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 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?
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.
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.
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