Grief and having to do stuff

Grief and having to do stuff

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

Grief can play havoc with people’s energy levels. Some people feel hyperactive, some want to curl up in a ball and hibernate, dormouse-like. Others swing between the two.

With variations in mental energy come variations in the ability to concentrate or remember or prioritise. One of my personal red flags – a sure-fire indicator that I am disproportionately stressed – is when I can’t make what should be simple choices. Deciding what I want to cook for dinner tonight feels as hard and complex and irresolvable as deciding what I should do with the rest of my life.

As stated elsewhere in The next day, the fundamental challenge that I see many people facing right now, especially those in locked down or downsizing sectors, is living with a tension between their need to slow down and grieve and society’s need for them to buck up and earn some cash.

Grief has its own weird agenda and schedule; time works differently for the bereaved. Your grieving and energies may not neatly align with the date your rent is due or the deadline for a job application. Surges of energy and / or fatigue may make ticking stuff off on your to-do list feel daunting.

A man interviewed in an article on grief in the workplace said that “When your heart is broken, your head doesn’t work right.” New index measures the cost of on-job grief describes this poor soul coming into work in the months following the death of his daughter and spending half the day staring into space instead of attending to his tasks. Anyone with a skerrick of empathy can understand why.

Time management versus energy management.

Have you noticed how much we talk about ‘time management’, but never about energy management? This has never made sense to me. What is the point in tweaking your calendar or daily planner so that you carve out space for more activity, only to arrive at that point in the day feeling so tired or frazzled that you can’t concentrate or do work of quality?

Often our choices about how we use our time and energy are circumscribed by other things and people in our lives. The demands of parenting, caring, earning, or other commitments hoover up great tranches of time and energy, so we always find ourselves, either consciously or by instinct, juggling how much time we allot and how much energy we have to spare.

The process of grieving is, of itself, a form of work. Gladly undertaken it can be enriching work (and, yes, despite the discomfitures of this state gladly is the word I will use). But even grief denied or delayed will still draw energy from you. Grief doesn’t go anywhere; if your life has been impacted by a radical enough absence of something that was important to it then you will grieve. No options. Mindfully undertaken it can be enriching, and it can give context and a sort of inner framework for you to adjust to loss or absence. Grief ignored will hang around in the back of your mind and soul, lurking, festering, weighing you down until it finds a fissure in whatever you have slammed down over it.

But, being a form of work, grief demands energy. And an intensity of energy that draws you away from the day-to-day energies you usually employ to get stuff done. So, the challenge during this time is finding the balance between the two; carrying a state of grief while achieving just enough efficiency to keep your material life together.

What’s your head for detail like? Are you making good judgement calls right now? Should you be recruiting help: a colleague to ‘check your homework’, or a counsellor to act as a sounding board, or a mentor to act as an advisor?

How is grief affecting your energy levels? Compared with how you operated in the ‘old normal’, have new patterns of energy use emerged? Do you like them or are they problematic? What adjustments can you make to accommodate them?

What were the ways in which your energy was drained before you lost your income stream? And how did you feel about that? Is part of your grief about resenting or regretting how the ‘old normal’ made you spend your energy? This is a gift, allowing you a heightened awareness of what you would like to invest your energy on in your new life.

If you are used to being productive then having your mental, emotional, or physical energies fractured by grief can be disconcerting. How do you work with these radically altered flows of energy?

On her Extraordinary Routines website, Madeleine Dore writes about the use of anchors or checkboxes for people who, for whatever reason, are struggling to stick to a routine. An anchor is an activity that acts as a sort of simple ritual that centres you within a focused mindset. Checkboxes identify essential activity that you want to fit sometime, somewhere into your day. Dore describes these as simple and flexible. Perhaps they are good tactics for someone who is too frazzled to follow a routine or power through a to-do list.

I have a personal tactic that I mentally call ‘creating in fragments’. In fact, this is why I have characterised The next day as a bundle of notes rather than an essay, a monograph, or a short book. My ‘lockdown’ brain isn’t working in concentrated stretches. This odd atmosphere I’m living in – the challenge to hold my psyche in a state of suspension while keeping myself nice – means that my concentration and moods fluctuate. This tends to happen to me at times in my life when I’m stressed. So, I just tell myself that that’s OK, that’s how it’s going to be for a while, and when I work, I work in bite-sized pieces. This is not ideal for creating large and / or complex work, but it is effective in getting some work done, leaving you poised to take advantage of better conditions and more harmonious flows of concentration when they become available. As they will.

These tactics may or may not work for you. I am sure that, based on your own life experience and the challenges it has meted out, you will have coping strategies of your own.

I think the key thing here is to understand that you are currently doing stuff while under duress and to adjust your expectations accordingly. Before thinking about what you should be doing, or how you should be doing it, and certainly how well you should be doing it, think about how well you should be treating yourself. For you are in grief because of the absence of something important to you. What do you need to do to deal with that? Decide this, and then choosing priorities and tactics will become clearer.


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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