I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree when my mum was diagnosed with stage 4 NSCLC. As most people undertaking an undergraduate degree will be familiar with, a dissertation or thesis is an integral component of your degree, and it is essential that you perform well in it. It was, naturally, very difficult for me to focus on both writing up my dissertation and caring for my mum simultaneously. Some of the lecturers on my course were sympathetic and compassionate when dealing with my situation. However, I had one lecturer in particular who was not so understanding.
I was very upfront with my ongoing situation with the superiors on my degree, so that any dip in performance or request for extension did not come as a shock. However, this did not work in my favour. I requested a couple of extra days to write up a draft for my dissertation, as I had been at the hospital with my mum and had not had time to write anything. I was told I had to submit what I had, but no matter how much I pleaded for even one more day, I was told to submit a draft. I remember writing some gibberish and handing it in, only to be told how awful my work was.
When I received such feedback, I explained again the situation I was in. The fact was, I was not trying to make excuses. I am not work-shy, and nobody who is trying to explain their situation is being lazy. But what was I told when I explained my situation? I was told that “we all have problems to deal with”.
That just broke me.
Who in their right mind would actually be using cancer as an excuse to not hand in a piece of work? I was just trying to explain the difficulties that I was facing and that I was struggling. Schools, universities & workplaces should be more empathetic and more understanding of the personal circumstances of those attending their establishments. It is not surprising that people struggle to talk about the issues they face when these are the sorts of responses received.
But we need to talk about it more. The more we are open about our difficulties, the more we can begin to educate other people about the correct way to deal with situations and the importance of being sympathetic and kind to everyone.
It has not been all bad for me, though. During my postgraduate degree, my lecturers were more sympathetic and empathetic when I informed them of my mum’s passing, and gave me the opportunity to interrupt my studies and return the following year after having time to grieve. They were also sympathetic about me not attending university events or meetings during difficult moments, such as my mum’s death anniversary or birthday. And this is the way it should be. Nobody should have to struggle with their issues.
It is important for us to normalise open discussion about all problems, whether they are physical, emotional or financial. And it is important for us to remember to be kind, you never know what is going on in someone’s personal life, and what you say can have a huge impact on their well-being.
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