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This website is focused on my writing. On it you will find my articles, plus links to my books and research.

I investigate creativity, innovation, and resilience.

As well as writing about these things in non-fiction, I also do this by facilitating discussions, storytelling sessions, interviewing people, and delivering workshops. I offer mentoring around embedding resilience into creative practice.

My latest major project is ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. You can download it for free here.

 

Necessity and futility

Necessity and futility

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Plans are important because they make the ground feel firm under our feet. They map out a possible way forward. In the absence of planning, life just becomes one long crapshoot. Plans are necessary because they help us to get started. They start us off on a trajectory.

Ultimately, plans are exercises in futility. All plans will change; no plan is impervious to the forces of fate.

Redundancy: A terrifying word for many people, when applied to employment. In this note, I don’t want to dwell on the idea of redundancy in the context of people and their jobs. I want to talk about plans, and what makes them redundant.

Some of you reading this will have been made redundant from your jobs. Due to the sudden downturn in the economy because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns, some of you will have seen not just your role disappear in the organisation you happened to be working in, but in all other organisations in your sector. My ex-colleagues in the arts sector saw their sector close down almost literally overnight. In March of this year, arts advocate Esther Anatolitis wrote:

“In the past fortnight, we have seen our self-generated income for the year vanish. Work that has taken years to develop has been lost. Livelihoods have been jeopardised. Businesses closed…. The scale of loss across the cultural and creative sector is unprecedented – and devastating.”

An article in The Conversation, comments that many arts workers are grieving having seen “a lifetime’s commitment evaporate.” It is not just jobs that have been made redundant, but whole life plans or career paths have been made redundant too. Blasted out of the water.

So, I want to talk about the redundancy of plans.

When a plan that you have lavished years of thought, sweat, guts, and hope into is suddenly disrupted it hurts. It can be bewildering, dismaying, frightening, frustrating. It can be a cause of grief and deserves to be grieved if the plan was something you had layered physical, creative, intellectual, emotional, or psychological effort around.

But, alongside this natural and valid grief, perhaps it is helpful to consider a paradoxical thing that is a signifier of all good plans. Please bear with me for a digression over the next couple of paragraphs.

Good (by which I mean useful or effective) plans are prone to being made redundant. In his article, The end of winning: Why future belongs to losers, entrepreneur Tim Leberecht says “That three-year plans are a thing of the past the very moment they are written.”

Why? In part, because the better a plan is, the more it carries its own seeds of redundancy.

Truly effective plans start changing conditions once they start being implemented. How fast or slowly they change things, and whether that change is incremental or radical, will depend on the plan, its objectives, and the conditions under which it is being delivered. But good plans do change things. And as soon as conditions surrounding the plan are changed by the implementation of that plan, then that original plan starts to become redundant – an artifact of the old (now changed) conditions it was originally formulated to deal with. This is why, when planning, it is important to mindfully monitor progress and to be prepared to allow your plans to evolve and change, to embed space and contingencies around an inevitable shift in your planning process.

But what if you didn’t choose change?

If your job has been lost due to an economic downturn, then that is not change you chose or which the implementation of your plans brought about. If your sector has shrunk to the extent that you may not be able to return to your old way of working within it, then that is not change that you implemented. Your original plans for your career have been made redundant, along with your job. And this is not a redundancy that organically arose out of the effectiveness of your own plan, but a redundancy that has been imposed by overwhelming external events. This is why the forced redundancy of your plan hurts, why it feels like a body blow, why it has a psychic violence. This is why grief is understandable: the potential of your own plan to change itself, to seed its own evolution, has been cut short and you will not be able to see that plan through to fruition. You are forced to make a new plan, maybe in conditions which none of us understands yet (and which are probably still in a state of flux) while coming to terms with the sudden loss of the old one.

This is hard. I wonder – I hope – it is of some small comfort in your grief to bear in mind that redundancy is a hidden feature of plans – if your old plan had been allowed to continue to flow it would have made itself redundant, anyway, sooner or later.

This may be cold comfort if you are feeling awful at having been forced out of your industry.

“Suspension: The Stoics, echoed by the phenomenologists, called it “epokhē.” It’s what happens when the object of your intention is taken away and you’re left with the pure structure of intending. Life feels more like that every day.” ~ Haun Saussy

Living with this “pure structure of intending” is hard, for it is living in a kind of limbo, which seems to draw on a lot of energy just to enable that suspension. But this floating state is necessary, and not to be confused with a state of stasis. Your plan – that list of actions – might have disintegrated, but your structure of intending doesn’t have to. And it is out of that state of suspension, which is another way in which grief can make itself manifest, that more tangible aims will start to form.

In his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption.”

Cave is talking about sensing the dead – as spirits or dreams or memories – but, with apologies to him – I am going to borrow his words to talk about dead plans and the ideas that lay behind them.

Let your grief over your devastated plans remind you of your original intentions. Use your time in suspension to re-examine them. Will you carry them forward and find new ways of realising them? Or would you prefer to find new sources of inspiration? You may not feel that you have a lot of agency right now, but you do, at least, have the power to do that…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Understand what it is you are grieving

Understand what it is you are grieving

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

This probably sounds like a dumb thing to say, a statement of the bleeding obvious. But when a person or thing is suddenly absent from your life then whatever it is that made that person or thing so central to your life is whatever will influence the way you grieve, and what you grieve for.

