Life after death: one scholar’s advice on developing a ‘new normal’

Nicole Westmarland shares what she learned about creating a new way of working in academia after losing her spouse

June 18, 2015
James Fryer illustration (18 June 2015)
Source: James Fryer

In the past few weeks those who are widowed young have been in the news, with a heart-wrenching and brutally honest account by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, after the sudden death of her husband David Goldberg, who died in an accident last month. On her Facebook page, Sandberg wrote a post that has been “liked” by close to 1 million people so far. “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” she says. “I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.” Sandberg talks about the void and the emptiness that grief opens up. And about the look of fear in her co-workers eyes when she returned to work – what should they do or say to her? She writes about trying to find a “new normal”.

I know something about Sandberg’s situation. I was working at Durham University when my husband suffered a cardiac arrest while working out at the gym. It happened in the morning, at 9.30am, so I was at work. Our one-year-old son was in nursery for the morning. Within three hours of kissing my husband goodbye I was sat in a hospital being asked which funeral service I intended to use. I was thrust into a whole new unknown and unforeseen world. I was 33, my husband 40.

For me, as it is for Sandberg, work is an important part of my life. My first instinct, though, was that I could not see how going back to work was going to be possible. I told my GP that I would need to take six months off. He signed me off for two weeks and said to see how things went. And I did go back to work much sooner than I expected, after about six weeks.

I knew it was to be a different way of working from what I was used to, but I had to find a new way of doing things. As someone who was a professor at a Russell Group university by the age of 34, I was at the top of my game. But that requires a lot of travel and also long hours. The only way we had been able to manage my rapid career progression once I gave birth was by my husband giving up work to be a stay-at-home dad and accompanying me on long trips away so that I didn’t miss out on time with our son. I had the best of both worlds – very briefly.

Following Sandberg’s openness, I wanted to share just a few things I’ve learned about developing a new way of working in academia – what my “new normal” looks like.

1. Rethink academic social events
Something has to give. If you become a single parent through widowhood or divorce, your evenings and weekends are not your “spare” time. Universities, especially collegiate ones, hold a lot of social and networking events in the evenings. Instead of trying to attend these, create new opportunities where you can socialise/network. I started a new “academics with children” group in my department and we go on day trips at the weekends or in the school holidays. It’s a good way for parents to network and a great way to meet the children that are often talked about over coffee, and it may turn out to be even more fun than the evening academic events.

2. Be honest about your situation and what is and is not possible
I do a lot of media work, and most requests that come in for live work are tricky. I try to be clear from the outset, often telling producers: “I’m interested in doing this, but I need you to know my situation…” I then offer to take part in a pre-recording while my child is at school, or cross my fingers and hope for the best. I’ve done many radio shows in the nursery car park, and one very stressful one in another room over the course of a Peppa Pig episode. When invited to talk at conferences, I try to be open about my situation. When my son was a toddler and events included an overnight stay or were outside nursery hours, it was not unusual for me to accept an invitation by saying “I’m happy to come and talk but as a single parent I will need to bring my son along and may need someone to play with him when I’m speaking”. I often tried to time his naps to sessions I needed to attend.

3. Write the phrase “work-life balance” on a piece of paper. Now throw it in the bin
I multitask work life and home life a lot of the time. I am almost permanently online with a device or a notebook and pen to hand. It’s lonely being at home on your own with a child every night, especially in the early years. I like being connected – talking to other academics on Twitter, sharing ideas on Facebook, and reading the articles that my friends think are important enough to write about or share. I like writing ideas down when they come to me. The idea that “work” and “life” can be divided into neat boxes and then “balanced” is a fiction for me – and I imagine for many others. Relinquish the desire to achieve it.

4. Hold tight and close what you’ve got left
Sandberg writes that she has learned gratitude for the things she had previously taken for granted, and that amid the heartache she is able to appreciate more every smile and hug from her children and every birthday because she is still alive. It is tempting to live half a life when your other half dies. Instead, I try to live twice as much, for the life my husband Scott lost and for myself.

Nicole Westmarland is professor of criminology and director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse at Durham University. WAY Widowed & Young is a national charity in the UK for men and women aged 50 or under when their partner died.


Article originally published as: Life after loss (18 June 2015)

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Reader's comments (1)

I really like the honesty of this article.I was recommended this because of my current despair at being a final-stage PhD student and a single parent while looking for academic jobs. I am angry about the amount of jobs that list out of hours work as an essential criteria on academic job specifications. I am angry that most conferences/seminars at my Russell Group institution (also in the North East) coincide with nursery closing time, meaning I have to leave those events I can attend about 20 minutes in. I feel categorically excluded from academic life and trying to network through social media just makes me feel even more lonely and frustrated. It's really pleasing to hear that academics like Nicola are challenging academic conventions and managing, as a newly single parent, to thrive in academia and carry forward her ambitions. I think it is important to challenge the after 5pm research culture, and to challenge academic norms that especially prevent early career researchers with children from progressing. I know that as a single parent at the outset of my career I will never be able to progress as far as securing a professorship because of the way academia is structured.

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