Grief and having to function: Money

Grief and having to function: Money

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

While writing this note, I have been acutely influenced by my concerns for two groups of people because I used to be them – my career saw me belong to these two communities – and I know how fraught money stuff is for them. Problems with money stuff were part of the reason why I abandoned my own arts career.

The two groups are casual workers and contractors working in the university sector, and freelancers and casuals working in the arts sector. Due to insecure work, a high incidence of short-term contracts, contracts that demand a mix of paid and unpaid work, low pay rates, poor conditions, unclear and non-linear vocational pathways, shortfalls in funding, and a culture of not paying for creative or cultural labour in society at large, both these groups are often precariously employed, and both struggle with financial insecurity.

When I used to either train people in small business planning or mentor people in the arts sectors about it, it used to strike me that my challenge was not in the imparting of information or techniques, but in dealing with people’s lack of confidence.

Money management isn’t actually hard, in a strict cognitive sense, for the uncomplicated business models of most sole-traders. Constructing budgets, cash flow projections, or profit and loss statements is usually a matter of basic maths. Keeping track of paperwork shouldn’t be hard for people with the kind of discipline that equips them to write PhDs or compose musicals. But, because money plays such an important role in the way our society functions, people’s feelings about money are often fraught and complex.

The article Performers and sole traders find it hard to get JobKeeper in part because they get behind on their paperwork describes how tax agents and student volunteers at the University of NSW Tax Clinic have seen numerous sole traders in the arts who have outstanding paperwork to lodge with the Australian Tax Office. This means that these sole traders were not eligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidy during Australia’s lockdown, as being up to date with ATO paperwork was a condition of eligibility. This article, which is sympathetic to the plight of these arts workers, only mentions in passing why these arts workers have fallen behind:

If a business is cash-strapped and the owner is struggling financially and psychologically struggling, a visit to a tax accountant tends not to be high priority, if indeed the business has the cash to pay the agent.”

Based on my experience and observations of arts workers, I feel that I can hazard a guess as to why they are reluctant to deal with financial stuff: it distresses them.

Precarious workers have a difficult personal history with money. They may struggle to find enough for their basic needs, or their cash flow is vulnerable to disruption. Over time, the effect can be brutalising. Thinking about and talking about money makes them anxious. As a result of past stress and disappointments, their expectations of financial security can be low.

There is a risk that precariously employed people can bring a pre-existing sense of trauma around their finances into their current situation when they are thrust into an economic downturn that even usually sober and non-histrionic types in suits are calling unprecedented. Eminent economists are writing about us in Australia all falling off a financial cliff in September when the government starts winding back its wage and unemployment-relief subsidies. Already anxious people are being bombarded with grim headlines about an uncertain future.

Pre-existing fears of doubt – patterns of tension and insecurity around money – may be compounding, or compounded by, current and valid fears around being without an income stream due to pandemic lockdowns and economic contractions.

Overlaying these very real issues connected with the current economic climate is another narrative that is the result of political will and mentioned elsewhere in The next day: that, according to the current federal government,  the arts and humanities are too expensive for Australia to afford and too useless to justify spending money on.

And yet another issue – Newstart, or ‘the dole’, has been roundly condemned for years of being too low for the unemployed to live on. Those doing the condemning have ranged from organisations in the community sector through to economists through to the business sector. The reasons these varying groups are advocating for a higher rate of Newstart range from the humane to the practical – the rate of the dole is so low that it is actually an obstacle to people being able to cover basic costs of living and, therefore, being able to resource their job-seeking.

In March of this year, when the whole of Australia locked down, the federal government surprised everyone by adding on a temporary subsidy to Newstart, in effect doubling the rate of pay. The media reported the delight of unemployed people being able to afford three meals a day that included fresh fruit and vegetables, actually paying down debts, and replacing worn-out clothes and furniture. But the government kept signalling that this subsidy was only temporary. Despite a surge of advocacy to permanently raise the rate of Newstart, the government will start cutting it back from the end of September and return it to its originally impoverishing level just after Christmas.

Many people – across all sectors – are boggling at this. People who work for businesses that are struggling are terrified of ending up on the dole. Those who are already unlucky enough to be on it are wondering how they will survive.