The absence of a person or thing that was straightforwardly loved for the meaning and joy that it brought into someone’s life will engender feelings of sadness and loss. The absence of an entity that occupied a central part of someone’s life, but which was toxic in influence – like an abusive parent or a lousy job – may engender feelings of relief that feel great, but which are so strong that they could actually be disorientating for a while. Many of us have complex relationships with the things our lives are built around, and it’s quite possible to feel a mixture of things: sadness for lost potential, relief over the absence of conflict, a reclamation of energy or hope, or the undermining of a sense of identity.

When I gave up my performing career, I made the mistake of thinking my actual ability to be creative was dead. By the time I walked away, I had been bereft of inspiration for a couple of years during which I struggled to come up with ideas or material. I seemed to have poor judgement and little focus. Periods of rest didn’t help; working through it didn’t help. I wasn’t blocked so much as empty. Having struggled for so long and in such difficult conditions, I thought I had finally completely burnt out that part of me that made creative work, cauterised it, flogged it to death. Walking away from performance made me sad, but it also made me feel relieved. I could stop pretending to be something I no longer was, even if the loss of that something – of the potential I had once believed was mine – was heartbreaking.

I set off into a future that was filled with uncertainty and, correspondingly, anxiety. But I also felt unburdened by my former demanding and failing vocation. I set myself the task of learning how to be a person who was no longer creative. (I know this sounds mad but it’s how I honestly felt).

So, I made a far-reaching decision based on a mistake. Fortunately for me, the decision turned out to be a healthy one. Alongside my grief, and in the absence of any vocational demands, I rediscovered a sense of resilience, curiosity, playfulness. I regained energy. I started blogging, just for fun, but in playing with words and ideas it suddenly struck me that I was being creative. I have a clear memory of the moment I realised this: I was sitting on my couch in my flat in Northcote, my laptop propped up in front of me, it was daytime, the sun was coming through the window. The thing I had thought was dead was merely dormant, waiting until the conditions in my life shifted.

I was right in walking away from that earlier career; it was draining the life out of me. It had shifted from being a source of joy and purpose to being a burden that was breaking me. But, in my ensuing grief, I was mistaken about what it was I was in grief for. And part of the reason I made this mistake was because it took me quite a long time before I knew myself to be in grief. Once I accepted that I was grieving I accepted the presence in my life of strong and / or odd feelings and reactions. I got out of my own way: I stopped telling myself that I was defective in purpose or creativity and reminded myself that I was in grief.

In my grief, I had to accept living uncertain of the future (an excellent life skill, as it turns out, that has kept sustaining me through various challenges to this day). My sense of identity was challenged: if I wasn’t a performer or choreographer, then who or what was I? Well, it turned out, I was me, irrespective of those things. I had to come to terms with a loss of potential joy: I would never develop further as a dancer; I would never make beautiful choreography again. This was sad, but the reality was I had grown to hate the miasma of fatigue that settled over me whenever I walked into the rehearsal room. This is the stuff I actually ended up grieving for when I stopped performing, not the loss of creativity that I initially assumed I would have to come to terms with.

I discovered that being creative is something that never actually left me. I had just ended up living a life that – with its poverty, competitiveness, and physical and emotional exhaustion – had blocked it. And it was that life that had to die, not that essential part of me.

I am not writing this to persuade anyone to give up on their vocation, unless, like me, that vocation has morphed from being the bliss you followed into a nightmare. I am writing this to illustrate that, in a state of heightened grief, it can be easy to make assumptions about your relationship to your essential self and the way you express that vocationally.

If you recognise that you are in grief, open up a conversation with yourself about what it is you are grieving. I misdirected my energies into grieving a part of myself that, now, I don’t think can die, just manifest differently. I needed to grieve the death of a way of life that was truly ready to die in that I needed to free myself from it.

What has died in your life? A vocation that has outlived its resonance with you? Or is it a way of pursuing that vocation? Has your sector been overturned in such a way that your potential to thrive within that particular sector is what has died, rather than the abilities your sense of potential was based on?

Understanding very specifically what it is you are grieving can help you gain perspective on the instincts that hover when you come to make decisions as to what you want to do next. It can help you understand what values are at play in your psyche, and whether you want them there or not.

As much as grief challenged me, it also changed me and bolstered me. Grief may overwhelm at first, but it can open up new ways of living that are different to, but as important as, the things that are no longer there…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

The Great Wave, Production Values, and… Values

The Great Wave, Production Values, and… Values

In a year when everyone is complaining of ‘being over’ Zoom and itching to reconnect with other people face-to-face, how can an online event draw on the technology that everyone claims to be sick of in order to provide an experience that feels uplifting and human?

During October of this year I ‘attended’* The Great Wave, “a four-day global-local, virtual-physical festival to make business more beautiful.”

It was a fantastic event, inspiring and intriguing. I have written three blogs about things I noticed in my reaction to it, and in this, the first, I want to talk about the production of this online event and some subsequent reflections I have had on my own practice.

The Great Wave, produced by The House of Beautiful Business, incorporated a mixture of online happenings. These included keynotes; panels; podcasts; activities including walking, meditation, ritual, mask-making, and dance; performances including music, dance, and performance-art; short film and digital art. Participants tuned in from all over the world, and because the event’s audience was spread across so many time zones, the organisers valiantly tried to program virtually around the clock for over three days. The Great Wave’s website boasts of offering over 300 hours of material in its programme.  Included in the event ticket is access to a temporary library of recordings of most sessions; this is welcome as it enables us to catch up with things that happened while we were asleep. The overall impression was of a technologically sophisticated and highly innovative festival.

