There’s a hidden power in recognizing all that we’ve lost
A few days ago I walked past a central London office building I used to work in.
I indulged in that time-honored urban past-time: revisiting a life I used to live by re-enacting a daily routine that’s now long gone. With my muscle memory as my route map, I passed by the John Lewis window displays that once served as a reliable marker of the capitalist calendar on my walk to work — Halloween, Christmas, January sales, Valentine’s day, Easter, Mother’s day ad infinitum — and then those bizarre American candy stores that appear, improbably, to have survived lockdown.
As I did this I felt not just straightforward nostalgia, but also a keen sense of grief. Grief that this particular walk, headspace, life, is so radically different from the one I live now.
The weird and perhaps confusing thing is that I don’t actually want that life back.
I remember often embarking on that same walk to Oxford Circus station, feeling so strung out on the internet and fluorescent lights that I scarcely felt human. But the person I was two years, one year, or even six months ago — the things I cared about and the ambitions and optimism and expectations of life that I had — feel so starkly different from now. I can’t help but miss it a little.
I think a lot of people are in this space right now: of ambiguous loss, of loosely-sketched grief, of knowing we can’t go back — or not even wanting to — but missing who we were and what we had then anyway.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this hasn’t lost a tremendous amount this year. Of course, for so many people who have lost loved ones, the grief is far from loosely sketched. It’s acute and overwhelming and debilitating. And it’s made so much worse by leaders (at least in the US and UK) who don’t even try to hide their active disdain for the lost lives of people who ostensibly elected them.
Beyond that immense trauma, the varying scales and permutations of our grief can feel overwhelming when you stop and think about it: The loss of jobs, dreams, optimism, bucket list trips, graduations, savings accounts, weddings, small and large businesses, worry-free retirements, Saturday morning yoga class routines, hugging, spontaneous plans, security, book parties, chance romantic encounters on a unexpectedly fun evening, secret rituals on the commute to work, graduations, favorite restaurants, working in coffee shops, childhood innocence, colleagues, spontaneity, crowded pubs as a good thing, funerals, birthdays, live music, dinner parties — all of it.
There’s also the tectonic losses of this year, the ones that undermine who we thought we were and where we were headed. Maybe it’s the loss of your belief that the future will fundamentally be okay; the belief that the United States is a functioning democracy and a developed country; the belief that as long as you aren’t actively racist, you are an okay person; the belief that humans will figure out climate change in time for your kids’ lives to be recognizable; the belief that even though you live on another continent, you are always a simple plane ride away from the people you love.
There is so. much. grief. Some days I can see it in people’s posture. And yet, I don’t see many people talking about it. It drives me nuts.
I too have lost a lot this year. But I feel divergent from this collective denial our society seems to be engaged in. As a contrast, I’m sort of obsessed with my grief. Holding space for everything I’ve lost is precisely what has allowed me to create something entirely new with my life this year. In some way, I didn’t have a choice — when you end a relationship and have to move amidst a pandemic, you gotta come up with a plan — but once I started examining what I’d lost, honoring it, and allowing it, I started to see all the other ways my life needed to change in order to adapt to what’s coming. It was one thing after the other.
I’m aware that not all cultures avoid grief in this way; indeed, some use loss and death as an organizing principle of life. However it makes sense to me that patriarchal capitalism would steer us away. I can think of two reasons why.
The first is that grief is neither linear nor productive. If you really want to spend time with it, you have to prepare for the unexpected. Sometimes you will not be able to work, or do what you said you’d do, or do anything other than lie in your bed and cry. One week you will be thriving, the next you will be non-functioning. You will deeply miss what you had, but also perhaps be glad it’s gone — on the same day. Grief defies all reason. Grief is a paradox. Grief is not good for the economy.
The second, is that when you make adequate time and space to honor your grief and feel it move through your body, things start to happen. Grief, if you cede to it, can serve as an embodied reminder that what we are all doing here is a one time limited time offer. The only certainty is that it’s going to end. It’s the ultimate memento mori. In that way, grief can clarify and transform things — sometimes terrifyingly and radically so — but only if you accept its scorched earth policy.
I like the way poet Maggie Smith put it on Twitter: “When something important in your life ends, it’s like a monument has burned. Stop sifting: there’s no reconstructing it from ash. Stand in the space and see it — burnt black as it may be — as a site for building. There’s room for something else now — what? You decide. Keep moving.”
My biggest fear of this time is that we fail to make room for our grief. If “the after” is to be any better or different, it will be because we honored our grief, not powered through it. If we are to change our societies in order to adapt to (not stop, because we can’t) the climate emergency, we first have to grieve the society we’re losing. But for now, this task has been left up to us. Our leaders are sad, broken, deeply traumatized men clinging to the patriarchal structures that are still just narrowly serving them. They are deeply invested in making things much, much worse.
So as you stand on the building site of your life in the after, here’s my advice: Before you start building, pause and make room for your grief. If you can, encourage others to do the same. There are many cultural and spiritual traditions which can provide guidance here, but if you have no idea where to start, just begin by being still and quiet.
Set aside 20 minutes a day to sit in a quiet room and notice how you feel. Allow the feelings you usually avoid to arise. Don’t judge them when they do. Welcome tears when they come. Be patient. Keep honoring the practice, and make it a ritual. Talk about it with people that give you space to not have a point or conclusion or positive takeaway. Don’t question whether this practice makes any sense. For once, have no expectation of progress. Be unfailingly kind to yourself throughout. And then, with time, watch the transformation follow.
This post was first published in an edition of the author’s newsletter, Rojospinks Monthly. You can subscribe here.