Grief and having to function: dealing with other people

Grief and having to function: dealing with other people

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

When I was in grief I wanted to hide from people. I hated people. Nothing they could do or say was right. I was too tired and too raw to be around anyone.

Sometime over the last year, I forget when, I read a lovely account of a woman in grief for whom people were a lifeline. She didn’t know how she would have got through it all without her people. One image from the thing she wrote (and I can’t remember her name or the name of the article) described her as sitting on the floor, surrounded by friends, and feeling like she could rage, cry, laugh, shake in front of them, and feeling, all the while, safe in their midst.

Grief is funny in that it is universal – absolutely everyone on the planet will mourn the death of something sometime in their life – but it is also highly individual. Grief levels us all, but it does so in ways which are unique to each person. Grief is, at once, a common denominator and the single best counteraction of homogeny ever.

Our society is terrible at dealing with grief.

We mistake sentimentality for sympathy, projection for empathy. We cluster around people being ‘helpful’ by giving them ‘sympathy’, which often means inflating our lungs and talking about crap things that actually happened to us, and ‘advice’, which often means prescribing activity, reactions, and timeframes for grief that are completely misaligned with the circumstances and personality of the bereaved.

Part of the problem is that our modern society has learnt to try to ignore death, to make it less visible. This means that we have unlearnt any effective responses our ancestors might have had, leaving us to fall back on mawkishness or denial.

Our society often denies people the time and freedom to experience grief adequately. As mentioned in an earlier note on disenfranchised grief, we are not even good at acknowledging when people might need to grieve. Our scope of reference is small and narrow: people can cry – a bit – for dead people, but other things in life we are expected to get over lickety-split. Perhaps we can have one night on the piss if we lose our lover or job, but that’s it.

How has your grief left you feeling about other human beings?

Avoidant or needy? Or a mixture of both depending on the person and / or context?

So, how will you go negotiating new relationships with people in your new work life? Depending on what you do, you could be meeting new colleagues and supervisors, or cultivating new clients. Are you enjoying the distraction from your sadder feelings, feeling a welcome sense of connection to a new community after the disorientation of your job loss, a sense of new potential? Or is it exhausting or making your skin crawl. Do you feel that you have to ‘perform’ competence or collegiality when all you want to do is curl up in a ball?

If the latter, then bad luck. In our society, people stuff can’t be entirely avoided. So, the question then is: how do you cope with performing in public if it feels like a drain on your energy or an intrusion into your need to heal? Can you access counselling or the love of a friend, or should you be more assertive about carving some time out of the day to be alone? You do deserve it, you know.

How do you feel about authority right now, whether that be wielding it or submitting to it? If grief has left you feeling raw or vulnerable then dealing with power dynamics might be hard. If you are feeling numb or preoccupied, your ability to make discerning judgement calls about other people’s intentions or behaviours might be off. I don’t want to put the mockers on you – if you get a great opportunity in your new career or vocation, then go for it. But perhaps be aware that you might need support in taking on a new workplace culture. Or, in the case of someone assembling a team to manage in their new small business, setting up a new hierarchy made up of personalities new to you.

If you are striking out as self-employed, are you proposing to go it alone as a sole-trader or enter into a partnership with someone else? Why? Over the years I have witnessed, and sometimes been involved in, partnerships where, too late, I realised the partnership was formed not because there was a strong business rationale driving the decision to do so but because the person who instigated the whole deal was unconfident or lonely. You can be friends with business partners, but do not make the mistake of inviting someone into a business arrangement if all they are is someone you like hanging out with.

There is a lot of magical thinking about collaborations, that automatically herding folk onto a team will result in gold. When they work, group efforts can produce wonderful outputs while delivering enriching experiences for those involved. But even the best collaborations – by which I mean the most harmonious, productive, and inspiring – are still bloody hard work. Emotional labour, affective labour, communication skills, negotiation skills, assertiveness, and ego maintenance skills all get a huge workout.

Collaborations that go sour are absolute hell, destroying potential in both projects and people.

Starting a micro-business is hard work. If you are processing grief on top of this challenge it is understandable if you might feel in need of support, of having someone else make the journey by your side. But it is important to understand what exactly the support is that you need. If your proposed partner(s) brings skills that will help the actual practice, then they are a good partner to have. If you are inclined to have them on board for moral support or as an act of charity – you want to give them an opportunity – then maybe think again. There are other ways of getting support and advice – line up a mentor, have coffee with a friend, join a networking group. And there are other ways of giving someone else a leg up – mentor them, invite them to your networking groups, write them a testimonial. If their reasoning is clear as to why they should be partners, and they have negotiated terms and boundaries, I don’t see why friends can’t enter into a partnership with each other (although I have met business advisors who frown on this). But friendship isn’t enough to sustain and ground a business partnership.

Other people are wonderful. Other people are aggravating. Other people inspire us. Other people exhaust us. As stated at the beginning of this note, grief made me (temporarily) into a misanthrope, so that probably colours my opinion that most people are bad at grief. If you have a friend who you find to be compatible support for you in your grief, then bind them to you with rings of steel. Otherwise, be assertive about your right to grieve. Be mindful that your (otherwise enriching) grieving process may make you a bit weird or hypersensitive to deal with. Be empathetic of other people in their own unique grieving process. During 2020 there are a lot of you around…


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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