I was raving on Twitter about what a dynamic atmosphere this event had, how connected I felt to other attendees even though I was ‘attending’ physically alone in locked-down Melbourne, and how impressed I was with the production values. A tweeter replied, asking what technologies were in use to achieve all this. Apart from one exception, I found myself listing the usual suspects: Zoom, Soundcloud, Vimeo, WhatsApp.

That one exception was an online art experience created by Waltz Binaire called Journee, an online immersive landscape that participants could enter and wander around, staring out to a digitised sea, ambling through an animated forest, discovering art and each other, absorbing a peaceful atmosphere. It was gob smackingly beautiful. But apart from this bespoke and cutting-edge piece of technology, it struck me during that tweeted exchange that, otherwise, I wasn’t talking about anything exotic in terms of digital tools or platforms in use at The Great Wave.

I realised that what made this digital event really fly were good old fashioned human creative talents and event production elements that have always been applied to the best offline events (in my past, I have worked in events management and arts management, so I always pay attention to this sort of stuff). The elements that gave The Great Wave event impact and made it such a compelling and engaging experience included:

  • A strong and unifying theme: a program of incredibly diverse content was held together by the theme of a great wave: “This has been a challenging year to say the least, and given the continuing uncertainty ahead we believe we can find some solutions from the fluidity and momentum of a Great Wave: a wave of imagination, connection, and optimism to carry us forward to a fresh start”
  • An array of topics (related to the theme) that kept the event surprising, engaging, and stimulating.
  • A wonderfully diverse group of speakers, presenters, or performers whose contributions all seemed to be of uniformly excellent quality. This is a reflection on the skills, knowledge, and preparation of those presenters but also, surely, a reflection on a compelling theme and good program curation.
  • Attention to the user experience or journey, examples of which include the beautifully designed and easy to navigate event portal which allowed us glitch-free access to sessions, and which continues to function as a temporary library until the end of the year.
  • Efficiency. Good old-fashioned organisation – stuff happened when it was scheduled to happen. There were hardly any snafus. Information was ready to hand.

So, what reflections has this led to with my own online practice as a facilitator and mentor? I do not have The House of Beautiful Business’ resources, so do not expect me to produce my own Great Wave anytime soon. But, when I reflect on the elements above I also reflect on the low-tech (or human) qualities that sit behind The Great Wave: imagination, originality, hard work, attention to detail, care, an appetite for risk-taking tempered with an appetite for efficiency. These are ‘resources’ that I can access if I want to.

Alone in my flat, hunched over my laptop, the scale on which I operate may be humble but that’s OK because humble does not preclude good. Using my imagination, being diligent in my preparation, practicing my Zoom technique, putting thought into designing my material, I can aspire to excellence. This is one gift that The Great Wave has given me.

 

*It’s funny how these words from old-fashioned offline events still creep into my speech when I talk about ‘going to’ a purely digital event.

Different types of grief

Different types of grief

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Apart from just (just?) straightforward grief, there are some other forms of grief that I have come across in my reading. These are all types of grief that are problematic, where the healthy grieving process has been inhibited somehow.

Frozen grief

Frozen grief is where the person who needs to mourn has, for some reason, not been able to start or progress their grieving process.

Friends and ex-colleagues of mine have been discussing their anticipated exit from the university sector. They are on fixed-term contracts and pretty sure that, given the huge numbers of job losses and pending funding cuts that will drive far-reaching structural change in the sector, when their contracts finish they won’t be renewed and they won’t get another job at a university. Ever. They consider themselves to be better off than casual employees they know who have already been dispatched. Employees on permanent contracts are not necessarily safe from being made redundant, either. My friends feel the necessity of planning their next move but they are so busy with their current work, so overwhelmed with the demands of working in a restructuring organisation (among grief-stricken colleagues), that they have yet to come to terms with the enormity of the change imposed on their lives. There simply isn’t time. One friend calls this “delayed processing.”

Other people may have been unceremoniously dumped from their jobs or (in the case of contractors or sole-traders) from projects or contracts due to the speed with which the pandemic lockdowns slammed our economy. These people may have been launched into a frantic scramble to secure money to live on or to negotiate reductions in rent payments. They may have found themselves dealing with an overwhelmed Job Services Australia to get onto welfare (always a dismal experience).

And then there are the people who, on top of their loss, may be supporting children, partners, parents, or other dependents who are facing their own challenges during lockdown. Who has the time or energy to do all of this AND THEN pick apart complex and challenging emotions over their own sense of loss?

“A psychologist friend of mine talks about the idea of frozen grief, a phenomenon that occurs when people are denied the normal communal rituals associated with grieving, meaning that their feelings cannot be expressed or processed.”

So writes James Bradley in his beautiful article As I mourn my mother the pandemic rolls on. Is the whole world, like me, frozen in grief? He also writes:

“Grief is always isolating. It cuts us off from the world, confines us in ourselves. Yet, as I watched the people I know on social media and elsewhere trying to express the confusion they felt at being pitched into a world where they were suddenly vulnerable and alone, it was hard not to wonder whether this wasn’t also a kind of frozen grief.”

This sense of vulnerability and disorientation, having been suddenly jettisoned out of locked down and / or downsizing sectors, and also in the face of perhaps inadequate government support, is what I feel I have been witnessing in friends and ex-colleagues in the arts and university sectors.

Bradley goes on to write:

“… like all of us I feel undone, unmade, as if time has been suspended and the world I know is gone. As if I am falling, and have not yet hit the ground.”