This is a daunting background against which to come to terms with losing a job or income streams.

The challenge here for someone mourning a loss of work while taking stock of the practicalities of finding a way to survive and then rebuild is how to do that without entrenching underlying anxiety about money that may lead to self-sabotage, an inability to negotiate fair terms and good pay or fees, or a lack of general positivity about the future.

I acknowledge that this is tough. The dour old cliché – ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ – has a depressing truth sitting behind it: if you have nothing in this commercial world of ours then you have no agency. No sole-trader or small business owner had control over us all going into lockdown. (For the record, while I acknowledge how tough lockdown was on businesspeople, I fully support it as a necessary public health measure). None of us can prevent the government from winding back subsidies. The unemployed have no control over the fact that the normal rate of Newstart is too low to live on.

“Loss of control is frequently accompanied by grief,” commented an article in The Conversation recently. Before this year, the precariously employed had very little control over rates of pay or length or security of contracts, and I would argue that this tainted their relationship with money and a sense of abundance. My concern is that this prior compromising of a sense of agency around money will meld with grief over the loss of income and a lack of control over current economic conditions.

So where is your sense of agency in your grief over the loss of income when there are so many external pressures that you cannot control? What can you do?

I think the trick here is to try to understand that your state of grief and negative feelings attached to money that previously arose from difficult experiences are two different things. Don’t mush them together.

Speaking of mushing, I am now going to quote from an advice column written by sled-dog musher Blair Braverman about how to grieve for a dead pet dog. This will look like a digression but bear with me.

Writing to a person who is consumed with guilt over a moment of inattention that may have led to the death of their dog, Braverman writes:

“Separate the guilt from the grief. The guilt is a lesson, contained. The grief is unlimited. The grief is what needs to heal.”

I think this is a useful discipline. If you have past difficult memories or associations with money – inadequacy, guilt, resentment, disappointment, stress? – are you able to see them as a lesson, contained? If you find it difficult to do this containing, and I appreciate that it could be tricky, then can you find someone to help you identify what can be learnt – and moved on from – and the grief to be lived with? A friend, a mentor, or a counsellor?

Grief is difficult, but it does have a place in our lives and can, ultimately, be a healing or enriching experience. It does not have to be corrosive. Anxiety about money is corrosive; lived with it undermines people’s sense of worth and makes them fearful for the future. Part of your grief may be about mourning the effect of years of poverty – absolutely valid – but don’t sink into that grief in such a way that you can’t move on. Alongside a sense of loss of the way you have been working, you do have the capacity to rebuild either your existing vocation, albeit following a different pathway, or finding different work that is fulfilling. Negative feelings about money must not make your expectations of the future stingy or hopeless.

Your vocational trajectory is not the only thing to have died this year. The exploitative business models that made earning an honest buck in the past so hard have also taken a battering. We are still finding out which, exactly, but components of those models will have died too. Some of them will be forced back to life by rich people to whom they were beneficial, and they will lurch through our economy like zombies. But in their disruption different alternatives will have space to emerge. Perhaps these contain opportunity for you…


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.

Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

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

“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what…


… Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”


So begins and ends WB Yeats’ poem The Circus Animal’s Desertion. Yeats has never been one of my favourite poets. His willingness to use obscure allusions and imagery irritates me rather than beguiles me. But I love this poem, especially the first and last stanzas. Since I first met this poem as a teenager and right up till my middle-aged present, I have come back to these words so many times and in so many contexts.

When I managed a neighbourhood house about ten years ago, I printed out this poem and pinned it to my wall as inspiration while I wrote the house’s business plan. This might seem odd, thinking about poetry while writing such a dry and pragmatic official document. But the imagery in the last line of the poem, of seeking for inspiration in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”, grounded me in my purpose as I struggled to articulate the activity of a charity that was non-viable outside of government funding, and in such a way that a bean-counter could accept it and one of our volunteer board members could recognise our house in it. The people who needed this organisation were dealing with disadvantage, sometimes with multiple causes. I had to remind myself that, even as I evoked the heartless language of business and bureaucracy, I was telling the story of a little community of bruised and vulnerable people, valiantly attending our groups, classes, and programs in the hope of making sense and hope in their lives. That, as I sat at my computer tapping out budgets and procedures and strategies, I was climbing down the ladder to where my own sense of compassion for these people lay inside me.

