a illustration of the left and right brain. the right side is more free flowing and made of swirls and the left side is more rigid with straight lines. the background is blue.

Loss, Grief & Taking Control of Your Emotional State in a Masters Program

By Rose Conlin

I have been working on a Masters degree for the last two years, and it has been a great experience. I say this because I am automatically inclined to love school. The goal/success oriented structure of it, though trying at times, has always provided me with enough stability to go on about my daily life fairly easily. Unfortunately, as many colleagues of mine tend to do in post secondary education, we begin to perceive our education as the only facet of our lives. Performing research for and writing a thesis is a big obligation; however it doesn’t need to be all consuming. Especially when there are so many other facets of life that are uncontrollable and can throw themselves at you chaotically without any warning.

We arrive to a common struggle among Masters students, students; really anyone who is set upon a particular long term task and has difficulties finding balance with the other aspects of their lives. Last year (2018), the first year of my Masters program, was continuously plagued by personal life crises that were completely out of my control, for which I will present a brief and efficient list because that appears to be my best method of communication for this matter (as there is truly no way to accurately portray my feelings for this unfortunate series of events in any form of communication): in the beginning of the year my grandfather (closer akin to my father) passed away; my eldest brother attempted suicide for the first time around that same time, and again, and again, later throughout the year; my horse fractured his leg and I eventually had to make the decision to have him put down, after twelve years of having him in my life; the night before he was put down, I almost died in a car accident. After he was put down, I discovered another brother was attempting suicide and making reckless life choices. Surely you can see that these life events were an immediate distraction from my task of writing a Masters thesis.

And yet throughout this, I continued to try to work, research, and write. I continued to grow more deeply rooted in this systemic disappointment with myself and my inability to produce good work. I was so obsessed with grinding away at academic success that when each of these events took place, the levels of depression, anxiety, and this constant dread for terrible news, death, and dismay grew and grew. Eventually I snapped, after the events of my car accident and my horse’s passing.

There is an excellent way that people have described intense depression and loss: before you lost whatever it was that was dear to you, the world was colourful and vivid… but after loss, you lose any notion of the colour that makes that world so vivid. Your presence is physical, and you are aware of your surroundings but only at a basic level of function; engagement, enjoyment, and energy… they are all gone. Attempting to write a Masters thesis while this snap from life happens is truly a feat that I don’t think anyone could effectively accomplish- at least I know that I could not. I stopped my writing, I stopped my research,  I contacted my advisor and asked for an informal break from schooling to prioritize my mental health.

Unfortunately, even when I did begin working again, which was only a month after my accident, I was not mentally prepared to tackle the task ahead of me. The best way to describe this is that I was still in that discoloured state of mind. Yet the pressure that I perceived was upon me to perform constantly ate away at my confidence, self-esteem, and overall mental state. Because of this, the depression and anxiety became more and more consuming as time went on. Why? Simple- I wasn’t allowing myself to heal. I wasn’t giving myself lenience in the steps that I needed to take to heal. I wasn’t recognizing the validity of my emotions. It is truly incredibly the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to succeed academically.

Fast forward three months later. It was November and I was sick of feeling horrible and worthless about my inability to meet my academic expectations. I began to recognize the cycle that I was a part of – grieving over my losses, attempting to perform while being consumed by that grief, and grieving more over my perceived “inability” to perform effectively – and I broke it. Or at least the part related to school. That is the funny thing about grief; it never goes away, but you do learn how to manage it with time. However, the unhealthy cycle that happens when you are unable to fulfill your own high expectations is something that can be worked with. I began to recognize where my disappointment and depression was stemming from, and addressed it head on. I set a lighter schedule for myself, and more realistic deadlines so that I could ease back into research while addressing my own grief. To start this all on a positive note, I scheduled my tentative research trip to the Netherlands and used that as a great opportunity for a fresh start.

In the last three months since recognizing my cycle with depression and creating a realistic plan to resolve the issues that were in my control, I am proud to say that I have been able to focus once again on my research. Mind you, I often have minor episodes of doubt, insecurity, or ill thoughts towards my productivity. However, I do not allow them to consume me as they did before.Without such high expectations for production, I have found that my work is steadily improving in quality and quantity as time goes on. Being able to regain control over the academic facet of my life after my high expectations doomed me to such crippling depression and anxiety is a feat of strength that I can very easily say I am proud of.

What I learned from this experience is that life has a tendency to throw curve balls from every and any angle, and they will always be unexpected to some extent. I have also learned that in our daily work, goals, hobbies, and passions, we often hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards that we could never possibly succeed in reaching because they are created by us as a means to constantly improve. This perception can be very unhealthy if not kept in check; especially in times when loss, trauma, or tragedy happens and you must now juggle ten pressures instead of one, it is better to recognize your high expectations and inhibit their ability to tamper with your emotions more than life already is. School isn’t everything, don’t let your inability to perform in it while you are grieving or suffering in any way further consume your wellbeing.

Rose Conlin is currently enrolled in an MA in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Guelph. Although her life goal is to become a professor, Rose also enjoys spending her time reading fantasy novels, painting, playing the Legend of Zelda, and having bubble baths.

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