Grief, identity, and your story

Grief, identity, and your story

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

You can buy The next day here.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief and perceptions of risk

Grief and perceptions of risk

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Grief affects how people perceive risk-taking in their lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Time is weird now

Time is weird now

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

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy paddling.


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


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Urgency, grief, and loss of vocation

Urgency, grief, and loss of vocation

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

After losing your job or vocation, do you have a sense of urgency about the choices you have to make right now?

Why? Where is this sense of urgency coming from?

Do you need to pay the rent next month, but don’t know how you are going to earn the money to do it?

Are you able to pay the rent for a while thanks to your redundancy package and/or wage subsidy (like the JobKeeper payment), but still feel pressure to get a new job – any job – ASAP?


Is it because every time your Mum rings up she asks, “so, have you got a job yet?” Is it because everybody in your friendship circle is talking about their job search and/or money problems? Is it because every time you click on the news you see Scott Morrison talking about “snapping back” the economy to the ‘old normal’?

If you are trapped in a building with a bunch of colleagues who are all speculating on whether or not they will lose their jobs when the next round of redundancies will be announced, and whether or not they will ever get another job in their sector again, then that fear can be contagious. Similarly, if you are a member of the arts community and every other contractor or sole-trader you know in the sector has lost income streams, contracts, has had venues closed and events shut down and doesn’t know when the sector will open back up again, if every channel or forum of promoting, showing, and selling your creative products or services has disappeared, then that sense of devastation can spread through networks like wildfire. These fears may feasibly turn out to be valid. But, then again, new unexpected avenues for people to pursue their vocations might appear. No one knows right now and that is fuelling people’s sense of desperation and, therefore, sense of urgency.

Do you feel a sense of urgency because there is a small quiet voice deep inside of you that is telling you that you’re washed up, ‘it’s all over’, you’re a loser, you’re a failure, now that you don’t have a job?

Do you feel a sense of panic because your sector has imploded, and you cannot see what the future holds for you?

If you feel that you urgently need to make decisions about your future, it is important to understand where this sense of urgency comes from: inside of you or because of messages you are receiving from other people.

It is also important to understand if the pressure is due to real demands (the rent must be paid, or you will be evicted) or the emotional contagion of other people’s panic or negative expectations.

In your grief, are your insecurities flaring up and dragging your self-image down? Do you feel urgent about proving yourself to your inner demons?

Nobody knows how the future is going to unfold, exactly. Writing for The Journal of Beautiful Business, researcher Jonathan Cook states:

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Anybody who is making specific predictions about the marketplace right now doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

There may be terrible things waiting for us all – who knows? – but why should there not be opportunity for those who are able to adjust. Sitting in a space of uncertainty can feel hard. But, while you’re sitting there, why not process your grief?

Yes – you certainly do have to find ways of paying the rent in the short term. But do not allow other people’s perceived sense of urgency invade or shape your grieving process. It is your time to come to terms with what has happened to you, to access the positive aspects of grief – a sense of liberation from the conditions attached to the ‘old normal’ that didn’t do you any favours, or perhaps insight or clarity into your values and shifting priorities. This is your time to adjust to the radical absence of something that has been shaping your life; do not let other people’s opinions as to what you should be getting on with shape that adjustment process. This could be easier said than done – there are a lot of opinions flying around right now as to how shit everything is and what everyone should be doing. Those of you who have signed up for welfare will have a compliance regime to deal with [groan!]. That’s hard.

But be aware of your grief, of your right and need to grieve. Be aware of the vulnerabilities and the opportunities for insight they contain and take anyone else’s message of urgency with a grain of salt. The state of grief may be a difficult one to experience, but it is also a special time, a stage of life given to you to come to terms with and adapt to the radical absence of something important to you. This special time is yours: cling onto it.

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.

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Necessity and futility

Necessity and futility

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what if you didn’t choose change?

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

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

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

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

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

In his Red Files, Nick Cave writes:

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

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

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


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Understand what it is you are grieving

Understand what it is you are grieving

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

This probably sounds like a dumb thing to say, a statement of the bleeding obvious. But when a person or thing is suddenly absent from your life then whatever it is that made that person or thing so central to your life is whatever will influence the way you grieve, and what you grieve for.

