A reaction to absence

A reaction to absence

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’.

Grief is the reaction to the radical absence of something that was central to your life.

Given that these notes are about grief, and given that so many of us have cruelly limited ideas as to what grief is and, therefore, how we are allowed to experience it, process it, and benefit from it, I want to define what I mean when I use the word.

Grief is not one emotion, but rather a term that covers a range of reactions we have and adjustments we make when we experience the radical absence of something central to our lives. That something could be a person, a relationship, a job, or a dream. I was inspired to write this bundle of notes when I thought about my friends and ex-colleagues who have recently not just lost jobs, but, due to sudden and devastating economic downturns caused by lockdowns, have found whole sectors closed down, subsequently downsized or compromised, and have found vocational pathways closed off to them.

Think of grief as an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural reactions to radical loss. I said in another note that people conflate grief with depression; I think that this stems from the fact that too many people conflate depression with sadness. All these things are quite different (I will touch on depression and grief elsewhere in this bundle). Certainly, people can feel sadness when someone or thing they love dies. But people can feel all sorts of other emotions too, like anger, anxiety, guilt, or resentment. Or some people can be left feeling numb.

But as well as the ‘feels’, people in grief can experience different reactions – physical, spiritual, cognitive, or behavioural. While mourning my mother, I experienced extraordinary feelings of physical fatigue that would descend on me out of the blue. My sister experienced an abnormal coldness: she couldn’t seem to get warm during the first month after mum died. Some people find they are clumsier than usual, some can’t concentrate, some question their spiritual beliefs, others become creatively prolific.

There is a great smorgasbord of ways in which grief can manifest in people’s lives, ranging from the debilitating to the irritating to the merely unusual to the liberating.

Consider:

Grief is not one constant and consistent experience.

You will probably experience different symptoms of grief at different stages. Feelings and reactions could ebb and flow, and the intensity of these feelings and reactions will fluctuate. You may have days or weeks that are harrowing followed by a time that is less intense where you feel relatively human and functional.

You can feel grief for things you had mixed feelings about, or even hated.

Oh yes, you can. When I gave up my work in the performing arts all of those years ago I quite definitely felt grief, a profound sadness – pain – at having to walk away from a dream and a vocation I had poured my heart and soul into for years. And yet I chose to give it up. I was burnt out, damaging both my physical and mental health. The lifestyle that went along with this career – financial insecurity, precarity, the emotional demands of performance, brutal politics, exposure to a sometimes bitter culture that existed within the sector – was draining the life out of me and, by the time I had given up, had long excised the joy and inspiration out of my vocation. I didn’t like who I was becoming – a meaner and more resentful version of myself – and, having struggled with clinical depression, I was also terrified for my future mental health. I have never regretted my decision to give up, and, in retrospect, see this decision as one of the healthiest things I have ever done for myself. I feel positive about that decision, and a terrible sadness arising from the sense of loss of my dream. The grieving process has allowed space for these apparently contradictory things. In my grief, I have been able to honour both.

You never get over grief

As I wrote about my old career above, I still felt sadness even though it has been a good decade since I walked away. I always will feel sadness – a sense of grief over what was left behind and over potential unrealised. That grief no longer predominates my thinking, feeling, and reacting, as it did for the first two years when I had to go through each day staring into the hole that had once been filled by my former life. The hole is still there, but I am not compelled to look into it anymore. I have learnt to shift my gaze onto different but now equally compelling new things.

The activity generated by rehearsing, performing, researching, collaborating, producing, project managing, choreographing, networking, imagining, dreaming…. these things were suddenly gone. For three decades of my life, they had been the focus of my energy, the thing around which I had built my identity. I ripped them out of my life.

Wiser people than me have identified that you never get over grief. If, following the radical absence of something important you feel a stage of acute grief, then you may move past that (and how long this takes will vary from person to person) but you never get over the sense of loss. This is not as gloomy as it sounds. For, while you may never get over your sense of loss, you learn to live with it, or alongside it. And you can recover your capacity to experience joy, inspiration, connection. You can fall in love with someone or something else, differently but meaningfully.

