Disenfranchising our collective grief

Disenfranchising our collective grief

Can disenfranchised grief be a collective experience felt by a community? My blog on why I think it can.

‘Disenfranchised grief’. Ever heard of it? It’s most definitely a thing – a recognised form of grief.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

I define grief as a reaction to the radical loss of something that was central to your life. It’s an umbrella term that covers a wide and varying range of emotions, reactions, and behaviours. We often think of grief as something that happens when a beloved and close family member or friend dies, and many of our conventionally accepted rituals of grief are centred around this.

But note that I said “something”, rather than “someone dear” in the paragraph above? That’s because that sense of radical loss can also be attached to other people and things: ex-spouses, abusive parents, estranged family members, jobs, pets, businesses, and even events can all be grieved over. Perhaps the reasons are different compared to those that drive grief for someone dear to you, but their absence can still bring up sadnesses, regrets, anxieties, and a profound urge to recognise and process that absence.

Disenfranchised grief happens when someone feels a grief that is not recognised or expected in the eyes of society:

“Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka calls this ‘disenfranchised grief’. He coined the term in 1989 to capture this feeling of loss that no one seems to understand and that you don’t feel entitled to. ‘Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported,’ he says.”

How is our grief being disenfranchised?

In 2020, I wrote The next day: A bundle of notes on grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless in response to the job losses and industry shutdowns experienced during lockdowns because I was concerned that the very real grief that was being felt by many who experienced a loss of vocation would be a form of disenfranchised grief. I wanted to talk to an experience of grief that would probably be brushed aside as a side-story to an economic event. In a sense, given how widespread this vocational displacement was, the grief over loss of vocation was also a collective grief.

Right now, I sense that my networks in Melbourne are undergoing collective grief over our forced transition from a community that enjoyed low rates of community infections of Covid to a community who is dealing with a rapidly growing outbreak that effectively rules out a return to our former state of either small and brief outbreaks or no infections at all. I write more about my reasoning behind my idea that we are undergoing collective grief here.

The reason why I am writing these blogs about collective grief is that I don’t think that we live in a very grief-literate society. Even when my mother died in 2019 – an event that society was happy to acknowledge as one deserving of grief – I found the reactions of many people to be clumsy, crude, and unhelpful. It was as if they had no idea what to say or do. When I talk about grieving for a vocation, or over Melbourne’s recent travails, then people look at me askance. They think I’m wrong: ‘I’m not in grief. I just cry all the time, can’t sleep, or concentrate on my work because of lockdown and the way I wish things were as they were before. But I’m not in grief.’ So, our lack of grief-literacy leads to groupthink in which we deny our own collective grief.

Deliberate disenfranchisement

But there is another disenfranchisement of Melbourne, and perhaps other community, grief that has been happening which is far more egregious and sinister. And this disenfranchisement is not the result of unthinking alignment to societal norms around grief; it is quite deliberate.

During 2020 and 2021, the Melbourne community has suffered constant trolling by the Murdoch owned press as well as criticism from our own federal government. The public health strategies that were successful in 2020 and early 2021 at controlling outbreaks of Covid, but which cost the public undertaking the strategies dear, were railed against by journalists and editors working for News Ltd and also by our Prime Minister, federal Treasurer and federal Health Minister. Our state government leaders, who have done everything they could to keep us alive, were denounced as power-hungry or inept, and the public who chose to commit to our state public health strategies were jeered at as “sheeple” or as suffering Stockholm Syndrome. A fair share of vaccinations, income support, and other considerations have been hard wrung from our federal government and given begrudgingly.

During 2020, Victorians suffered through one of the longest and toughest lockdowns of anywhere in the world up to that date. This lockdown was also successful in driving down rates of infections to zero. We deserve to be proud of our effort, but it was achieved through real sacrifice. We have never been thanked by our federal government or, I believe, News Ltd. and our collective griefs – over a loss of freedom, agency, sense of safety, or finances – have never been acknowledged. Instead, we have been denounced repeatedly as a rogue state, a problem community.

This heaping up of abuse was relentlessly layered down on top of our experience of living with anxiety, tedium, loneliness, frustration, and, for some, fear for extended periods of time during lockdowns. As I write this in September of 2021, I can detect a lowness, manifesting as anger in some of us, depression in others, hopelessness and apathy in others still, that is lower than any other collective mood I have noticed so far. Partly this is due to real grief over the current state of affairs (a runaway Delta outbreak seeded here in Melbourne due to another state’s desultory incompetence) but it is also due, I think, to the fact that this grief we currently feel, and all of the complex feelings and thoughts that came before it in 2020, have been utterly denied and dismissed by our federal government and many in the media.

