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?
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.
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.