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.


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.

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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