Grief is hard.

It’s yuck. But, embraced, it can also be profound and enriching. Grief shows us things about ourselves by amplifying our feelings about what we are mourning: the qualities or values or conditions that we miss so badly give us clues as to what is important for us right now. And in these insights lie the paths to healing, resilience, recovery, and the capacity for future joy.

Disenfranchising grief blocks that. By forcing us into a stance of psychological defence each time they denied or cheapened or offended our collective grief, those political and media ‘leaders’ drew off energy, focus, resilience, and emotion that we needed to deal with our grief. This was a terrible thing to do to our community.

Last year I wrote ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on #grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. People have lost their place in the world. How do they grieve for that? I wrote some notes on how to start unpacking grief over being displaced in the world.

You might find it helpful. And I most definitely need the cash. Available here.

The G-word

The G-word

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Feeling sad and mournful? Or perhaps angrier than usual? Maybe your emotions are volatile, swinging from one state to another at breakneck speed? Or are you just numb, moving through your days in a deadened state?

How are your energy levels? Maybe you’re feeling apathetic or listless, like everything is too much trouble? Perhaps you are feeling a little manic, compelled to burn up nervous energy? Are you sleeping more than usual, or insomniac?

Right now, Melbourne, where I live, is slogging through our 6th lockdown. As I write this, we have been in a total of 230 days in lockdown since our first began in March 2020. So many people around me are reporting in via social media, phone, Zoom, and email that they are feeling, well, crap. Not themselves. Bent out of shape. Prone to mood swings, disrupted sleep patterns, or with patchy concentration. And struggling to maintain motivation, hope, patience, a sense of proportion, or long-term thinking.

I have friends who are reacting in different ways, variously experiencing tearfulness, apathy, fear, pessimism and other moods or emotions that are uncharacteristic and disproportionate. Using myself as one example, I regularly feel anger: bitter and black-hearted. I’m not usually like this; I have to fight the impulse to be cruel every day. But I have insight into why I feel like this and that helps.

People are wondering ‘what is wrong with me?’

We all know that we are exhausted by lockdown and then Covid in general. And here in Australia we have good cause to be angered, disappointed, and cynical about some of our politicians who have bungled quarantine and vaccination programs and, in NSW, lockdown measures, leaving us a population with too many people unvaccinated (through no fault of their own) while at the mercy of Delta outbreaks. So, there are plenty of reasons for Aussies to feel fatigue, stress, and frustration.

But the dark moods and disorientation I am noticing in Melbourne have a particular flavour during lockdown #6, I think. And I have a theory as to what it is that is affecting my networks.

If you are asking yourself ‘what is wrong with me?’ then have you considered that you might be in grief?

Grief is a word that gets bandied about, often used to describe depression or trauma more generally. But, in the context of this blog, I am using it very specifically.

I define grief as a response to the radical absence of something that was important to your life. And I think that Melbourne, or that part of Melbourne I know or can observe, is in a state of grief.

Recently, Melbourne has lost something. Last year we used lockdown, mask-wearing, social distancing, and other public health measures with great efficacy to drive down a big second wave of Covid, from many hundreds of infections a day to zero. We didn’t enjoy it, it was hard, it cost us, but it did work. Collectively, we were brave and disciplined. We stopped Covid from getting out of control not just in our own state but from spreading across the country. We bought Australia some time.

In the first half of 2021 we enjoyed weeks at a time with no or only a few community transmissions of Covid. When small spikes did happen then we resorted to short circuit-breaker lockdowns to drive the infection rate back down to zero. We all badly wanted (and still want) to be done with lockdowns, and looked forward to being vaccinated but, at least we were living a reasonably calm and safe life and knew that we had strategies in hand to control small outbreaks.

This state of affairs has been taken away from us.

It has been taken away from us by a federal government that bungled quarantine and vaccination. It has been taken away from us by the NSW government not controlling their own Delta outbreak (which then spread across state borders to infect Melbourne). These politicians have been incompetent and negligent in their duty of care to their communities to a sociopathic degree. Their lazy, dishonest, callously careless, and delinquently inadequate approach has imposed upon us an outbreak that, this time, has spread rapidly. Our state premier, whose government has tried so hard to keep Covid at bay over the last 20 months, has finally had to admit that we will never see zero community infections again.