People who have been yanked out of their work, who have witnessed their sectors shut down, who are fretting about how they are going to pay next month’s rent while keeping their dreams alive must be wondering which way is up. Some of them will have hit the ground with a psyche-shattering thud, some will feel like they are still falling. How many have had the time – the respite from surviving – to know how to articulate what all of this means to them?

Disenfranchised grief

Some people’s grief is unacknowledged by society; they aren’t expected to feel grief and are looked on askance when they do. I have come across the term ‘disenfranchised grief’ in relation to grief over a person dying. Examples include when a relationship is deemed to be invalid (unmarried partners), or not close enough (co-worker), an ex-partner, a relationship of short duration, or non-human – a pet.

Have you seen the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral? Do you remember the scene where John Hannah’s character – Matthew – delivers a moving eulogy to his queer partner Gareth? He is introduced to the congregation by the priest as his partner’s “friend”. Matthew then wryly quips that Gareth preferred funerals to weddings as they were one ceremony he had an outside chance of getting involved in. After the funeral, one of their friends remarks that “two of us (Matthew and Gareth) were to all intents and purposes married” but no one had ever noticed this.

With respect to people who have experienced disenfranchised grief over the death of a loved one, I am going to borrow this idea for the purposes of these notes and suggest that sometimes grief over the loss of a career can also feel disenfranchised in society, if only for the reason that many people only associate the state of grief with the death of a person, not the death of a potential future in work. This is why you will find me referencing writing about grief over humans or pets in these notes: I have come across a few articles about grief and work but not many. It is a subject that has not garnered much attention.

In our society, people who lose their jobs are expected to set about chasing money. They are urged to go panicking straight off to find another job. Being unemployed is stigmatising and landing another job is seen as the simple fix to make everything alright. This rhetoric comes straight from the top: our federal government regularly spouts hearty Calvinist platitudes about ‘jobs and growth’. During Australia’s first lockdown, Scott Morrison talked energetically about ‘snapping back’ the economy:

“We want businesses to be able to snap back and just get on with the job, when we get to the other side.”

Apparently, according to Morrison’s first plan, we would all start surging out of lockdown in June, reopen the economy fully by July, and start getting people back in jobs soon after (with the unlucky unwaged warehoused on social security benefits and chivvied through job-seeking activity by the dreaded Jobactive providers).

In all this bustling rhetoric, where is the room for people to panic about their hearts, their lost dreams? Where is the expectation that someone who has lost not only their job or income streams but possibly even their vocation might feel deeply about that?

In her article, Learning to share the grief of job loss with friends, Shona Yang writes of a newly unwaged friend:

“I was struck by the honest rage she shared…It made me realise that as with all inexplicable losses — what she needed wasn’t a solution, but a place for the news to land.”

The rent has to be paid, so a solution to a loss of income will be needed at some stage. But Yang is right, when dealing with sudden shock or acute grief acknowledgement – being heard or witnessed – is important.

Part of the reason why I put together these notes is because I was concerned that there were people out there who, following the loss of jobs, shut down of projects, and upheaval of their sectors, were thrust into a situation where they had to cope with the crisis of loss of income, opportunities, status, and even identity, all the while bearing the shock and grief that accompanies such a profound loss. I wanted to acknowledge the grief people must be feeling, and provide some provocations that may be able to help people make sense of what they are feeling about all of this at a time when the practical demands of coping with career damage or loss mitigate against this sense-making. It is hard to make sense of grief that is frozen or unacknowledged. I wanted to write this to show that at least one person knows that you are in grief and knows that you deserve to understand what that means for you.

Grief is unavoidable. If buried, it doesn’t disappear. It remains trapped inside a person, burdening them, perhaps poisoning aspects of their inner lives. It will manifest at some stage in some way. A healthy grieving process does not only avoid damage, it can be a rich (if, perhaps, uncomfortable) experience that actually paves the way to the next stage of life. But if people’s grief is frozen or disenfranchised then this healthy grieving process is delayed.

And a word about complicated grief and depression.

‘Complicated grief’ is a phrase used by grief counsellors to describe a state of grief that has become problematic, that has morphed into being an issue related to someone’s health or wellbeing.

Elsewhere in these notes, I wrote that grief and depression are not always synonymous, but complicated grief is when they may well be for some people. The WebMD website states that “Depression is not a normal part of grief, but a complication of it” and describes complicated grief “… as ‘a form of persistent, pervasive grief’ that does not get better naturally.” The Beyond Blue website says something similar: “depression stands out from grief as being more persistent, with constant feelings of emptiness and despair and a difficulty feeling pleasure or joy… Your relationship to grief will change; depression may not.”

Grief can be an overwhelming experience for some people. It is understandable that some people experience complicated grief, but it is not inevitable. During my life, I have experienced episodes of grief, over the loss of humans, relationships, jobs, and a vocation. I have also, unfortunately, experienced the nightmare that is clinical depression. Interestingly, the two experiences never overlapped. Even at its most exhausting or painful, my grief has never felt like depression. Even at its most awful, I have felt alive during episodes of grief. With depression, it felt like a sort of living death.

Much of what is written in these notes is intended to be provocation, but what I’m about to write is straight out advice: if you think you are suffering from complicated grief then please get help. It doesn’t need to be this bad for you. And you do deserve support.

In conclusion:

Sometimes loss is expected; you can take a good-run up at the inevitable feelings that attend it. This can afford you a gentle entrance into grief.