The absence of a person or thing that was straightforwardly loved for the meaning and joy that it brought into someone’s life will engender feelings of sadness and loss. The absence of an entity that occupied a central part of someone’s life, but which was toxic in influence – like an abusive parent or a lousy job – may engender feelings of relief that feel great, but which are so strong that they could actually be disorientating for a while. Many of us have complex relationships with the things our lives are built around, and it’s quite possible to feel a mixture of things: sadness for lost potential, relief over the absence of conflict, a reclamation of energy or hope, or the undermining of a sense of identity.

When I gave up my performing career, I made the mistake of thinking my actual ability to be creative was dead. By the time I walked away, I had been bereft of inspiration for a couple of years during which I struggled to come up with ideas or material. I seemed to have poor judgement and little focus. Periods of rest didn’t help; working through it didn’t help. I wasn’t blocked so much as empty. Having struggled for so long and in such difficult conditions, I thought I had finally completely burnt out that part of me that made creative work, cauterised it, flogged it to death. Walking away from performance made me sad, but it also made me feel relieved. I could stop pretending to be something I no longer was, even if the loss of that something – of the potential I had once believed was mine – was heartbreaking.

I set off into a future that was filled with uncertainty and, correspondingly, anxiety. But I also felt unburdened by my former demanding and failing vocation. I set myself the task of learning how to be a person who was no longer creative. (I know this sounds mad but it’s how I honestly felt).

So, I made a far-reaching decision based on a mistake. Fortunately for me, the decision turned out to be a healthy one. Alongside my grief, and in the absence of any vocational demands, I rediscovered a sense of resilience, curiosity, playfulness. I regained energy. I started blogging, just for fun, but in playing with words and ideas it suddenly struck me that I was being creative. I have a clear memory of the moment I realised this: I was sitting on my couch in my flat in Northcote, my laptop propped up in front of me, it was daytime, the sun was coming through the window. The thing I had thought was dead was merely dormant, waiting until the conditions in my life shifted.

I was right in walking away from that earlier career; it was draining the life out of me. It had shifted from being a source of joy and purpose to being a burden that was breaking me. But, in my ensuing grief, I was mistaken about what it was I was in grief for. And part of the reason I made this mistake was because it took me quite a long time before I knew myself to be in grief. Once I accepted that I was grieving I accepted the presence in my life of strong and / or odd feelings and reactions. I got out of my own way: I stopped telling myself that I was defective in purpose or creativity and reminded myself that I was in grief.

In my grief, I had to accept living uncertain of the future (an excellent life skill, as it turns out, that has kept sustaining me through various challenges to this day). My sense of identity was challenged: if I wasn’t a performer or choreographer, then who or what was I? Well, it turned out, I was me, irrespective of those things. I had to come to terms with a loss of potential joy: I would never develop further as a dancer; I would never make beautiful choreography again. This was sad, but the reality was I had grown to hate the miasma of fatigue that settled over me whenever I walked into the rehearsal room. This is the stuff I actually ended up grieving for when I stopped performing, not the loss of creativity that I initially assumed I would have to come to terms with.

I discovered that being creative is something that never actually left me. I had just ended up living a life that – with its poverty, competitiveness, and physical and emotional exhaustion – had blocked it. And it was that life that had to die, not that essential part of me.

I am not writing this to persuade anyone to give up on their vocation, unless, like me, that vocation has morphed from being the bliss you followed into a nightmare. I am writing this to illustrate that, in a state of heightened grief, it can be easy to make assumptions about your relationship to your essential self and the way you express that vocationally.

If you recognise that you are in grief, open up a conversation with yourself about what it is you are grieving. I misdirected my energies into grieving a part of myself that, now, I don’t think can die, just manifest differently. I needed to grieve the death of a way of life that was truly ready to die in that I needed to free myself from it.

What has died in your life? A vocation that has outlived its resonance with you? Or is it a way of pursuing that vocation? Has your sector been overturned in such a way that your potential to thrive within that particular sector is what has died, rather than the abilities your sense of potential was based on?