We did not choose this.

A set of conditions under which we could effectively control outbreaks has been wrenched away from us. Other federal and state politicians from outside of our own state, encouraged and abetted by their corporate cheerleaders and the Murdoch press, have pissed on our public health achievements from a great height. For the first time in months, we have people in ICU in Melbourne hospitals. For the first time since 2020, some poor souls have died.

Now we have to live with not just another long lockdown and general anxiety about Covid, but a sense that something that, just a few weeks ago, was possible and achievable will now never be achieved by us again. So, this is why I think we are processing grief. We are dealing with a loss.

I don’t enjoy experiencing grief (who does?) but I do find it a fascinating state and do believe that having awareness that you may be in grief helps. It has helped me to understand my strange rage – I still feel angry but I have a sense of where that anger is coming from. This sense of orientation helps me to resist its worst impulses.

So here are some pointers about grief:

Grief is not just one emotion, but more of an umbrella term that covers a whole range of emotions, reactions, and behaviours that make themselves felt in the emotional, psychological, physical, behavioural, and spiritual realms. (For a list of symptoms of grief, click here).

We all manifest grief differently. No two people ever grieve alike. So don’t ever judge or proscribe another person’s grief.

You are entitled to your grief, so give yourself permission to be a little emotional or unhinged. Watch out for recklessness, though, as this can be another manifestation of grief. You are entitled to feel the feels and think your thoughts but not entitled to get reckless with someone else’s safety. So, non-mask wearers, if your grief is manifesting as “Fuck it, everything’s useless” then you still have to wear your damned mask.

You can feel grief over things or people you didn’t like or had mixed or ambiguous feelings about. Even if something you hated, like living in lockdown, is suddenly yanked away, and that thing was central to your life, you may still feel a weird sort of grief: you still have to process its absence and the ramifications of that.

Finally, I believe that a healthy grieving process can be an enriching and profound experience, if an uncomfortable or challenging one. But watch out for complicated grief, which is where you get stuck in your grief and start to experience depression. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of depression and do not hesitate to get help if you feel that you are affected.

Apologies to my interstate and overseas readers for this Melbourne-centric blog, but I have badly wanted to reach out to my fellow Melbournites who, I can see, are struggling right now. I don’t think I have ever seen us so collectively low. If you are reading this and from outside of Melbourne, perhaps you can ask yourself if your community, too, is processing grief over things that belonged to a pre-Covid life that have been ripped away.

Wherever you live, before you chide yourself and ask, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ perhaps consider that you may be experiencing grief. In which case nothing is wrong with you. You are just being human.

Although grief affects all of us differently, you do not have to do this unsupported or alone. And if you suspect that your grief is slipping into depression then please get help. Check out this page for sources of support available to Victorians.

Last year I wrote ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on #grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. People have lost their place in the world. How do they grieve for that? I wrote some notes on how to start unpacking grief over being displaced in the world.

You might find it helpful. And I most definitely need the cash. Available here

Mercy Killing

Mercy Killing

In the days after I killed my vocation, I felt at a loss.

My newly dead vocation – as an independent performing artist – had demanded intense amounts of time, energy, focus, and resilience. Vampire-like, it sucked these things out of me but gave very little back in terms of satisfaction, endorsement, or viable income. So, it had to die – my mental health was failing, and it was either me or it – and when I killed it I experienced intense grief, as I had loved it all my life, loved it even when it had turned into something wicked and mean and dangerous.

This grief manifested as a feeling of incredible lightness and relief alongside the sort of sorrow that makes your bones ache. When I say ‘grief’ I must emphasise that at this point of this story I didn’t know I was in a state of grief; it was not a word I ascribed to the mercy killing of a vocation.

The lightness came from the laying down of a burden of having to care about an impossible dream. The reclamation of energy felt so marked, so profound, that it was disorientating. I had lived up till that point of my life as someone who was constantly and frantically busy, and busy with the complex work of making art using my mind, body, heart, and soul. After I killed my vocation, I suddenly had access to time and energy in ways I had never experienced. I was at a loss as to what to do with it all.