At other times in my life, I have turned to this poem when dealing with failure, surveying the smoking ruins of some project that had gone bust and wondering how I was going to face the next day.

What do you do when the potential of something on which you had pinned such hopes falls apart? When the dreams that you had for it are smashed? How do you begin again? From where do you begin again, if the slate on which your inspirations and plans have been written is wiped clean?

“This is going to be my year,” I remember a friend and I telling each other, back when we were young and actually believed that we could control our fate. But, as the years rolled on, and I tallied up my share of disastrous jobs and blighted projects I found myself, again and again, recognising that I was climbing back down that ladder to find what was left of me, and what I could start to build on again.

So, Yeats’ poem, for me, has been about inspiration and then about recovering from failure. I think there is a third angle, subtle and indelibly linked with the first two. To put it simply, this poem could be read as being about identity. In the context of this note, in which I am speaking to people rebuilding a career or vocational pathway, I could say that it is about branding.

Yeats was an esoteric and an aesthete, living a life devoted to advancing rarefied principals in the service of poetry, Irish nationalism, and an unconsummated love for his friend Maud. He would spit on me for saying that about branding if he were standing right here beside me right now as I write this.

Well, he’s not here.

Bullshit branding, of which we see so much, is an exercise in whitewashing (or greenwashing) the most venal excesses of the corporate world. This is not what I think Yeats’ poem is about. Really good branding is about articulating values in such a way that the more authentic the values are to the branded entity, the stronger the brand will be. Strip away the visual and textual detritus of a brand, and you should be able to see the beating heart of what compels an entity to go about its business.

I wrote in the note before this that I equate developing a brand with dramaturgy, whereby you assemble the different components of theatre – text, staging, art direction, music, performance – in the service of a finished production. Driving this process, the thing that anchors it is a unifying theme and set of values.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion is about finding those values and themes. Moreover, finding them when you feel that everything in your life that has previously been of meaning has been stripped away. Yeats wrote the poem as an old man and as an acknowledged and successful poet. In it, he mentions the flashy and high-flown imagery he used in his poetry in earlier life. Having garnered critical success and recognition, the same imagery, and the themes it conveyed, seem empty to him at the time of writing this poem.

“Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things they were emblems of.”

How do you start again when you feel devastated, when the things that used to be compelling are gone or feel empty? How do you take a past life, even past successes, that no longer seem to have currency and find the inspiration or ideas on which you can rebuild? There is nothing left but that ladder, nothing left but to lay down at the foot of it. But it is the place where all ladders start, and the stuff you find down there is something – perhaps the something that most matters – with which you can work.

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.

Pride, grief, and work

Pride, grief, and work

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

An obstacle to re-building, and then articulating, a sense of vocation can be when an ignominious or startling exit from work has hurt your pride. In writing this section, when I talk about ‘pride’ I am referring to the right sort of pride that arises out of a healthy ego, not a sort of vanity. For obvious reasons, hurt pride can make it difficult for someone to reinvent their personal brand. Someone whose pride has been hurt spends their time looking over their psychic shoulder, trying to pick out whispers and finger-pointing, waiting for jeers and cruel exposure.

During the current economic downturn, some sectors are experiencing such a drastic upheaval that many of their workers are being cast off with little warning. People who had enjoyed secure (or apparently secure) careers have found themselves being churned through brutal redundancy processes. Contractors in the arts industry who could point to years of consistent gigging suddenly found their projects cancelled overnight. Artists, academics, professional staff, technical crew, and many other types of workers found themselves unceremoniously dumped while their sectors collapsed around them.

Nobody likes to be made to feel expedient. We all need to feel special. Fair enough – we all are special, each of us with unique mixtures of qualities, skills, talents, experience, and knowledge. Where we are all the same is that each of us needs some measure of security – emotional, psychological, material – to be able to thrive. When our place in the economy – whether that be as an employee or one of the self-employed – is terminated, then our expedient status is made clear to us. It hurts, because those unique and wonderful skills, talents, and qualities are treated as if they can be jettisoned as excess tonnage, thrown overboard. And it’s scary because, with future income unsecured and our work status ‘cancelled’, our sense of security is undermined.