Understanding very specifically what it is you are grieving can help you gain perspective on the instincts that hover when you come to make decisions as to what you want to do next. It can help you understand what values are at play in your psyche, and whether you want them there or not.

As much as grief challenged me, it also changed me and bolstered me. Grief may overwhelm at first, but it can open up new ways of living that are different to, but as important as, the things that are no longer there…


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Different types of grief

Different types of grief

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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

Apart from just (just?) straightforward grief, there are some other forms of grief that I have come across in my reading. These are all types of grief that are problematic, where the healthy grieving process has been inhibited somehow.

Frozen grief

Frozen grief is where the person who needs to mourn has, for some reason, not been able to start or progress their grieving process.

Friends and ex-colleagues of mine have been discussing their anticipated exit from the university sector. They are on fixed-term contracts and pretty sure that, given the huge numbers of job losses and pending funding cuts that will drive far-reaching structural change in the sector, when their contracts finish they won’t be renewed and they won’t get another job at a university. Ever. They consider themselves to be better off than casual employees they know who have already been dispatched. Employees on permanent contracts are not necessarily safe from being made redundant, either. My friends feel the necessity of planning their next move but they are so busy with their current work, so overwhelmed with the demands of working in a restructuring organisation (among grief-stricken colleagues), that they have yet to come to terms with the enormity of the change imposed on their lives. There simply isn’t time. One friend calls this “delayed processing.”

Other people may have been unceremoniously dumped from their jobs or (in the case of contractors or sole-traders) from projects or contracts due to the speed with which the pandemic lockdowns slammed our economy. These people may have been launched into a frantic scramble to secure money to live on or to negotiate reductions in rent payments. They may have found themselves dealing with an overwhelmed Job Services Australia to get onto welfare (always a dismal experience).

And then there are the people who, on top of their loss, may be supporting children, partners, parents, or other dependents who are facing their own challenges during lockdown. Who has the time or energy to do all of this AND THEN pick apart complex and challenging emotions over their own sense of loss?

“A psychologist friend of mine talks about the idea of frozen grief, a phenomenon that occurs when people are denied the normal communal rituals associated with grieving, meaning that their feelings cannot be expressed or processed.”

So writes James Bradley in his beautiful article As I mourn my mother the pandemic rolls on. Is the whole world, like me, frozen in grief? He also writes:

“Grief is always isolating. It cuts us off from the world, confines us in ourselves. Yet, as I watched the people I know on social media and elsewhere trying to express the confusion they felt at being pitched into a world where they were suddenly vulnerable and alone, it was hard not to wonder whether this wasn’t also a kind of frozen grief.”

This sense of vulnerability and disorientation, having been suddenly jettisoned out of locked down and / or downsizing sectors, and also in the face of perhaps inadequate government support, is what I feel I have been witnessing in friends and ex-colleagues in the arts and university sectors.

Bradley goes on to write:

“… like all of us I feel undone, unmade, as if time has been suspended and the world I know is gone. As if I am falling, and have not yet hit the ground.”

People who have been yanked out of their work, who have witnessed their sectors shut down, who are fretting about how they are going to pay next month’s rent while keeping their dreams alive must be wondering which way is up. Some of them will have hit the ground with a psyche-shattering thud, some will feel like they are still falling. How many have had the time – the respite from surviving – to know how to articulate what all of this means to them?

Disenfranchised grief

Some people’s grief is unacknowledged by society; they aren’t expected to feel grief and are looked on askance when they do. I have come across the term ‘disenfranchised grief’ in relation to grief over a person dying. Examples include when a relationship is deemed to be invalid (unmarried partners), or not close enough (co-worker), an ex-partner, a relationship of short duration, or non-human – a pet.

Have you seen the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral? Do you remember the scene where John Hannah’s character – Matthew – delivers a moving eulogy to his queer partner Gareth? He is introduced to the congregation by the priest as his partner’s “friend”. Matthew then wryly quips that Gareth preferred funerals to weddings as they were one ceremony he had an outside chance of getting involved in. After the funeral, one of their friends remarks that “two of us (Matthew and Gareth) were to all intents and purposes married” but no one had ever noticed this.