Stumbling through my days – relieved and disordered – I thought that I might do some volunteer work in order to explore other sectors and other types of jobs. One day at some event that I have now forgotten the name of, I bumped into a woman who ran a charity that provided support to palliative care patients. She mentioned that she might have volunteer roles available. She seemed nice and I thought ‘why not?’ It sounded like a good cause. I decided to think it over.

I knew nothing about palliative care, only that it involved slowly dying people, which sounded serious and weighty to me. So, I thought that, in order to make this decision with the gravitas it deserved, I should do some research about palliative care to see if I were a good match for the cause.

Evening by Caspar David Friedrich

Down to the public library at Northcote I went, and started borrowing books about palliative care, and dying more generally. They interested my mind and moved my heart. Through them I learnt about grief and realised that my new happy-sad and calm-angry and grounded-discombobulated raw state of reacting to my newly dead vocation was a form of grief. This made sense to me. The idea pleased me. I reasoned that even though my vocation had to die, and even though I was the one who had murdered it, the presence of grief still made sense because I had loved it, even when I hated it, for all those years. My feelings of grief went nowhere, but my feelings about having those feelings were set aright. The ground steadied under my feet somewhat.

One day I was checking out a few more books about dying – this was in the days before the check out process in libraries was automated – when the librarian doing this noticed my borrowing record.

“You seem to have borrowed out quite a few books about death recently,” he said gently. “Are you alright? Do you need to talk to someone?”

It took a moment for me to understand what he meant, and then I was able to reassure him by telling him about my upcoming decision about doing volunteer work with palliative care patients.

He grinned, and his shoulders sagged with relief. “Bless you,” I thought, “for even thinking of trying to reach out.”

I decided not to do the volunteer work, after all. But I have treasured the memory of that little intellectual and emotional journey I undertook in Northcote public library. In the midst of life we are in death, the old hymn tells us. And in the midst of death we are in life, say I. The death of my mother from cancer a couple of years ago showed me that, physically, when your number’s up, it’s up. But in the ordering our own inner lives we can choose to take life from some parts to reclaim it for other parts of ourselves. And even though we do this in our own individual and unique ways, the wisdom available to me in books and the encounter with the observant kindly librarian showed me that we don’t have to do it unsupported and wholly alone.

Back in those days, I thought that it was my actual creativity that had died, so exhausted and unresponsive that side of my nature had become after years of grind. But it came back – with time and the resurgence of energy it snuck back in new and delightfully surprising ways. This was my other lesson from this time: our creativity is innate. It cannot die. We just need the right conditions to nurture it and to let it live.

Making creative work can be tough, asking us to be vulnerable, take risks, maybe even fail. If you are struggling with your sense of creative identity or have hit a rough patch in your creative process, then maybe my mentoring sessions can support you? Contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help?

The Theft

The Theft

She was perhaps the most negative person I have ever met.

Don’t get me wrong. I have met worse people: people more vindictive, more morally devolved, or people who I suspected were actually sociopathic, such was the degree of their callous disregard for, or malicious undermining of, the wellbeing or rights of others. I have been unfortunate in my life to come across one or two people who destroyed others for the sheer giddy nihilistic joy of it. In terms of applied spite, she wasn’t in their league.

When I say she was the most negative person I have ever met it is because she was permanently sunk into a state of discontent and apathy that sapped her energy and spread a miasma of gloom around her, like a permanent fog of psychic fart.

Everything was a complaint. If her account was to be believed, and I never saw why not, she was a physical collection of aches and stiffnesses. “Oh, my knee… oh my back… ooh I just had a twinge…” Perhaps this deserved sympathy, and – God knows – I did my best to muster some, but my condolences were drowned in a litany of grievances about everything else – the weather, the rude man on the bus, young people today, the state of the world.

If I complimented her on something – a scarf or a new haircut – I got a disbelieving grunt in reply. Her opinions about other people outside our office – other tenants in our organisation’s building, stakeholders from funding bodies, even our clients – were coloured by vague but, for her, compelling paranoia. Recently when I attended a masterclass on analysing workplace culture, we did a quiz on signs of incivility. Of the ten signs listed I was surprised – but not – to see that she exhibited every single one, every single day. In the nine months I stuck it out as her direct report I didn’t hear her say one positive thing, about me, about anyone else, about anything.

So, she was not a fun person to be around. But I undertook not to buy into this, reasoning that that was her problem, and I didn’t need to respond in kind. Until I found another job, my responsibility was to turn up, act civil, and do my best to perform my work as directed. I was more bemused by her constant nurturing of the grumps than seriously upset by it; I just chose not to give the situation more emotional energy than I had to and, if anything, I pitied her somewhat.