But the loss of projects, jobs, or vocational pathways during 2020 was unexpected, and people had little or no warning. And people didn’t just lose jobs or income streams, some lost access to their sector. Even if people haven’t given up their vocation, a way of pursuing that vocation – a way of operating within a sector – has been closed off to them. Has died.

This loss has been traumatic, whether the sudden shock of the shutting down of the arts industry or the months of the distress of slightly more incremental – but equally brutal – ‘restructuring’ (actually downsizing) of the university sector. These are the two sectors I know most about, but I am aware that there are workers in other sectors that have also been cast out of the world of work with whiplash speed and impact.

People have had the stuffing knocked out of them. They are struggling with a sense of overwhelm. It is important to understand what grief is, and the way it may be manifesting in your life. Understanding this can help people ask for the support they may need, and accept that, as uncomfortable as it is, grieving can be a way of honouring what has happened to them, of understanding what their previous way of working meant to them – good and bad – and of starting to adjust to a new way of being in the world.

Grieving is an epic experience. Acute grieving will colour the way you see the world, and the decisions you make about surviving the present and building your future. Our grief-illiterate society will demand that you crack on with things; you will be asked to make far-reaching decisions before you have learnt how to accommodate – and be enriched by – your sense of grief. This is unfair; my inner child wants to say it is stupid. Unfortunately, it is how things are. This guide cannot suggest a way of resolving this; it is irresolvable.

But looking at the tension between two opposing dynamics – examining and playing with it – can still generate insights and ideas. This is a tricky space to inhabit, but it can yield opportunities. The first step to doing this is to frame your grief as an essential force in your life, not one to be ignored or denied or downplayed. And certainly not one to be dreaded.

Grief is often seen as a problem, an understandably regrettable state – a temporary lapse of control – to be gotten over.  If you can’t just ‘get over it’, please don’t think “What is wrong with me?”

You are not the problem.

Your grief is not a problem, and certainly not a problem to be solved.

It is a special state that can help you to adjust to the radical absence of something central to the way you lived your life…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief is different for each of us

Grief is different for each of us

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Grief is a universal experience: we are all, at some stage in our lives, going to lose something important to us. Some of us – probably most of us – will do this more than once during our lives. But grief is also the perfect rebuttal to conformity. Grief is universal, yes, but it is also a radically individual experience. Every grieving person will go through this universal event in a way that is uniquely particular to them, and never to be repeated. This is because exactly what is being grieved over and the conditions under which the grieving process is gone through will be different. Each person’s grief will be informed by a set of variables including:

How the loved thing died.

Every death is tragic, but some deaths carry extra layers of shock or anguish. Was everything going along fine and dandy in your life when, one day, the phone rang, and you received a message that your family had been wiped out in a car crash? Did someone you know commit suicide? Or did your loved one pass away quietly in their sleep as an elderly person who had been gradually dwindling, like my grandmother who died 10 days short of her 99th birthday? Was their death a merciful release from terrible suffering? Did you get to say goodbye?

We can ask similar questions about how someone loses a job or, for some people in post-COVID-19 economies, a place in a whole sector. Was the loss unexpected? Were you suddenly let go, or did you choose to quit? Did you accept voluntary redundancy, or were you made redundant? Did you exit your job with a nice party, complete with speeches, a card and flowers from friendly and well-wishing colleagues? Or were you ignominiously forced out by a bully?

In my home city of Melbourne, people in the arts industry suddenly found their industry shut down over one weekend in mid-March due to the coronavirus and its associated lockdowns. Even if they were sole-traders who did not lose jobs, they lost projects, platforms, forums, and venues. They lost access to a whole sector. This sudden cessation of activity was stunning in its rapidity and completeness. How has this impacted their grief?

The way someone or something dies, and the way a bereaved person finds out about the death, can influence the way someone is initiated into the grieving process. On top of the tragedy of losing something important to you, are you dealing with shock, disorientation, horror, or anguish? Or, alongside missing a loved thing, are you dealing with a sense of relief (perhaps at the cessation of suffering) or resolution?

Your relationship to the absent thing.

“Your mum’s your best friend!” declared my landlady authoritatively. The poor, kind woman was attempting empathy (having just handed over a bunch of roses and a card) but she had no idea that she was way off the mark as far as I was concerned. My mum was not my best friend, she was both way more and less than that. Mum was as lovable as she could be difficult. We had an affectionate relationship but not always an easy one. She was a complex person and, correspondingly, our relationship was complex. My landlady, as she waxed lyrical about how a mother was a girl’s best friend, was revealing more about her own relationship with her late mother than guessing correctly about mine. Which is why her grief for her late mother – and I caught a glimpse of it in her face, her eyes, as she talked – was always going to be so profoundly different to mine. It’s possible to feel grief for relationships that were difficult, or volatile, or messy. It’s possible to feel love – a primal visceral love – for family members you might not have been sure that you liked.

In terms of work, some people are lucky enough to be in jobs – and working within work cultures – that they love. For them, the loss of such a job, or organisation, or sector will occasion great sadness. But many of us have mixed emotions about our work. John Le Carre said that “most of us live in a slightly conspirational relationship with our employer.” Most of us put on a work persona that enables us to manoeuvre and extract the things we value from work, and to shield us from the things we hate. Some of you reading this may have just lost work that enabled you to pursue a true vocation, but to do so within business models that were exploitative and draining. Some of you will have been doing work you believed in, but within a toxic workplace culture. Some of you may be pursuing vocations where it is actually hard and rare to earn enough income to be viable (such as in the arts industry) and, therefore you may have just lost a ‘day job’ that utterly bored and under-utilised you, but which paid well enough and afforded flexible conditions that enabled you to work on your creative practice. All work is a mixture of activity, culture, pay and other conditions. It is possible to feel differently about all these things. How you felt about the work you have just lost will inflect any grief you may feel.

