Grief and personal branding

Grief and personal branding

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

In the first month after my mother died, I wrote in the mess of notes that passed for a journal at the time “I’m going to let grief scrub me raw and clean.” In the months after I abandoned my performing career, and after I figured out that my strange state was a state of grief, I decided to let grief shift me about – like wading across a river with a fast current and a silty bed. I knew I was going to get to the other side but also bargained on stumbling about, falling over, and not knowing where exactly on the opposite bank I was going to scramble ashore, depending on the swiftness and power of the water.

Grief strips you bear. My late mother, as a survivor of a severe stroke, had to process grief over her altered life. She wrote a poem in which she said, “A stroke stripped off my overcoat / Although I wore it buttoned tight… left shivering in the cold hard truth / all secrecy and poses gone.”

So, yes, grief may give your sense of self-identity a wallop. The impact can be severe even if the thing being grieved over is a job, practice, or access to a sector – the loss or sudden absence of these things can, in and of themselves, be a cause of a shift in, or loss of, sense of self-identity.

Personal branding

When people lose jobs or income streams, society expects those people to hurry right on out and find themselves something to replace them. Our economy demands that we continue to pay rent and bills, and our culture has a horror of the unemployed.

A key strategy in job-searching or business development is personal branding, equally commonly applicable to job seekers as it is to sole-traders. We are all supposed to concoct a beguiling and commodified persona that will ‘sell’ us to employers, customers and clients.

I will readily admit that I actually enjoy a good branding exercise; it appeals to the ex-theatre maker in me. I’ve always associated branding with dramaturgy – bringing different visual, textual, spatial, thematic, and social elements together to express an idea. Good branding should make manifest core values. This is why bad branding is so irritating and off-putting – it’s a mendacious attempt to spin something rather than to express authenticity.

The challenge for someone who is still in acute grief – perhaps even shock – over the sudden loss of a source of work and income is that there will be pressure for that someone to cobble together a beaming shiny-toothed personal brand to sell themselves to the work market. And that someone might just not feel like it. More pressing still, that someone might be going through a grieving process during which they are questioning and sorting through a shift in values, sense of self, or worldview. This can be a harrowing process for some people, an inspiring one for others, or a mixture of both for others still. It’s not easy, but it is important and needs time and focus. What to do when a need for material security – realised by finding new work – itself demands time and focus? And what happens when that time and focus has to be invested into a personal branding exercise that is essentially an act to impress employers or prospects, but which leaves no room for acknowledgement, let alone processing, of the disorientation and perhaps even despair of losing a vocation?

This conflict is hard to resolve and may well be irresolvable for many people who are grieving.

If you find yourself feeling conflict between your need to grieve and your need to hit the hustings and rustle up some cash, analyse what your inner conflict is about. Sometimes grief can highlight – with almost brutal clarity – the things that matter to us in the shape of things we become aware of missing acutely, and other things we are happy to let slide. In other words, grief can help us become hyper-aware of our values. If we find these values in conflict with the way in how we perceive the world wants us to be in the job market, then the conflict we feel has actually amplified the importance of these values to us. And good branding is based on articulating values. Perhaps, then, this feeling of conflict – as awful as it is – can be reframed as a good place to start building a brand that is authentic to you.

Being aware of feeling grief is important; it is important not to let a feeling of malaise colour your long-term sense of potential, both for yourself and for the opportunities the new post-COVID normal may present you with. Keep reminding yourself that what you are feeling is grief; it is not your long-term reality.

Where is your sense of identity at right now? Is it being reclaimed, reformed, protected, or undermined? Is there a point to having a personal brand if you are not yet sure what services you will be offering? Yes! You can start assembling networks of allies and potential clients – focus on manifesting your values. Find conversations you enjoy having, and people you enjoy having them with, and then analyse why you enjoy having them. What you discover will become the foundation of a new narrative…


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.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

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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