The thing that changed this, that inspired my darkest and truest contempt? She gate-crashed my grief. I cannot forgive her for that.

Detail from The Sorceress by Jan van de Velde II

My mother was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, an aggressive cancer, on the 1st of April 2019. She requested of her oncologist that he not give her a prognosis, understandably not wanting a deadline (her pun and intended) hanging over her. We hoped she’d have a few months, perhaps until Christmas. By the 19th of May she was dead. I was away from work for three weeks overall: the last week of her life, the week after she died and during which she was cremated, and a further week to get a grip on myself.

When I returned to work something had changed in the dynamics. Suddenly it was no longer enough for my boss to sit in her own puddle of discordancy, she started actively targeting me. Perhaps it was the hiring of a new employee – a lovely man with terrific skills, but his appearance was a change, and this lady didn’t do change well. Perhaps it was the thought of her impending retirement, something long overdue considering her lack of productivity and her constant running down of our organisation but which she, nevertheless, resisted because she had no idea how to be anything other than a rusted-on appendage to our work. Certainly, she was challenged by the idea that had been mooted by our Committee of Management that I take over her job. She had been in the role for so long that she viewed it as an extension of herself; the complete and utter lack of progress of our organisation and its projects under her ‘leadership’ was an externalisation of her own bereftness. The very idea of anyone else being in her role and, therefore, doing things differently (and perhaps better) was an affront to her carefully cultivated sense of insecurity.

And perhaps, in addition to all of this, when I returned from my three-weeks’ away of nursing my dying mother and witnessing her death, I presented an enticing target – a focus – for her irritation with the cosmos. Up until then I had successfully brushed off her lack of graciousness with a cheerfully non-committal manner. There was nothing cheerful about me when I came back, although my new colleague kindly reassured me that I presented as calm and professional as ever. But still, she had to have known that underneath my grounded manner I was shaken and raw by Mum’s death. Under pressure by her impending retirement, unsettled by change in the status quo, poisoned and disorientated over the years by her own staged retreat from the world, my status as newly bereaved might have just been too obvious to resist.

A nasty month culminated in an act of breathtaking treachery where she somehow persuaded the Committee of Management to acknowledge her as retired in name only, but also to grant her continued pay, the right to work on a vaguely defined and scoped vanity project at home – and therefore without their scrutiny – and also to have the right of continued oversight of myself and my colleague. We were to continue at the same pay rate performing the same ill-defined and rather pointless duties. It was a ridiculous state of affairs.

During that month I endured relentless and unreasonable scrutiny of my work. This resulted in a barrage of baseless criticism of everything I did, right down to the individual sentences I wrote in my emails or spoke out loud. Her manner was patronising and sneering. Attempts to discuss this with her were met by gaslighting that was so obvious and crudely applied that it added a further layer of offence.

Particularly upsetting was the fact that she challenged my right to take compassionate leave to deal with my mother’s dying. I easily proved that I was legally entitled to it, but to have to even argue the point was distressing.

Detail from The Sorceress by Jan van de Velde II

As I stated at the top of this piece I have been shafted by experts – dealt blows that could have seriously ruined my career and reputation, and which did, for a while a few years ago, damage my mental health. This woman wasn’t capable of that, thank God. The carping was mean and petty, and my pride was certainly offended at having to deal with it. But writing this now, I am struggling to recall specifically what she might have actually said, even though the effect she created still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was remarkable how, the instant I departed for good, my spirits started to recover and my memory started to jettison. Her insults were nasty enough, but, of themselves, they didn’t leave much of a mark in the end.

But the one thing she took from me that I can’t recover, and the one thing that really hurts me as a consequence, is this: she took my time and energy and focus during that last month I was with her, which overlapped with the first months of my grief. I coped with her, but I coped because I made sure I did. This coping required an investment of emotional and affective labour. And, at this time, I badly wanted these things for something else.

Grief is interesting. It is not an easy process, but it is an essential one. It is the gift – I will call it that – which helps you to adjust to the space a person leaves behind when they die. In the book, The woman who fooled the world, oncologist Mark Rosenthal is quoted as saying that the time before someone’s death is “a special time, not an easy time, but a special time.” I think the same about the time just after death.

