Grief at the death of colleagues is nothing to be ashamed of

The recent death of politics academic David Held left Alix Dietzel shocked and guilty. Why did no one warn her she could feel like that?

April 11, 2019
Illustration of speech bubble with tears
Source: James Fryer

David Held, professor of politics and international relations at Durham University, died on 2 March, but I found out two days later on Twitter.

This tells you a lot about the nature of our relationship. We weren’t friends, exactly. I certainly was not part of his innermost circle. I didn’t even know he had been unwell; he only briefly mentioned feeling under the weather in an email a few weeks before his death. Nevertheless, he had a profound impact on my life – something I did not fully appreciate until his passing.

I was shocked by the despair I felt at David’s death. It literally knocked me over. I sat on the floor of my kitchen and wept. But that grief was accompanied by another unexpected and unwelcome feeling: guilt. I asked myself why I, of all people, should be so affected. Shouldn’t this level of grief be reserved for David’s family and friends? Was it even appropriate to feel this way?

I found these feelings very uncomfortable and hesitated to express them to my academic friends. I barely spoke of my grief, let alone the guilt I felt about it. But now, after having had some time and space to think about the nature of academic grief, I feel ready to speak up. I want to spark a conversation about an aspect of academia that rarely gets discussed, despite the fact that it must be common – many of us have mentors, and mentors do not live for ever.

David was, of course, no ordinary academic. His contributions to the field are unparalleled, as his obituaries have attested. And yet, to me, he was extraordinary in ways these tributes do not capture. He was kind, inspiring and, above all, a fierce supporter of others’ work, including my own.

I met David on the day of my PhD viva. He didn’t know this (and I never got the chance to tell him), but I was extremely insecure about my academic work. I was not at all convinced that I would “make it” as a scholar even though I had my first job lined up, so I was very nervous as I walked into the room. Trying to stay calm, I sat down and opened the viva by thanking David for taking the time to examine my thesis.

He listened graciously, a wry smile on his face, before responding: “No, thank you. This work is brilliant, and it is my pleasure to have read it.”

The tension in my shoulders dissipated and I suddenly felt much more present. The viva proceeded in an almost dream-like fashion. David’s intellectual engagement was curious, passionate and, above all, kind. At the end of our discussion, he gave such a wonderfully supportive speech about my future in academia that it left my internal examiner almost embarrassed. “I am not sure how to follow that,” he said as David fell silent – and he joked in the pub afterwards that I should have recorded his speech so that I could play it in front of the mirror every morning. How I wish I had!

David’s support did not end there. He encouraged me to publish my PhD as a book, even pushing for publication at his own press, Polity. When that was unsuccessful, he urged me to try other presses and celebrated with me when I was offered a contract. Within months of the viva, he invited me to speak at Durham Castle, which was an extraordinary experience for a young scholar, and my very first invited talk. Looking back at our correspondence, he was always enthusiastic, wishing me well every step of the way.

What David did for me, and for my career, can never be repaid. He built up my confidence, encouraging me to believe in myself, not just as a scholar but as a person. He was truly a mentor in every sense of the word. Without this support, I am not sure whether I would have been confident enough to advocate for a contract extension in my first short-term teaching job, or to apply for a permanent lectureship so soon after completing my PhD. I honestly don’t know where I’d be if we hadn’t met.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that I felt such a profound sense of grief when he died. David was a key figure in my life. He leaves behind a hole that no one else could fill – because I met him when I needed him most. On top of this, I mourn for the loss to the field, both academically and in terms of all the additional personal impacts he could have made.

And yet, academic grief is not something I have ever heard anyone else discuss. No one warned me that I would feel such a deep sense of loss. This is a shame, because grief is, in a way, an echo of the esteem you felt for someone when they were living. It’s a beautiful, universal human experience that we should speak about openly, even in the academic context.

I’ll certainly never “move on” from losing David. The loss will become like any other, ingrained into the very fibres of my being. But I know now that that is nothing to be ashamed of. And as I continue to go through the process of grieving, I would encourage all academics to be open about their grief at the death of important colleagues.

After all, isn’t the best way of honouring them to acknowledge the pain that their absence causes us?

Alix Dietzel is a lecturer in politics at the University of Bristol.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: There’s no shame in grief over death of colleagues

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Reader's comments (5)

Lovely piece and so true. Very sorry for your loss, you were so lucky to have such a supportive examiner and mentor. They do leave a huge hole in both academic and personal life and sense of self. A lovely tribute to him.
So sorry for your loss... and no, there's nothing odd about grieving deeply for someone who has played a major part in your life, even if they were neither a close friend nor a relative. There's certainly no reason to be ashamed of feeling that way about someone's passing away. It can be a fitting tribute to their contributions during life.
Although I’m not an academic, I’m very involved in my local university. A colleague of mine died suddenly. He was such a key part of the organisation and nearly 3 years on, I still find notes from our conversations in the margins of meetings, emails and so on. What you’ve described from your viva is a mutual respect and genuine interest in your future as an academic and your potential to add to the field of knowledge. Thank you for writing this, you’re right that it isn’t discussed and you’ve now prompted me to find the right way to remember and celebrate my late colleague.
Very nice!
Thank you all for your kind words.

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