Depending on your relationship to whatever you have lost, your grieving process may be a jumble of loneliness and sadness, loss of identity, relief at the absence of irritating conditions, regret at missed opportunities, anger at being terminated, or resentment at being used. And also doubts about how the future will look. Friends who have recently lost their jobs in locked down or downsizing sectors have spoken about anxiety about how they will survive in years to come.

Depending on whether or not your relationship with the lost thing was close or distant, healthy or toxic, of long or short duration, you will be grieving over dynamics that are unique to you and which grew out of the relationship between you and that other thing, be that a person or a career.

Your own temperament

We are all individuals, with our own ways of communicating and otherwise manifesting wants, needs, and emotions. As an introvert, I hoovered up quietness and solitude after my Mum’s death. But other more extroverted personalities may hunger after the intimacy of meaningful connection.

I am a private person and find it easiest to capitulate to emotion when I am alone and unburdened by the scrutiny of others. Other friends are less so, seeking validation from expressing their feelings to trusted family and friends. What looks like healthy grieving for me would be an inhibitor for someone else and vice versa.

The external conditions with which you have to contend.

What else is going on in your life as you contend with your grief and / or the shock of radical change and absence? Are you parenting and / or caring for someone? Are you also dealing with relationship problems, or can you lean on a supportive partner? If single, are you happily so, or is loneliness and / or lack of support complicating your life? Do you have savings in the bank? Debts to manage? Do you have to move to a new house soon? Do you have chronic health problems to manage, or are you physically robust?

Conclusion:

All of the above will be working in concert with other variables that belong to your own particular life and self. Each variable in play will inform your experience of grief. No other person in the world will have the exact same experience as you. Other people will pronounce or proscribe the sorts of feelings, and the intensity and duration of those feelings, that they expect you to have, and they will all – to some extent – miss the mark.

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief isn’t about resolution

Grief isn’t about resolution

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

On the 3rd of June, just 11 days after Mum’s funeral, I wrote this one line in my journal:

“Grief is about learning to live without resolution.”

People seem to think that grief is all about closure (a vile word in this context, and impossible to say without a soupy reality TV accent). But grief isn’t about closure because closure is not possible. Life doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that.

People are messy, complex, inconsistent. It’s what makes us so full of potential and danger all at the same time. That’s why there are gangsters who love their mums, and life-saving surgeons who beat their wives. In his novel Hogfather, Terry Pratchett has his character Death, a cowled horse-riding scythe-carrying skeleton (who loves kittens), ruminate on humans and describe them as the falling angel meeting the rising ape. In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope describes humans as “darkly wise, rudely great.

We are social: all of us falling-apes—rising-angels mix constantly with other brute-divines and madness ensues, be that delightful or horrifying. After a lifetime of driving each other mad (with lust, frustration, adoration, or need?) we are then, when one of us dies, supposed to tie this all neatly off while processing some of the most challenging emotions we will ever feel while grieving. To resolve the madness. To have closure.

In a similar vein, we are supposed to brush off the termination of a job that gave us income, identity, perhaps status, perhaps the social connection of a good team of colleagues, hopefully satisfaction and an outlet for our talents and ambitions. Even if we have mixed feelings about our work, it is still a thing into which we pour time, energy, focus, goodwill, and emotion. Work is one of the things that defines our place in this world, for better or for worse, and we are supposed to just get over it when we are displaced from it?

Nuh.

This is crazy thinking. Why do we demand this of ourselves? By doing so we are demanding something unrealistic and tainting what should be a special time.

Grief is special. It’s not comfortable but it can be enriching.

I approve of it.

Even at its mankiest grief has a clear reason for happening: grief is the process by which we adjust to the reality that that person or thing just isn’t here with us anymore and won’t be ever again. That’s a stark reality. For some people it’s traumatic to come to terms with, for others it can border on relief. But whether you loved or hated the person or job you are grieving (and, yes, you can hate and grieve at the same time) the adjustment you have to make to the absence in your life is huge. Grief allows us to do that.

So, grief isn’t about resolution. It’s actually about accepting what you can’t resolve. It’s about adjusting to living with an absence…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Solitary mind: Out

Solitary mind: Out

So, this is it. After months of lockdown we are getting ready to re-join the world.

How do you feel about that? Relieved that the boredom or loneliness is over? Or are you a little pensive about what you will find?

Isolation is disorientating. Prolonged isolation affects your feelings about how your society is functioning right now, about your place in it, about your trust in it, about, perhaps, the odd ways in which your longing for it might have been manifesting. More than one person I have communicated with over the last few days has expressed some anxiety about being around people again. Many people have taken to referring to ‘old normal’ (i.e. pre-Covid) and the ‘new (emerging) normal’ as two different things.

Whatever the feelings you have about leaving isolation, they need to be taken into account as you find your way back into your post-lockdown life.

‘French window at Collioure’ by Henri Matisse

What’s waiting for you out there? Friends and family who will be happy to see you back in circulation? Do you have a workplace or business that is impatient for your return, with clients panting for your attention, or water-cooler conversations to be reheated? Are you fretting over missed opportunities? Are you one of the hard hit casual or freelance workers who has to try to find work to build up a depleted bank account?