It is special, for the first little while after someone dies. We all grieve differently so I can only speak for myself but in the first weeks the world even literally looked different to me: the light was different, colours were sharper, more heightened. Feelings were more intense, alternating with equally intense states of exhaustion. Thoughts took on more significance, memories were viewed from different angles. Grief isn’t fun, but it is rich. I haven’t enjoyed it, but I have valued it.

But crashing into this special time came this woman, with her lumbering states of paranoia, her self-centredness, her pettiness, her meanness of vision, her shrunken scope of living. With each bit of carping, each demand on my ability to stand my ground, she pulled me towards her bullshit and forced me to focus on it, even if that were just to brush it off. Each act of reasserting myself and of recovery, still cost me time and energy. I was forced to be resilient when I didn’t want to be. When I wanted to open myself to my grief and let it scrub me raw and clean, I was forced to build defences and hold myself together.

Detail from The Sroceress by Jan van de Velde II

I soon left the organisation. The situation there was absurd and was leeching energy I should never have had to expend. I have recovered quickly, an indication that all of that workplace melodrama was nonsense – rank, putrefying nonsense, but, in the final analysis, just mere stupidity all the same.

But when I emerged from this, when I fully reclaimed my focus, those sharp heightened colours of grief had faded. The grieving feelings were still there waiting under the surface, but now I had to sort through a jumble of more workaday thoughts to reach them.

I had a sense that that special time which should have belonged to me, where certain sensitivities and perspectives that aren’t available at any other time in our lives, had passed and closed off. My grief was interrupted; I won’t ever get that special time back.

If witches were real and I were a witch, I would call down a curse upon her.


Images sourced from Public Domain Review.

The Next Day: About grief, hope, and optimism

The Next Day: About grief, hope, and optimism

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

“All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know” ~ WS Merwin

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Optimism versus Hope

The words ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’ may seem to be synonyms, but in a blog Doug Muder on his The Weekly Sift website made an elegant distinction between the two.

“Hope is not optimism…

  • Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
  • Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”

I believe cultivating both – attending to our present and sense of the future – to be vital.

Grief can colour your expectations of the future, but how, exactly, will depend on the way you experience grief. People for whom an absence of something that brought complications into their lives may experience a sense of lightness or relief. People who are dealing with the loss of something beloved may dread going through life with it no longer there. The disappearance of something that has become familiar and central to us can be disorientating or stressful; at my mother’s funeral, my father used the word “trepidation” to describe how he felt at facing a future without his companion of so many decades.

Emotions aside, grief can affect how clearly we envisage a future life, or how concrete we feel our plans can be. It can take time to get used to a radical sense of absence, and then make adjustments to a sense of self and its relatedness to the people and situations that still exist as well as anything new that arises. Some people may have long-held dreams or wish lists that they have been dying to try but for which they never had time; the death of one way of life may actually allow them to do this. But, for other people, looking into the future may be like looking along a path that disappears into a fog.

The pandemic has disrupted what we had all been calling normal. What the ‘new normal’ will turn out to be is not apparent yet. The loss of a job or vocation or sector can knock anyone’s sense of optimism, especially if that is experienced against the background of a pandemic that is challenging the economy and just about every societal norm you could name. The challenge is to develop a sense of potential in the future at a time when that future is hard to see.

“The future is unknowable since to know the future is to change it.” ~ from episode 23 of ‘Monkey’.

The future is liminal

Optimism, at its healthiest, allows us to develop expectations of good things happening in the future. Optimism is like looking at a map of a path and seeing that the landscape it leads you through is coloured green.

Hope is what we employ when the fog descends onto the path, where we can’t see what lies ahead. Hope is what we need to keep us going, waiting for the fog to lift and trusting that, when it does, we will like what we see. Optimism points us towards opportunity; hope demands that we have faith that there are possibilities.

Hope takes us off the edge of the map. Here be dragons, but where dragons are there is also gold, magic, wisdom, and adventure. The artists reading this will know that it is places of liminality – places of threshold and transition – that afford rich experience and ideas. This future space that many of us can’t see properly holds the unexpected; there is nothing to dictate that every single unexpected thing will necessarily turn out to be bad.

Are you struggling to find hope or optimism right now?

The poet WS Merwin said that “Our hope is not a thing in the future; it’s a way of seeing the present.” If you feel that you have no hope for the future, it’s not because the future literally does hold no hope. It’s because your present is so hard that it has, temporarily, drained the little pool of spiritual or psychological energy you draw on to build a sense of hope. I say ‘temporarily’ because many people find that, as they travel through various stages of grief, their sense of hope may come and go. As I wrote in an earlier note, grief never leaves you, but you do rebuild the capacity to experience a new life – and joy in that new life – after a while.

