Dear Dissertation Diva,
I have just suffered a major setback: the sudden death of my brother. I thought I'd finally have time to finish the dissertation now that I sent my daughter off to college. But I can barely think. Instead of writing up my lit review, I am dealing with my brother's disarray of unpaid bills, looking for insurance papers, and negotiating my own grief. How do I stay connected to my dissertation during this time of emotional upheaval?
Swamped & Sad
Dear Swamped & Sad:
My condolences. This is a challenging time. You may feel like the you who was writing your dissertation last week is a million miles away. Here are 4 strategies to stay connected to your dissertation process:
- Take time off to grieve. It's OK to do nothing. Don't pressure yourself by saying "I should be working on my dissertation." In time, you will return to it. It's normal to take time off from other jobs for family emergencies; take time off from your academic work right now.
- Stay connected to your dissertation though visualization. Sit at your desk and make a visual inventory of what you see: The notes for your lit review. The stacks of articles and books. Look at everything that you have already created for yourself en route to reaching your goal. Then, when you are in a stressful situation of, say, doing your brother's paperwork, take a moment to close your eyes and visualize your workspace. See the notes you wrote waiting for you on your desk. The article on research methods you printed out. Know that the work you've done is waiting for you to return. Connect to that part of you that's not taking care of someone else, but is being true to your OWN intellectual goals.
- Transition back to working on your dissertation by spending time in your workspace. It may feel like all you can do is go and sit in your office. Good. Do that. It's a start. Keep remembering your big picture goals.
- Use the dissertation work as a refuge from grief. Some see the dissertation as a source of stress, but when a family loss happens, you can use the dissertation writing process in quite the opposite way: as a sanctuary. An island in the stream. Try working for short bits at a time -- like 30 minutes. Read a paragraph of an article, and let your mind rest from the other kinds of tasks and from emotional upheaval. You may find that your brain is actually HAPPY to think about your dissertation topic, and not about the stressful tasks around a death in the family. Your dissertation process will gain new life and new meaning for you in the larger context of your life.