This state of affairs is bad enough, but if how we are cast adrift is particularly brutal, shocking, or cursory then – alongside our insecurity and psychological pain – we have to deal with hurt pride. It’s the curdled icing on top of a poisonous cake. Given the horrifying prevalence of workplace bullying, some people may have taken on board psychosocial damage – including injured self-esteem – even before this whole pandemic lockdown era wreaked havoc on our economy. Which means that alongside possible feelings of relief and liberation from the bully (and – remember – feelings of relief and liberation can be manifestations of grief) the hurt their pride receives from being chucked out of work could compound the hurt their pride had already received from bullying.

Another attack on the professional pride of some workers in some sectors can come from the attitudes of the society around them, including from official figures such as politicians, or prominent figures in the media or business. The arts industry has been one of the hardest hit in Australia during lockdown, with staggering numbers of arts workers cut off from income – whether that be in the form of salaries, sales, commissions, or fees – and, due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements, unable to access the forums, venues, and the networks they need to be viable. Last December, in a cabinet reshuffle, the federal government arts portfolio was absorbed into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications; the word ‘Arts’ was left out of the portfolio name altogether. For years, the arts sector has been systematically defunded by our government and the JobKeeper income support scheme was designed in such a way that many arts workers were ineligible for it, despite there being an obvious need for them to be able to access it.

Speaking of JobKeeper, the government retrospectively changed its governing policy three times to block universities from being able to access it, despite universities also being extremely badly affected by pandemic lockdowns. This came on the back of years of adverse policymaking from the government in the area of higher education.

Public universities were excluded from JobKeeper. Many, many artists were excluded. Many migrants, those on temporary visas, now stuck in Australia because of logistics and money, were not eligible for help at all. Casuals who had not been with their employer for 12 months were not eligible, which had a large effect on young people and women. The list read like a rollcall of groups an unimaginative critic of the government might have predicted would be excluded: academics, artists, recent migrants, young people, women. Frydenberg, asked why artists and actors had been left out, said, ‘We had to draw the line somewhere.’” ~ Sean Kelly

Whenever the government talks about higher education, and if it talks about the arts, it does so with spin and obfuscation. It does not articulate what drives its hostility against these two sectors; speculation from others ranges from wild-eyed conspiracy theory to sober reasoning about ideology.

But to work in these sectors is to know that your government is ranged against you, that they do not value the work you do. So, in addition to hurt that may be sustained by poor conditions or culture, and alongside hurt sustained by a rude ejection from these sectors, comes the hurt of knowing that the leaders of your own society don’t want a bar of you, that they believe that your work is of no value.

“One of the utterly shitty things about this utterly shitty situation is that a significant section of the political class sees this as mission accomplished” ~ Tim Dunlop

Talking about hurt pride might sound superficial, like playground stuff, but I don’t think so. In talking about losing work, and then having to go out and secure replacement work, it is important to consider the role of self-esteem and having a sense of identity. How on earth does someone sell themselves if their ability to feel the right kind of pride in their work, their training, and the skills and values bound up in all of that has been damaged or undermined?

What leads to hurt pride in relation to work? A loss of status, an attack on reputation, not being allowed the place and time to celebrate or even be acknowledged for your achievements. With a sense of these things being lost to you, it can initially feel very hard to rebuild a narrative around what you do and its worth.

This loss of face – of pride – needs to be grieved alongside everything else. So how to do that? How to accept and feel for the loss of status, reputation, place in the world without sacrificing or damaging a more grounded sense of self in which resilience will have to be found and from which a healthy ego will have to grow?

To be continued…

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.

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.

Grief, identity, and your story

Grief, identity, and your story

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

If you have been cut off from your sector by job loss or pandemic shutdown of your sector’s activity, you may be in the position of having to find new income streams, either to tide you over until your sector opens back up or because you may never be able to go back to your old way of working and, therefore, need a new career.

You may be caught in limbo: accepting, at least intellectually, that you do need a new career or a totally different way of pursuing your vocation, but unsure – unable to visualise – what this might be. So, in the meantime, with rent and bills needing to be paid and wolves kept from doors, you need some kind of a temporary job.