With respect to people who have experienced disenfranchised grief over the death of a loved one, I am going to borrow this idea for the purposes of these notes and suggest that sometimes grief over the loss of a career can also feel disenfranchised in society, if only for the reason that many people only associate the state of grief with the death of a person, not the death of a potential future in work. This is why you will find me referencing writing about grief over humans or pets in these notes: I have come across a few articles about grief and work but not many. It is a subject that has not garnered much attention.

In our society, people who lose their jobs are expected to set about chasing money. They are urged to go panicking straight off to find another job. Being unemployed is stigmatising and landing another job is seen as the simple fix to make everything alright. This rhetoric comes straight from the top: our federal government regularly spouts hearty Calvinist platitudes about ‘jobs and growth’. During Australia’s first lockdown, Scott Morrison talked energetically about ‘snapping back’ the economy:

“We want businesses to be able to snap back and just get on with the job, when we get to the other side.”

Apparently, according to Morrison’s first plan, we would all start surging out of lockdown in June, reopen the economy fully by July, and start getting people back in jobs soon after (with the unlucky unwaged warehoused on social security benefits and chivvied through job-seeking activity by the dreaded Jobactive providers).

In all this bustling rhetoric, where is the room for people to panic about their hearts, their lost dreams? Where is the expectation that someone who has lost not only their job or income streams but possibly even their vocation might feel deeply about that?

In her article, Learning to share the grief of job loss with friends, Shona Yang writes of a newly unwaged friend:

“I was struck by the honest rage she shared…It made me realise that as with all inexplicable losses — what she needed wasn’t a solution, but a place for the news to land.”

The rent has to be paid, so a solution to a loss of income will be needed at some stage. But Yang is right, when dealing with sudden shock or acute grief acknowledgement – being heard or witnessed – is important.

Part of the reason why I put together these notes is because I was concerned that there were people out there who, following the loss of jobs, shut down of projects, and upheaval of their sectors, were thrust into a situation where they had to cope with the crisis of loss of income, opportunities, status, and even identity, all the while bearing the shock and grief that accompanies such a profound loss. I wanted to acknowledge the grief people must be feeling, and provide some provocations that may be able to help people make sense of what they are feeling about all of this at a time when the practical demands of coping with career damage or loss mitigate against this sense-making. It is hard to make sense of grief that is frozen or unacknowledged. I wanted to write this to show that at least one person knows that you are in grief and knows that you deserve to understand what that means for you.

Grief is unavoidable. If buried, it doesn’t disappear. It remains trapped inside a person, burdening them, perhaps poisoning aspects of their inner lives. It will manifest at some stage in some way. A healthy grieving process does not only avoid damage, it can be a rich (if, perhaps, uncomfortable) experience that actually paves the way to the next stage of life. But if people’s grief is frozen or disenfranchised then this healthy grieving process is delayed.

And a word about complicated grief and depression.

‘Complicated grief’ is a phrase used by grief counsellors to describe a state of grief that has become problematic, that has morphed into being an issue related to someone’s health or wellbeing.

Elsewhere in these notes, I wrote that grief and depression are not always synonymous, but complicated grief is when they may well be for some people. The WebMD website states that “Depression is not a normal part of grief, but a complication of it” and describes complicated grief “… as ‘a form of persistent, pervasive grief’ that does not get better naturally.” The Beyond Blue website says something similar: “depression stands out from grief as being more persistent, with constant feelings of emptiness and despair and a difficulty feeling pleasure or joy… Your relationship to grief will change; depression may not.”

Grief can be an overwhelming experience for some people. It is understandable that some people experience complicated grief, but it is not inevitable. During my life, I have experienced episodes of grief, over the loss of humans, relationships, jobs, and a vocation. I have also, unfortunately, experienced the nightmare that is clinical depression. Interestingly, the two experiences never overlapped. Even at its most exhausting or painful, my grief has never felt like depression. Even at its most awful, I have felt alive during episodes of grief. With depression, it felt like a sort of living death.

Much of what is written in these notes is intended to be provocation, but what I’m about to write is straight out advice: if you think you are suffering from complicated grief then please get help. It doesn’t need to be this bad for you. And you do deserve support.

In conclusion:

Sometimes loss is expected; you can take a good-run up at the inevitable feelings that attend it. This can afford you a gentle entrance into grief.

