Kaleidoscopic Grief

Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has become widely known for her work On Death and Dying (1969), and especially its model of the stages of grief. When faced with a loss, she claimed, we go through five relatively predictable sequences of response.

  • The first is denial—”This can’t be happening.”
  • Then anger—”Why is this happening to me?
  • Then bargaining—”If God will change things, I’ll be a better person for the rest of my life.
  • Then depression—”What’s the point? Why bother?
  • And finally, acceptance—”This is what’s happened, and I have to move forward.

But much of what we know about grief comes from the experience of single ruptures: a divorce, a diagnosis of terminal condition, a death of a pet or a partner. Losing a career could be as simple as that, of course—you don’t pass the bar exam, your manufacturing job moves to Indonesia. It’s just over with. But the special torment of losing a career in higher education is that no one ever tells you that you’re done. They keep hiring you one course at a time, keep hinting that success is just around the corner, keep telling you that the next application is sure to strike gold. And so we relive the hope and the grief over and over and over again, every semester a new cycle of possibilities raised and crushed. No one ever gives us the terminal diagnosis, because we’re just more useful if we’re hopeful.

Because of the constant cycling, the stages of grief aren’t sequential at all, they get mashed together into a perpetual, kaleidoscopic bewilderment in which we can go from anger to denial to depression to hope to bargaining within the space of minutes. It’s emotionally exhausting, for us and for everyone we live with.

In my prior book The PhDictionary, I offered the following advice under the glossary entry for Adjunct Faculty:

If you are a doctorate-holding adjunct instructor for more than two years, you must seriously think about a career change. There are ways of making a living that will use some of your intellectual skills and give you livable pay and benefits. Don’t be the guy who refuses to leave the casino, thinking that the next hand will be the big turnaround. You gambled, you had a good time but you lost. Go home. Now.

I didn’t realize at the time, though, the emotional importance of that statement. I thought of it as merely an economic reality, but its greater value is in the release of one’s soul from endless torment. Go ahead and declare that dream dead, so that you can grieve properly and then move on. It may feel like you’ll never recover; but if you don’t let it go, you’ll never have the chance to recover.