This will mean hitting the jobs market and / or developing a new client base. For those who have lost access to a whole sector or way of working, this could mean exploring new sectors and, correspondingly, new vocabularies, trends, and dynamics.

This will mean constructing a whole new way of building a compelling narrative around your transferable skills, talents, qualities, experience, and education. If the new sectors you are exploring are quite different in culture to the one you have been cast out of then this will be like learning a new language and a different mode of storytelling.

This can be challenging, perhaps daunting or perhaps novel, depending on your disposition or the conditions under which you are having to function. If you are experiencing grief, then this will add a whole new dimension:

How do you find out what your new narrative should look like?

How do you define your ‘audience’ in your new sector?

Do you perceive that new audience as giving a stuff? Will they understand your history or know enough about your past work or sector to assign value to your skills, or are you going to have to build in narrative elements that ‘translate’ your story into terms they understand?

Is this ability to translate going to be coloured by your feelings of grief? Inflected by negativity, loss of confidence, numbness, recklessness, or anxiety? Or do you feel liberated, unburdened, excited by the possibility of a new life?

Do you feel orphaned by the sudden disappearance of your role and your sector? Have you been jolted out of a context you could easily articulate, and are suddenly having to seek out and perform in quite different forums?

How has your grief impacted the way you feel about yourself, or your place in the world?

Has your grief affected your ability to even see yourself clearly? Is there anyone who can help you with this? Do you need a reality check, expert advice, or reassurance and comforting?

Do you feel bold, confident, or clear-minded? Sometimes grief serves to strip away the dross and gifts us with a heightened awareness of what is superficial and what is important. This could be a help when it comes to fashioning a new narrative about yourself and what you have to offer…


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.

Grief and perceptions of risk

Grief and perceptions of risk

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 affects how people perceive risk-taking in their lives.

Some people feel raw and vulnerable, disorientated and uncertain. Grief can make them more risk-averse than usual. They want to creep under their doona and hide from life until they can grow a new layer of skin and feel the ground steady under their feet.

Other people can feel as if nothing’s worth caring for anymore because everything’s hopeless. “Fuck it,” they say, “I’ve lost the love of my life. I don’t care what happens to me now. I might as well go and join the Foreign Legion.” Because these people have lost something of great value to them, they feel bereft of value. Risk-taking means nothing because life has become meaningless.

Then there are other people who meditate on how nothing ever stays the same, how everything will change and evolve, that life is fleeting. These people find liberation in their grief; they stop wasting time on superficialities and divest themselves of what is trivial. They discover what is of value. What they choose to preserve or play safe with, and what they choose to take calculated risks on, is recalibrated.

In your grief do you feel bereft or liberated? Both these things carry vulnerabilities; how do you perceive these?

Risk is fluid and our sense of where risk lies and how willing we are to take it ebbs and flows through different parts of our lives. How has your sense of risk – what constitutes a danger and how likely that is to happen – changed over the last two to three months, or since whenever it was that you lost your job or vocation?

If you are more risk-averse, what can you do to counter that? Are there things you can do to inspire you? Reflective practices you can undertake to help you understand the nature of any fears or doubts you might have? People who make you feel supported? Or are your instincts telling you that have been left raw by loss, that you do, in fact, need to hide from the world – not permanently but just until everything stops feeling so abrasive.

If you have become more reckless – of the ‘fuck it, who cares’ variety of recklessness – then what can you do to counter that? What was it about the now-absent set of conditions that anchored you, or gave you parameters, or grounded instincts? Are you able to set up some markers to warn you if you are about to cause some damage to yourself? Or are there any wise owls in your network you can use as a sounding board?

“I distinguish between “fear” and “risk”. One can be afraid when not at risk, and at risk but not afraid.” ~ Robert MacFarlane

Is your grief making you more fearful than usual, or more numb to danger? This can be hard to spot or track if your grief overwhelms you. You may be prone to being triggered by strong emotions: anger or resentment that makes you want to lash out; anxiety or insecurity that can have you jumping at small noises.

Each person will be different in the way in which they respond to the stimuli present in their lives as they process grief. Denying emotion is unhealthy. So too is nurturing hypersensitivity because you find yourself harbouring the strong feelings and reactions of grief. Perhaps the answer lies in an awareness that you are in grief, that it is an important force in your life right now, but that it does not define you or your future.