But the loss of projects, jobs, or vocational pathways during 2020 was unexpected, and people had little or no warning. And people didn’t just lose jobs or income streams, some lost access to their sector. Even if people haven’t given up their vocation, a way of pursuing that vocation – a way of operating within a sector – has been closed off to them. Has died.

This loss has been traumatic, whether the sudden shock of the shutting down of the arts industry or the months of the distress of slightly more incremental – but equally brutal – ‘restructuring’ (actually downsizing) of the university sector. These are the two sectors I know most about, but I am aware that there are workers in other sectors that have also been cast out of the world of work with whiplash speed and impact.

People have had the stuffing knocked out of them. They are struggling with a sense of overwhelm. It is important to understand what grief is, and the way it may be manifesting in your life. Understanding this can help people ask for the support they may need, and accept that, as uncomfortable as it is, grieving can be a way of honouring what has happened to them, of understanding what their previous way of working meant to them – good and bad – and of starting to adjust to a new way of being in the world.

Grieving is an epic experience. Acute grieving will colour the way you see the world, and the decisions you make about surviving the present and building your future. Our grief-illiterate society will demand that you crack on with things; you will be asked to make far-reaching decisions before you have learnt how to accommodate – and be enriched by – your sense of grief. This is unfair; my inner child wants to say it is stupid. Unfortunately, it is how things are. This guide cannot suggest a way of resolving this; it is irresolvable.

But looking at the tension between two opposing dynamics – examining and playing with it – can still generate insights and ideas. This is a tricky space to inhabit, but it can yield opportunities. The first step to doing this is to frame your grief as an essential force in your life, not one to be ignored or denied or downplayed. And certainly not one to be dreaded.

Grief is often seen as a problem, an understandably regrettable state – a temporary lapse of control – to be gotten over.  If you can’t just ‘get over it’, please don’t think “What is wrong with me?”

You are not the problem.

Your grief is not a problem, and certainly not a problem to be solved.

It is a special state that can help you to adjust to the radical absence of something central to the way you lived your life…


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief is different for each of us

Grief is different for each of us

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 a universal experience: we are all, at some stage in our lives, going to lose something important to us. Some of us – probably most of us – will do this more than once during our lives. But grief is also the perfect rebuttal to conformity. Grief is universal, yes, but it is also a radically individual experience. Every grieving person will go through this universal event in a way that is uniquely particular to them, and never to be repeated. This is because exactly what is being grieved over and the conditions under which the grieving process is gone through will be different. Each person’s grief will be informed by a set of variables including:

How the loved thing died.

Every death is tragic, but some deaths carry extra layers of shock or anguish. Was everything going along fine and dandy in your life when, one day, the phone rang, and you received a message that your family had been wiped out in a car crash? Did someone you know commit suicide? Or did your loved one pass away quietly in their sleep as an elderly person who had been gradually dwindling, like my grandmother who died 10 days short of her 99th birthday? Was their death a merciful release from terrible suffering? Did you get to say goodbye?

We can ask similar questions about how someone loses a job or, for some people in post-COVID-19 economies, a place in a whole sector. Was the loss unexpected? Were you suddenly let go, or did you choose to quit? Did you accept voluntary redundancy, or were you made redundant? Did you exit your job with a nice party, complete with speeches, a card and flowers from friendly and well-wishing colleagues? Or were you ignominiously forced out by a bully?

In my home city of Melbourne, people in the arts industry suddenly found their industry shut down over one weekend in mid-March due to the coronavirus and its associated lockdowns. Even if they were sole-traders who did not lose jobs, they lost projects, platforms, forums, and venues. They lost access to a whole sector. This sudden cessation of activity was stunning in its rapidity and completeness. How has this impacted their grief?

The way someone or something dies, and the way a bereaved person finds out about the death, can influence the way someone is initiated into the grieving process. On top of the tragedy of losing something important to you, are you dealing with shock, disorientation, horror, or anguish? Or, alongside missing a loved thing, are you dealing with a sense of relief (perhaps at the cessation of suffering) or resolution?

Your relationship to the absent thing.