But I also say ‘temporarily’ as a reminder that a lack of hope should only burden you for a short duration. If it doesn’t – if it seems to be a constant – then that may be a sign that you are slipping into depression, which is not the same as grief. If this is the case, please go and seek professional help. Please. You do not have to do this alone. You have not been specifically marked out by the universe to live abandoned in the dark. No one has.

“Who shall conquer the world and the world of death with its many gods? Who shall discover the shining way? ‘You shall,’ said the Buddha.” ~ from episode 22 of ‘Monkey’.

How do you locate a sense of optimism in a frazzled brain that is dealing with a world that is in a state of flux? If optimism is based on a set of expectations about what feasibly could happen, then I guess you could argue the same about pessimism. And we are living in an age where things like COVID-19, climate change, and increasing inequity may indicate that we should, going on current form, be pessimistic.

I would be the first to argue against propagating toxic positivity, the irritating and downright unhealthy practice of refusing to acknowledge or articulate negative things. Actually, I was partly inspired to write these notes by enormous anger and disgust at how certain types of workers have been excluded from the JobKeeper wage subsidy or made redundant. Being realistic about the things that are unfair, unhelpful, or unhealthy is an important step in tackling them. The process of grieving can help us to face up to uncomfortable truths.

But this realism is not the same as pessimism, or optimism, for that matter. Pessimism and optimism are attitudes – stances – that we choose to adopt to prepare us for what may happen in the future.

If you have been bludgeoned by difficult circumstances it can feel like it’s impossible to ‘choose’ anything but pessimism. Repeated disappointments, sleepless nights, being surrounded by distraught colleagues on the cusp of being made redundant, the pressure to find rent money, hearing political or workplace policy that makes you angry, hearing bad policy being given good press… all of this can crowd in on you and overwhelm your psychic defences. It is all too easy to miss the tiny specks of evidence that point to the possibility of alternative and more positive futures.

A distressed brain can have a febrile imagination. A distressed imagination can fire out virtual catastrophes at the rate of knots, and these can feel overwhelming.

In the article That discomfort you’re feeling is grief, grief expert David Kessler provides some good tips on managing anxiety, including this one:

“Our mind begins to show us images… We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image.”

In other words, put that busy imagination to work: for every catastrophe it shows you, make it design a near miss, a spectacular recovery, or a complete triumph. The important thing is not to make this an exercise in denial – it’s important to acknowledge risk – but in identifying potential and making a choice. Remind yourself that there are no guarantees that the worst will happen, and there is equal potential for great things to come about.

No one knows how the ‘new normal’ will look and function. Our world does face massive challenges and huge risks. But it doesn’t follow that in that new normal there is also not a place for you to realise your potential to be safe, to be happy.

In a video posted online as a response to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, US Senator Elizabeth Warren at one stage says “Hope is not given to us – it is created by us;” both a call to arms and a note of reassurance. On the same day as I watched this, I read Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, referring to restorative justice activist Mariame Kaba’s idea that hope is a discipline. And I think that the same could be said of optimism – as I said above, it’s a stance you choose to take.

So how does this sit with grieving? It can be hard if your grief takes the form of devastating sadness, regret, resentfulness, numbness, or feeling bereft. But consider this: grief can also help you to find hope. Grieving is a process of adjustment. Each emotion or reaction, even the awful ones, are part of you shifting and recalibrating yourself to deal with and, if you want, to learn from the absence of something. Grief changes you. It can give you the opportunity to grow. And that is something to be hopeful about.

Rain Light by WS Merwin


All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning


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 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.

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

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

‘Working for the man.’

‘Day job’.

‘Wage slave’.

‘Death and taxes’.

‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’

There is any number of dour expressions to describe interactions with the establishment. What do I mean by ‘the establishment’? I mean all that pesky… stuff we have to deal with to function and keep ourselves fiscally, legally, and civically nice while we live in this society. Some of this stuff will include things that we are happy to comply with; stuff that, by its presence, keeps our society stable and civil. Years ago, I used to teach small business management at a community centre in an outer suburb of Melbourne. All of the adult learners in my class were migrants, most were from refugee backgrounds and had fled regimes that were dangerously oppressive and corrupt. When we would come to work our way through the various rules and regulations with which they would have to comply, I would come armed with rationales to explain why, although this stuff was boring, compliance was essential. My learners were way ahead of me. “Red tape might be boring,” I heard on more than one instance, “but I come from a country where there was no red tape, or where the officials were untrustworthy. I prefer to be in a country where there’s red tape.”