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.

Time is weird now

Time is weird now

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

Ethnographer Jonathan Cook recently published the article The strange stream of COVID-19 time in business culture on the Journal of Beautiful Business website. In it, he summarises some findings – about perceptions of time – from research he has been conducting on how COVID-19 has impacted business culture. He writes:

“As I spoke with people in business, they began to tell me something strange: Their perception of time was changing… Some people talked of a great pause in time, while others talked about simply feeling lost in time, unsure of their place in it.”

If you are currently feeling disorientated and adrift in time, then you are not alone. Cook notes that “The commonality was that time wasn’t behaving normally, but the specific form of its abnormality was not at all uniform. Under COVID-19, time has become subjective, experienced individually.”

In another note in The next day, I wrote that you may be feeling a sense of urgency and that this may or may not be generated by your reaction to real deadlines looming, or other people’s attitudes putting pressure on you, or from your own internal mental chatter. If time is being experienced individually, as Cook has found, then this may explain, in part, why dealing with the world, other people, and our frazzled selves can feel stressful: perhaps we are all out of alignment with each other in our sense of time.

The normal deadlines aren’t going anywhere – the rent or the electricity bill has to be paid by its usual date, that job application is due in. But perhaps you are struggling to meet them, either because your brain has turned to mush and you can’t remember to do stuff, or because you have no money anymore and therefore aren’t resourced to meet those deadlines as they march towards you.

Adverse reactions from other people can feel like a form of pressure, especially if you feel off-kilter or raw due to your own response to the current crisis. These reactions can be divulged either deliberately or unwittingly, in the form of nagging or naysaying, prophesying doom for the economy, bitchy competitiveness for the few remaining jobs in your organisation, or ‘helpful’ prompts to grab the next shelf-stacking job at the local supermarkets.

One person might be panting with anxiety about nailing down a source of income, madly filling their days with frantic activity. Their friend might have trouble getting out of their pyjamas and deciding which cereal to have for dinner. Slipping on ice or wading through treacle. If the people around you are experiencing time differently, and therefore coming at activity and deadlines differently, then they can generate a sense of urgency that may be valid for them, but unhelpful to you. Cook found that different people he interviewed reported experiencing a variety of reactions: stress, anxiety, liberation, reflectiveness, creativity, and transformation. All understandable in people under duress, all possible manifestations of grief. But all different: make sure people are not superimposing their feelings of urgency – or apathy – onto you. Hold onto the unique and individual way in which you are needing to experience the flow of time.

Cook’s article is fascinating and also hopeful. He notes that time is a cultural construct; he opines that the

“fracturing of the experience of time… is creating the potential for multiple alternative models of business. Not everything needs to be on the clock anymore.”

You have been divested of a vocational pathway that, regardless as to how easy or demanding it was to follow, made sense to you once. The sudden absence of this clear vocational pathway may be disorientating, even painful or shocking. But why should not one of these “alternative models of business” become available to you in time? Perhaps you can create one.

“We can make new kinds of maps,” Cook writes.

“A good canoeist will often save energy by riding with the currents going downstream, but will also have a paddle ready, to change direction when necessary. The future is fluid. We have the power to choose where we go.”

Happy paddling.


Literally right after I read first read this article by Cook, I read a poem about a canoe called ‘ars pasifika’ by Craig Santos Perez. It’s the perfect companion to Cook’s article.


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.

Necessity and futility

Necessity and futility

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’.

Plans are important because they make the ground feel firm under our feet. They map out a possible way forward. In the absence of planning, life just becomes one long crapshoot. Plans are necessary because they help us to get started. They start us off on a trajectory.

Ultimately, plans are exercises in futility. All plans will change; no plan is impervious to the forces of fate.

Redundancy: A terrifying word for many people, when applied to employment. In this note, I don’t want to dwell on the idea of redundancy in the context of people and their jobs. I want to talk about plans, and what makes them redundant.