Are you able to ease back into your life, or will you have to hit the ground running? How much agency do you have about your pace and style of re-entry?

Some of you will find the transition back easy. Some of you might be surprised at how hard it seems. Some of you know it will be an ordeal.

If you feel a bit tender or weird about getting back to ‘normal’ – if your prolonged isolation has disrupted or even recalibrated what normal means to you (for better or for worse) – then take it easy, if you can. (And I do acknowledge that some of you may have to hustle).

Consider:

  • Getting together with a friend to debrief. Choose someone who is a good listener, who will hear without judgement whatever it is that you have to blurt out.
  • Write down your reactions. You may have already used journaling as a strategy to survive or enrich your time alone; keep using it. When you are no longer under the pressure of supporting yourself in a bizarre situation, then looking back and reflecting on an experience when it is over can furnish a fresh perspective.
  • If your head is muddled, or your energies sapped, or your spirits depressed, then there is no shame in seeing a counselor.

We will all react differently but being compelled to live in isolation because of a global crisis is not an easy thing to last through. It may have left its mark on you. If the effect is negative, then do reach out for help. You deserve it. If the effect is ambivalent or positive, you may still need time to understand the ways in which your perspective has changed and how to come to terms with that. The special effort we have all put into caring for ourselves or each other during this time of distancing and isolation should not stop now. We need to help each other to pick up the pieces.

A reaction to absence

A reaction to absence

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Grief is the reaction to the radical absence of something that was central to your life.

Given that these notes are about grief, and given that so many of us have cruelly limited ideas as to what grief is and, therefore, how we are allowed to experience it, process it, and benefit from it, I want to define what I mean when I use the word.

Grief is not one emotion, but rather a term that covers a range of reactions we have and adjustments we make when we experience the radical absence of something central to our lives. That something could be a person, a relationship, a job, or a dream. I was inspired to write this bundle of notes when I thought about my friends and ex-colleagues who have recently not just lost jobs, but, due to sudden and devastating economic downturns caused by lockdowns, have found whole sectors closed down, subsequently downsized or compromised, and have found vocational pathways closed off to them.

Think of grief as an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural reactions to radical loss. I said in another note that people conflate grief with depression; I think that this stems from the fact that too many people conflate depression with sadness. All these things are quite different (I will touch on depression and grief elsewhere in this bundle). Certainly, people can feel sadness when someone or thing they love dies. But people can feel all sorts of other emotions too, like anger, anxiety, guilt, or resentment. Or some people can be left feeling numb.

But as well as the ‘feels’, people in grief can experience different reactions – physical, spiritual, cognitive, or behavioural. While mourning my mother, I experienced extraordinary feelings of physical fatigue that would descend on me out of the blue. My sister experienced an abnormal coldness: she couldn’t seem to get warm during the first month after mum died. Some people find they are clumsier than usual, some can’t concentrate, some question their spiritual beliefs, others become creatively prolific.

There is a great smorgasbord of ways in which grief can manifest in people’s lives, ranging from the debilitating to the irritating to the merely unusual to the liberating.

Consider:

Grief is not one constant and consistent experience.

You will probably experience different symptoms of grief at different stages. Feelings and reactions could ebb and flow, and the intensity of these feelings and reactions will fluctuate. You may have days or weeks that are harrowing followed by a time that is less intense where you feel relatively human and functional.

You can feel grief for things you had mixed feelings about, or even hated.

Oh yes, you can. When I gave up my work in the performing arts all of those years ago I quite definitely felt grief, a profound sadness – pain – at having to walk away from a dream and a vocation I had poured my heart and soul into for years. And yet I chose to give it up. I was burnt out, damaging both my physical and mental health. The lifestyle that went along with this career – financial insecurity, precarity, the emotional demands of performance, brutal politics, exposure to a sometimes bitter culture that existed within the sector – was draining the life out of me and, by the time I had given up, had long excised the joy and inspiration out of my vocation. I didn’t like who I was becoming – a meaner and more resentful version of myself – and, having struggled with clinical depression, I was also terrified for my future mental health. I have never regretted my decision to give up, and, in retrospect, see this decision as one of the healthiest things I have ever done for myself. I feel positive about that decision, and a terrible sadness arising from the sense of loss of my dream. The grieving process has allowed space for these apparently contradictory things. In my grief, I have been able to honour both.

You never get over grief

As I wrote about my old career above, I still felt sadness even though it has been a good decade since I walked away. I always will feel sadness – a sense of grief over what was left behind and over potential unrealised. That grief no longer predominates my thinking, feeling, and reacting, as it did for the first two years when I had to go through each day staring into the hole that had once been filled by my former life. The hole is still there, but I am not compelled to look into it anymore. I have learnt to shift my gaze onto different but now equally compelling new things.

The activity generated by rehearsing, performing, researching, collaborating, producing, project managing, choreographing, networking, imagining, dreaming…. these things were suddenly gone. For three decades of my life, they had been the focus of my energy, the thing around which I had built my identity. I ripped them out of my life.

Wiser people than me have identified that you never get over grief. If, following the radical absence of something important you feel a stage of acute grief, then you may move past that (and how long this takes will vary from person to person) but you never get over the sense of loss. This is not as gloomy as it sounds. For, while you may never get over your sense of loss, you learn to live with it, or alongside it. And you can recover your capacity to experience joy, inspiration, connection. You can fall in love with someone or something else, differently but meaningfully.

