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.

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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