Actually, I think a healthy grieving process not only does not hinder this, I think it helps you to find this renewed capacity. I think of grieving as a process of adjustment – such a prosaic word for such an intense experience. But grief is a rich experience if an uncomfortable one. In a tweet, Paula Crosby described it as “a horrible freeing experience,” and it is. The challenges and gifts of grief allow you to come to terms with how something that occupied a position of influence in your life just suddenly isn’t there anymore. It can offer you realisations and insights about what that something meant to you and, in so doing, allow you to absorb, shift, learn, reflect on, and create a new 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.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free 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.

What is grief?

What is 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’.

What do you think grief is?

I think that most people have a limited idea as to what grief, exactly, is. And this makes it hard to grieve.

A lot of people out there conflate grief with depression, which it isn’t (or not necessarily). A lot of people think that you only find yourself in grief when someone you love dies. Again, this is not necessarily true.

When I lost my mother last year, I was struck – and irritated – by how many people seemed to call upon me to behave like a sentient Hallmark card, weeping decorously (but only at what they deemed to be appropriate moments) and uttering gooey platitudes in her memory. But only for a certain duration; three months seemed to be the upper limit that they would allow me to react to the sudden death of my parent. None of this aligned with how I needed to feel, when, and for how long.

Many years ago, when I gave up a career in the performing arts, no one seemed to expect me to feel grief at all. It even took me a while to figure out what was happening. The mood swings, the deep sadness over a decision that, after all, I had made and owned as healthy, the strange indecisiveness and ennui – I initially didn’t understand that all this was a sort of grief over the loss of a vocation around which I had centred my energies since my adolescence.

I have noticed, too, that when I come across other people who have had a loss and who are subscribing to that three-month limit where, apparently, there is some sort of psychic barrier beyond which grief doesn’t ‘happen’ for people, and I ask “are you in grief?” they will answer “Nope. I don’t feel grief. I’m just cranky all the time, can’t concentrate, don’t have any energy, and I can’t sleep. But I’m not feeling grief.”

Grief isn’t one emotion; it is a whole range of experiences that can permeate your life.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be” ~ Joan Didion

In one of his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

“In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around.”

In her advice column, What to do when you lose a dog, Blair Braverman writes:

“When it feels too painful to exist, knowing that Kelsey is gone, all you can do is distract yourself until time passes. Watch movies. Do things that require concentration, like playing an instrument or practicing a sport. Now isn’t the time for long, silent walks—unless long, silent walks are what you need. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or you could avoid other dogs completely. Whatever you need to do, sob or paint or run, is the right thing to do.”

Both of these writers – sharing their thoughts in quite different contexts – are saying the same thing. Do what you have to do. The Beyond Blue website advises “There is no right or wrong way to grieve….” Too true, although for the sheer poetry of it I turn to Nick Cave’s words “grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world.”

 

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

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free 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.

Has your sector imploded?

Has your sector imploded?

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Ruins prove, at the least, that someone has been there. When your life is in ruins, look for yourself among them. Then restore yourself.” ~ JD Landis

“The purpose of grief is to help you reweave the story of your life together.” ~ Art Markman and Michelle Jack

Has your sector imploded? Did you lose access to it, or your place in it, due to lockdown or redundancy? Are there widespread job cuts, not just in your organisation, but sector-wide?

Have you lost your place in the world?

If you work in the arts sector you may have seen your entire industry enter a shut down that may last months or years. You may be one of many thousands of arts workers who is not eligible for the JobKeeper subsidy; you may be wondering how on earth you are going to make a living.

The university sector is also struggling. If you work in that sector you may have seen your future possible career path disappear. I know researchers or sessional teachers who believe that they may never work in academia again. Professional staff have also been adversely affected.

Perhaps you work in another sector that has undergone a seismic shift in the way it operates, leaving you either out of work or in fear of that.

