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.

You can buy The next day here.

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.

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