So far, so edifying. If we’re honest, though, we have to admit that not all aspects of society work as well as they should. Some of this stuff feels burdensome, some of it induces anxiety. In ‘Money’ I referenced an article that talked about arts workers falling behind with their tax paperwork and opined that this was a result of nervousness about dealing with such matters. Centrelink has become so difficult to deal with over the years that I know people who consider it to be an actual risk factor in their lives.

Ways in which the parts of this overarching latticework of rules, laws, obligations, and their bureaucracies might be impacting your life during this weird time may include:

  • Negotiating a rent holiday or freeze with your landlord if you have been without income
  • Having to start looking for a job after your sole-trader practice fell off a cliff when the lockdowns started
  • Applying for a job stacking shelves after you lost your casual work at a university
  • Applying for the JobKeeper wage subsidy from the Australian Tax Office
  • Thinking about the consequences of, and applying for, early release of Superannuation from the Australian Tax office
  • And, of course, applying for Newstart via Centrelink and signing up with a Jobactive Provider.

If you are in grief you may not want to be doing any of this. But if you have lost an income stream you will have to find a way to do it even so. This is tough. Depending on how your grief has affected you, you may be feeling short on physical energy or mental focus or determination, and this stuff demands all of those.

And, perhaps, the cause of your grief – suddenly finding yourself excluded from the way you had chosen to make income or shut out from the workings of your sector – will make your reaction to dealing with the establishment even more acute. In the way you previously worked you had found a place within the establishment. It may have been a harmonious place – doing a job or running a business that you loved. Or it may have been a bit crappy, with you slogging your way up a ladder towards a vocational goal. But, either way, it was a place in the establishment. Now it has gone, and that little place in the broader scheme of things has either been locked down for the duration of the pandemic or you have been excluded from it by job loss. If one part of the establishment is suddenly shut off to you, and the only other part of the establishment that has a place for you is the dole queue, or even just a few months on the JobKeeper subsidy leading into an uncertain future, then a sense of loss may be amplified.

How is grief inflecting your attitudes towards the establishment right now? Have these attitudes shifted from how you felt in the ‘old normal’?

Are you dealing with forms of bureaucracy that you find to be tedious? Constraining? Unnerving? Threatening? If so, what forms of help are available to you to mitigate these effects: free legal advice, counselling services, financial counselling, community advocates, peak bodies?

If you find dealing with some of these entities to be difficult or testing, then it is important that you be aware of whether or not this will compound your grief. Grieving is a temporary phase you will (eventually) pass through. While grieving it is important to get the tricky balance right between allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you have to feel but not to fall into the trap of assuming that these feelings now define you or your future life. Feeling raw or shocked after the loss of a career or vocational pathway is one thing, to then be pummelled by Centrelink’s inefficient and punitive processes is quite another. The problem is, experiencing external negative pressure from, say, Centrelink may serve to reinforce feelings of being bereft, and this could, in turn, lead to feelings of hopelessness and a heightened state of stress. Dealing with Centrelink requires no little amount of resilience, and people in grief may feel lacking in resilience. It is absolutely vital that, if you are dealing with Centrelink, that you make a conscious effort to organise support systems around you to dispense moral, emotional, and informational support. The same goes for any bureaucracy or set of regulations that you find onerous or terrifying.

How have you dealt with establishment stuff in the past? When did you do it well? Make a list of past achievements to remind yourself that you do have strengths: grants successfully applied for and acquitted; projects well-managed; contracts negotiated; complaints you raised and had resolved in your favour; administrators befriended and petty bureaucrats defied. Artists are often characterised as flibbertigibbets or arty-farty wankers. But producing creative work is complex, both logistically and creatively, and many artists tend to overlook just how good they are at rolling out complicated projects. Other workers may have found the same – that society, through ignorance, characterises their work as being less demanding or skilled than it is. Do an audit on your past work; nominate the skills in dealing with establishment stuff; remind yourself that, even when functioning under duress, you have a history of holding your own against the demands of an impersonal civic society…


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 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.

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.