“Your mum’s your best friend!” declared my landlady authoritatively. The poor, kind woman was attempting empathy (having just handed over a bunch of roses and a card) but she had no idea that she was way off the mark as far as I was concerned. My mum was not my best friend, she was both way more and less than that. Mum was as lovable as she could be difficult. We had an affectionate relationship but not always an easy one. She was a complex person and, correspondingly, our relationship was complex. My landlady, as she waxed lyrical about how a mother was a girl’s best friend, was revealing more about her own relationship with her late mother than guessing correctly about mine. Which is why her grief for her late mother – and I caught a glimpse of it in her face, her eyes, as she talked – was always going to be so profoundly different to mine. It’s possible to feel grief for relationships that were difficult, or volatile, or messy. It’s possible to feel love – a primal visceral love – for family members you might not have been sure that you liked.

In terms of work, some people are lucky enough to be in jobs – and working within work cultures – that they love. For them, the loss of such a job, or organisation, or sector will occasion great sadness. But many of us have mixed emotions about our work. John Le Carre said that “most of us live in a slightly conspirational relationship with our employer.” Most of us put on a work persona that enables us to manoeuvre and extract the things we value from work, and to shield us from the things we hate. Some of you reading this may have just lost work that enabled you to pursue a true vocation, but to do so within business models that were exploitative and draining. Some of you will have been doing work you believed in, but within a toxic workplace culture. Some of you may be pursuing vocations where it is actually hard and rare to earn enough income to be viable (such as in the arts industry) and, therefore you may have just lost a ‘day job’ that utterly bored and under-utilised you, but which paid well enough and afforded flexible conditions that enabled you to work on your creative practice. All work is a mixture of activity, culture, pay and other conditions. It is possible to feel differently about all these things. How you felt about the work you have just lost will inflect any grief you may feel.

Depending on your relationship to whatever you have lost, your grieving process may be a jumble of loneliness and sadness, loss of identity, relief at the absence of irritating conditions, regret at missed opportunities, anger at being terminated, or resentment at being used. And also doubts about how the future will look. Friends who have recently lost their jobs in locked down or downsizing sectors have spoken about anxiety about how they will survive in years to come.

Depending on whether or not your relationship with the lost thing was close or distant, healthy or toxic, of long or short duration, you will be grieving over dynamics that are unique to you and which grew out of the relationship between you and that other thing, be that a person or a career.

Your own temperament

We are all individuals, with our own ways of communicating and otherwise manifesting wants, needs, and emotions. As an introvert, I hoovered up quietness and solitude after my Mum’s death. But other more extroverted personalities may hunger after the intimacy of meaningful connection.

I am a private person and find it easiest to capitulate to emotion when I am alone and unburdened by the scrutiny of others. Other friends are less so, seeking validation from expressing their feelings to trusted family and friends. What looks like healthy grieving for me would be an inhibitor for someone else and vice versa.

The external conditions with which you have to contend.

What else is going on in your life as you contend with your grief and / or the shock of radical change and absence? Are you parenting and / or caring for someone? Are you also dealing with relationship problems, or can you lean on a supportive partner? If single, are you happily so, or is loneliness and / or lack of support complicating your life? Do you have savings in the bank? Debts to manage? Do you have to move to a new house soon? Do you have chronic health problems to manage, or are you physically robust?


All of the above will be working in concert with other variables that belong to your own particular life and self. Each variable in play will inform your experience of grief. No other person in the world will have the exact same experience as you. Other people will pronounce or proscribe the sorts of feelings, and the intensity and duration of those feelings, that they expect you to have, and they will all – to some extent – miss the mark.


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief isn’t about resolution

Grief isn’t about resolution

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’.

On the 3rd of June, just 11 days after Mum’s funeral, I wrote this one line in my journal:

“Grief is about learning to live without resolution.”

People seem to think that grief is all about closure (a vile word in this context, and impossible to say without a soupy reality TV accent). But grief isn’t about closure because closure is not possible. Life doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that.

People are messy, complex, inconsistent. It’s what makes us so full of potential and danger all at the same time. That’s why there are gangsters who love their mums, and life-saving surgeons who beat their wives. In his novel Hogfather, Terry Pratchett has his character Death, a cowled horse-riding scythe-carrying skeleton (who loves kittens), ruminate on humans and describe them as the falling angel meeting the rising ape. In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope describes humans as “darkly wise, rudely great.