Some of you reading this will have been made redundant from your jobs. Due to the sudden downturn in the economy because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns, some of you will have seen not just your role disappear in the organisation you happened to be working in, but in all other organisations in your sector. My ex-colleagues in the arts sector saw their sector close down almost literally overnight. In March of this year, arts advocate Esther Anatolitis wrote:

“In the past fortnight, we have seen our self-generated income for the year vanish. Work that has taken years to develop has been lost. Livelihoods have been jeopardised. Businesses closed…. The scale of loss across the cultural and creative sector is unprecedented – and devastating.”

An article in The Conversation, comments that many arts workers are grieving having seen “a lifetime’s commitment evaporate.” It is not just jobs that have been made redundant, but whole life plans or career paths have been made redundant too. Blasted out of the water.

So, I want to talk about the redundancy of plans.

When a plan that you have lavished years of thought, sweat, guts, and hope into is suddenly disrupted it hurts. It can be bewildering, dismaying, frightening, frustrating. It can be a cause of grief and deserves to be grieved if the plan was something you had layered physical, creative, intellectual, emotional, or psychological effort around.

But, alongside this natural and valid grief, perhaps it is helpful to consider a paradoxical thing that is a signifier of all good plans. Please bear with me for a digression over the next couple of paragraphs.

Good (by which I mean useful or effective) plans are prone to being made redundant. In his article, The end of winning: Why future belongs to losers, entrepreneur Tim Leberecht says “That three-year plans are a thing of the past the very moment they are written.”

Why? In part, because the better a plan is, the more it carries its own seeds of redundancy.

Truly effective plans start changing conditions once they start being implemented. How fast or slowly they change things, and whether that change is incremental or radical, will depend on the plan, its objectives, and the conditions under which it is being delivered. But good plans do change things. And as soon as conditions surrounding the plan are changed by the implementation of that plan, then that original plan starts to become redundant – an artifact of the old (now changed) conditions it was originally formulated to deal with. This is why, when planning, it is important to mindfully monitor progress and to be prepared to allow your plans to evolve and change, to embed space and contingencies around an inevitable shift in your planning process.

But what if you didn’t choose change?

If your job has been lost due to an economic downturn, then that is not change you chose or which the implementation of your plans brought about. If your sector has shrunk to the extent that you may not be able to return to your old way of working within it, then that is not change that you implemented. Your original plans for your career have been made redundant, along with your job. And this is not a redundancy that organically arose out of the effectiveness of your own plan, but a redundancy that has been imposed by overwhelming external events. This is why the forced redundancy of your plan hurts, why it feels like a body blow, why it has a psychic violence. This is why grief is understandable: the potential of your own plan to change itself, to seed its own evolution, has been cut short and you will not be able to see that plan through to fruition. You are forced to make a new plan, maybe in conditions which none of us understands yet (and which are probably still in a state of flux) while coming to terms with the sudden loss of the old one.

This is hard. I wonder – I hope – it is of some small comfort in your grief to bear in mind that redundancy is a hidden feature of plans – if your old plan had been allowed to continue to flow it would have made itself redundant, anyway, sooner or later.

This may be cold comfort if you are feeling awful at having been forced out of your industry.

“Suspension: The Stoics, echoed by the phenomenologists, called it “epokhē.” It’s what happens when the object of your intention is taken away and you’re left with the pure structure of intending. Life feels more like that every day.” ~ Haun Saussy

Living with this “pure structure of intending” is hard, for it is living in a kind of limbo, which seems to draw on a lot of energy just to enable that suspension. But this floating state is necessary, and not to be confused with a state of stasis. Your plan – that list of actions – might have disintegrated, but your structure of intending doesn’t have to. And it is out of that state of suspension, which is another way in which grief can make itself manifest, that more tangible aims will start to form.

In his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption.”

Cave is talking about sensing the dead – as spirits or dreams or memories – but, with apologies to him – I am going to borrow his words to talk about dead plans and the ideas that lay behind them.

Let your grief over your devastated plans remind you of your original intentions. Use your time in suspension to re-examine them. Will you carry them forward and find new ways of realising them? Or would you prefer to find new sources of inspiration? You may not feel that you have a lot of agency right now, but you do, at least, have the power to do that…


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.

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.

Different types of grief

Different types of grief

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’.

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

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?

Disenfranchised grief

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.

In conclusion:

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.

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.