Actually, I think a healthy grieving process not only does not hinder this, I think it helps you to find this renewed capacity. I think of grieving as a process of adjustment – such a prosaic word for such an intense experience. But grief is a rich experience if an uncomfortable one. In a tweet, Paula Crosby described it as “a horrible freeing experience,” and it is. The challenges and gifts of grief allow you to come to terms with how something that occupied a position of influence in your life just suddenly isn’t there anymore. It can offer you realisations and insights about what that something meant to you and, in so doing, allow you to absorb, shift, learn, reflect on, and create a new life…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

What is grief?

What is grief?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

What do you think grief is?

I think that most people have a limited idea as to what grief, exactly, is. And this makes it hard to grieve.

A lot of people out there conflate grief with depression, which it isn’t (or not necessarily). A lot of people think that you only find yourself in grief when someone you love dies. Again, this is not necessarily true.

When I lost my mother last year, I was struck – and irritated – by how many people seemed to call upon me to behave like a sentient Hallmark card, weeping decorously (but only at what they deemed to be appropriate moments) and uttering gooey platitudes in her memory. But only for a certain duration; three months seemed to be the upper limit that they would allow me to react to the sudden death of my parent. None of this aligned with how I needed to feel, when, and for how long.

Many years ago, when I gave up a career in the performing arts, no one seemed to expect me to feel grief at all. It even took me a while to figure out what was happening. The mood swings, the deep sadness over a decision that, after all, I had made and owned as healthy, the strange indecisiveness and ennui – I initially didn’t understand that all this was a sort of grief over the loss of a vocation around which I had centred my energies since my adolescence.

I have noticed, too, that when I come across other people who have had a loss and who are subscribing to that three-month limit where, apparently, there is some sort of psychic barrier beyond which grief doesn’t ‘happen’ for people, and I ask “are you in grief?” they will answer “Nope. I don’t feel grief. I’m just cranky all the time, can’t concentrate, don’t have any energy, and I can’t sleep. But I’m not feeling grief.”

Grief isn’t one emotion; it is a whole range of experiences that can permeate your life.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be” ~ Joan Didion

In one of his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around.”

In her advice column, What to do when you lose a dog, Blair Braverman writes:

“When it feels too painful to exist, knowing that Kelsey is gone, all you can do is distract yourself until time passes. Watch movies. Do things that require concentration, like playing an instrument or practicing a sport. Now isn’t the time for long, silent walks—unless long, silent walks are what you need. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or you could avoid other dogs completely. Whatever you need to do, sob or paint or run, is the right thing to do.”

Both of these writers – sharing their thoughts in quite different contexts – are saying the same thing. Do what you have to do. The Beyond Blue website advises “There is no right or wrong way to grieve….” Too true, although for the sheer poetry of it I turn to Nick Cave’s words “grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world.”

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Has your sector imploded?

Has your sector imploded?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Ruins prove, at the least, that someone has been there. When your life is in ruins, look for yourself among them. Then restore yourself.” ~ JD Landis

“The purpose of grief is to help you reweave the story of your life together.” ~ Art Markman and Michelle Jack

Has your sector imploded? Did you lose access to it, or your place in it, due to lockdown or redundancy? Are there widespread job cuts, not just in your organisation, but sector-wide?

Have you lost your place in the world?

If you work in the arts sector you may have seen your entire industry enter a shut down that may last months or years. You may be one of many thousands of arts workers who is not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy; you may be wondering how on earth you are going to make a living.

The university sector is also struggling. If you work in that sector you may have seen your future possible career path disappear. I know researchers or sessional teachers who believe that they may never work in academia again. Professional staff have also been adversely affected.

Perhaps you work in another sector that has undergone a seismic shift in the way it operates, leaving you either out of work or in fear of that.

Losing a job is bad enough; people struggle with loss of income, identity, purpose, and opportunity. But in this recession, and with the challenge of living with the coronavirus for an indeterminate amount of time, people are dealing with an economy that is shifting and changing. Some people are dealing with not just a loss of a role, but with the loss of a career, a vocational pathway, or access to a sector.

How this affects people will vary depending on the individual, their temperament, their levels of resilience, and the conditions to which they are responding. Some may be devastated. Some may be resigned. Some may even be liberated. Some may be feeling a mixture of things or may be too shocked or numb to know how to think and feel about this unprecedented change right now.

People are in grief.

Many people will be feeling overwhelmed. Many people will be craving the opportunity to make sense of all this.

Sense-making can take time and reflection…

Do you have that?

Or is life crowding in: your kids need you; your ageing parents need you; your co-workers who have also lost their jobs keep talking at you; you have to find a way of paying the rent next month.

Our government keeps urging us all to ‘snap back’ to ‘normal’, whatever the hell normal is these days. Do you feel like snapping back? Or do you feel like hiding under a doona?

If people are dealing with overwhelming reactions to the grief or fear of losing a vocation then their need to process this will be out of alignment with the demands of an economy and societal culture that insists that they get on and earn some money.

People are being placed in a position where they urgently need to make big, far-reaching decisions about how they use their time, energies, and skills to earn a living; they may not be in a state of mind that lends itself to making snap decisions.

The need to grieve versus the need to pursue revenue: These things require different energies and could conflict. This may well be irresolvable; there is no magic bullet. But I think it helps to be mindful of your state of grief, and how it might be informing the way you are thinking about your future relationship to work…

 

N.B. This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.