We are social: all of us falling-apes—rising-angels mix constantly with other brute-divines and madness ensues, be that delightful or horrifying. After a lifetime of driving each other mad (with lust, frustration, adoration, or need?) we are then, when one of us dies, supposed to tie this all neatly off while processing some of the most challenging emotions we will ever feel while grieving. To resolve the madness. To have closure.

In a similar vein, we are supposed to brush off the termination of a job that gave us income, identity, perhaps status, perhaps the social connection of a good team of colleagues, hopefully satisfaction and an outlet for our talents and ambitions. Even if we have mixed feelings about our work, it is still a thing into which we pour time, energy, focus, goodwill, and emotion. Work is one of the things that defines our place in this world, for better or for worse, and we are supposed to just get over it when we are displaced from it?


This is crazy thinking. Why do we demand this of ourselves? By doing so we are demanding something unrealistic and tainting what should be a special time.

Grief is special. It’s not comfortable but it can be enriching.

I approve of it.

Even at its mankiest grief has a clear reason for happening: grief is the process by which we adjust to the reality that that person or thing just isn’t here with us anymore and won’t be ever again. That’s a stark reality. For some people it’s traumatic to come to terms with, for others it can border on relief. But whether you loved or hated the person or job you are grieving (and, yes, you can hate and grieve at the same time) the adjustment you have to make to the absence in your life is huge. Grief allows us to do that.

So, grief isn’t about resolution. It’s actually about accepting what you can’t resolve. It’s about adjusting to living with an absence…


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

You can buy The next day here.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Solitary mind: Out

Solitary mind: Out

So, this is it. After months of lockdown we are getting ready to re-join the world.

How do you feel about that? Relieved that the boredom or loneliness is over? Or are you a little pensive about what you will find?

Isolation is disorientating. Prolonged isolation affects your feelings about how your society is functioning right now, about your place in it, about your trust in it, about, perhaps, the odd ways in which your longing for it might have been manifesting. More than one person I have communicated with over the last few days has expressed some anxiety about being around people again. Many people have taken to referring to ‘old normal’ (i.e. pre-Covid) and the ‘new (emerging) normal’ as two different things.

Whatever the feelings you have about leaving isolation, they need to be taken into account as you find your way back into your post-lockdown life.

‘French window at Collioure’ by Henri Matisse

What’s waiting for you out there? Friends and family who will be happy to see you back in circulation? Do you have a workplace or business that is impatient for your return, with clients panting for your attention, or water-cooler conversations to be reheated? Are you fretting over missed opportunities? Are you one of the hard hit casual or freelance workers who has to try to find work to build up a depleted bank account?

Are you able to ease back into your life, or will you have to hit the ground running? How much agency do you have about your pace and style of re-entry?

Some of you will find the transition back easy. Some of you might be surprised at how hard it seems. Some of you know it will be an ordeal.

If you feel a bit tender or weird about getting back to ‘normal’ – if your prolonged isolation has disrupted or even recalibrated what normal means to you (for better or for worse) – then take it easy, if you can. (And I do acknowledge that some of you may have to hustle).


  • Getting together with a friend to debrief. Choose someone who is a good listener, who will hear without judgement whatever it is that you have to blurt out.
  • Write down your reactions. You may have already used journaling as a strategy to survive or enrich your time alone; keep using it. When you are no longer under the pressure of supporting yourself in a bizarre situation, then looking back and reflecting on an experience when it is over can furnish a fresh perspective.
  • If your head is muddled, or your energies sapped, or your spirits depressed, then there is no shame in seeing a counselor.

We will all react differently but being compelled to live in isolation because of a global crisis is not an easy thing to last through. It may have left its mark on you. If the effect is negative, then do reach out for help. You deserve it. If the effect is ambivalent or positive, you may still need time to understand the ways in which your perspective has changed and how to come to terms with that. The special effort we have all put into caring for ourselves or each other during this time of distancing and isolation should not stop now. We need to help each other to pick up the pieces.