Losing a job is bad enough; people struggle with loss of income, identity, purpose, and opportunity. But in this recession, and with the challenge of living with the coronavirus for an indeterminate amount of time, people are dealing with an economy that is shifting and changing. Some people are dealing with not just a loss of a role, but with the loss of a career, a vocational pathway, or access to a sector.

How this affects people will vary depending on the individual, their temperament, their levels of resilience, and the conditions to which they are responding. Some may be devastated. Some may be resigned. Some may even be liberated. Some may be feeling a mixture of things or may be too shocked or numb to know how to think and feel about this unprecedented change right now.

People are in grief.

Many people will be feeling overwhelmed. Many people will be craving the opportunity to make sense of all this.

Sense-making can take time and reflection…

Do you have that?

Or is life crowding in: your kids need you; your ageing parents need you; your co-workers who have also lost their jobs keep talking at you; you have to find a way of paying the rent next month.

Our government keeps urging us all to ‘snap back’ to ‘normal’, whatever the hell normal is these days. Do you feel like snapping back? Or do you feel like hiding under a doona?

If people are dealing with overwhelming reactions to the grief or fear of losing a vocation then their need to process this will be out of alignment with the demands of an economy and societal culture that insists that they get on and earn some money.

People are being placed in a position where they urgently need to make big, far-reaching decisions about how they use their time, energies, and skills to earn a living; they may not be in a state of mind that lends itself to making snap decisions.

The need to grieve versus the need to pursue revenue: These things require different energies and could conflict. This may well be irresolvable; there is no magic bullet. But I think it helps to be mindful of your state of grief, and how it might be informing the way you are thinking about your future relationship to work…

 

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

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free 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.

Announcement: ‘The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Announcement: ‘The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

I am about to start posting blogs about grief, how it affects people who have lost their streams of income, and how they might go about dealing with the pressure to survive day-to-day.

Called The next day: A bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless, this ‘thing’ – shorter than a book but much longer than an essay – is one of my lockdown projects. I was prompted to write it out of concern for friends and ex-colleagues who have suddenly found themselves out of work due to Covid-19 lockdowns, be that as small traders, contractors, or (formerly) permanent employees. What is unique about this situation is that people are not just losing jobs or businesses, but access to whole sectors that are locking down or downsizing. I used to work in both the university and arts sectors, which have been particularly badly hit not just by the lockdowns but have also found themselves on the wrong side of federal government policy in regards to wage subsidies or future funding arrangements. But I believe that anyone who has lost their work could relate to what I have written.

The loss of work is a cause of grief and shock. It also brings about a mad scramble for material survival in the newly jobless. But the volatile energies and complex emotions of grief work to completely different rhythms in comparison to the process of job-search and / or saving a business. People who are dealing with grief are currently being asked to make big decisions about how they are going to get the rent paid. These two dynamics may be in conflict.

I cannot suggest an easy resolution to this tension; it may well be irresolvable for many people. And yet these people must live with this. I wrote The next day to acknowledge what people may be going through. In the writing I drew heavily on two episodes of grief during my life. One was the death of my mother, suddenly, to cancer last year. The other was the death of my first vocation – as an arts worker (performer, choreographer, arts administrator). I chose, myself, to euthanise this way of life but, even so, I felt a profound sense of grief. I know that these experiences are not the same as what people are going through this year; indeed, I believe the experience of loss of work in 2020 will be unique to this time. But I still felt a profound empathy, and this prompted me to write.

Even though I don’t have pat solutions to suggest, I thought that I could at least posit some ideas and provocations that may provide context or open some lines of thinking for people. I hope these notes are of some support to someone out there.

I am making this bundle of notes available for free, being mindful of the fact that some people who might like to read them will now be short of money. I will be offering them in two formats. You can either download the whole bundle in PDF format HERE, or you can wait and read each note posted separately and weekly in this blog starting from 7 October. I will be posting each one at 9am every Wednesday for the next 20 or so weeks.