in our bank account and has left me to try on returning to working life, even if just for a few weeks.
Honestly, I thought this would be harmless, that I could sit around and grade some exams, talk once in awhile on the phone with colleagues, and have a little bit of a mental break from the grieving without the bigger commitment of having a regular schedule or regular interactions with the outside world. While I did consider that my brain might be a bit rusty, I didn’t fathom that I might encounter people who were actually unkind or situations that completely dismissed that I am a human being going through the traumatic experience of losing a child.
That is the case in our culture though, isn’t it? Most employers don’t offer much more than a week or two for bereavement, and beyond that, we’re expected to put on our suits, dry our tears, and get back to work. Ah, but grief doesn’t work like that, does it? It pops up. I might be sitting here grading only to read a paper about a teen who feels her parents have neglected her, and I will absolutely fall apart. Or, there won’t be a reminder, only quiet, too much quiet, and I’ll remember past years when I graded while nursing a baby Caemon, while snuggling a sleepy toddler Caemon, or while watching a little boy Caemon playing on my office floor. With those memories come tears and distraction, something that doesn’t serve one well in work that requires focus and concentration.
To my surprise, I have managed to perform satisfactorily for the most part. There are days when I am a bit off, though, and on those days, I have been called out by supervisors. On one occasion, I mentioned that I was feeling off my game, that I could use some mentoring to get back on track because my son had just died. Typically, this disarms people, but in this circumstance, it seemed to make the supervisor less understanding, more critical. I burst into tears when I got off the phone. I wasn’t ready for the harsh reality of an environment where work is work and personal lives take a seat way, way in the back.
A few days later, it was my turn to do some mentoring of graders, and one of my team members was struggling. When I spoke with him, he confided that he had recently suffered some deaths in his family, and he was struggling to grade through the grief. I expressed my condolences, and offered him words of encouragement when he decided to back out of the program and return next year. When I spoke with one of the supervisors–a different one this time–I was met with similar disregard for this person’s suffering and utter relief that they had finally rid themselves of this problem grader. This problem. A grieving man. Once again, I cried when I hung up the phone.
I have worked in academia for over a decade in one way or another, and while I love intellectual pursuits, I’m beginning to see that Caemon’s death has changed me. Yes, I may very well return to academic work eventually and love it, but I don’t know. I know it feels like leading with my head is counterintuitive right now. It’s almost as if my heart won’t let me. I spend all day trying to squash my grief, pushing it back so that I can focus only to be consumed with it for the rest of the day once my work is finished. I know it won’t be like this forever, but that change in me–that desire to lead with love–that will be with me for the rest of my life, so I wonder if I even can go back to this sort of work where the head rules and the heart rides in a side car.
I’m beginning to fear the answer is no.
Of course, for now I’ve got to make a living, and I’ve got to do it whether the people I work with are understanding or not. I have decided to return to my regular job this summer where compassionate people abound, but where I am, for all intents and purposes, a brain on a computer monitor (I work in online educational support). Since Caemon was diagnosed with leukemia, however, I have been feeling a pull toward something else, toward work of the heart, something that might make a difference in people’s lives beyond their ability to successfully write an essay. I don’t know what that is going to look like, but my son changed me. He led me not to just realize but to know that I must make the most of every moment I spend on this planet.
I still don’t know if I am ready to return to work. What I do know is that I need to surround myself in people with love and empathy and be gentle and patient with myself. I have learned very quickly that when I stop honoring the grieving process, I suffer. Whatever I do, my inclination right now is to lead with my heart, to be as authentic as I can, and to be kind to myself. I suppose I should hope for the same in any future pursuits, and while the control freak in me has a hard time of just letting that be for now, I’ve got to learn to know that my right path is just ahead.