Nowhere, wrote the economic historian Karl Polanyi several decades ago, has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the process of change. The denial of grief could be central to this failure.
What are your thoughts on loss, endings, and sorrow? Perhaps the less the better, since it won’t help to dwell on it. Better to keep busy. Yet recent events, not least the pandemic, have convinced me that life really could be – as soul activist and psychotherapist Francis Weller has shown – an apprenticeship with sorrow.
Grief, as Weller writes cogently in The Wild Edges of Sorrow, is an elemental life-giving force, serving to reconnect us with what is essentially vibrant and alive. Practiced and shared well, grief gives voice and value to the diversity of the life journey, expressing and crystallising the whole, often painful canvas of lived experience.
And yet, despite the certainty of endings, grief seems strangely neglected. In the competitive busyness of social and economic life, grieving seems a bit of a peculiarity or luxury – something of an aberration in the relentless machinations of ‘business-as-usual’.
Take the workplace, where a utilitarian preference for a vacuous positivity, extroversion, and numerical and statistical data can desensitise us to the inner, visceral dimensions of change. Rigid adherence to maintaining professionalism and a prevailing competitive ethos can reduce ‘best practice’ to the avoidance of emotional engagement.
Families, so often the first place we turn for support and last line of defence when things go wrong, can inadvertently compound the suffering of the bereaved by clinging to received family roles of ‘order’ or reinforcing unspoken rules of emotional silence or endurance.
Instead, grief is cast as something to manage quietly and stoically – and sometimes ‘heroically’ – in private. Our more vulnerable and emotive selves cast as unproductive, shameful, or inappropriate – ultimately distrusted and ushered away.
What we fall back on in the public sphere is a rather questionable faith in a reactive individualism and moral psychologism, devoid of social context. Emotion and vulnerability are ours to own, internalise, and overcome, lest they should drift into the stigmatised shame of social welfare, charitable, or pharmaceutical solutions.
Yet unable to relate or properly process our darker, more painful experiences, our feelings can turn to any number of less healthy patterns: an obsession with nostalgia, reaction, shame, hate, resistance to change – even anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Often seen as the elixir, digital technology can serve to can such feelings and amplify negative evaluations. Social media platforms have a strange way making us feel constantly and instantaneously connected when the reality could be we have seldom been so lonely, distracted, and distant.
But note the often complex and distressing social outcomes that can follow are not a reflection of personal failure, a point Weller makes clear. They are largely the outcome of pervasive care deficits: a disturbing vacuum in our lives where healthy and vibrant community relations should be, supported by enabling public institutions.
As it happens, there are very good reasons to hide our vulnerability. Because while some losses reflect natural rhythms, as inevitable as night following day and the changing of the seasons, others are avoidable and reflect a political culture that has largely turned its back on its most vulnerable.
Since early 2020, covid-19 has shone a light onto the social structure. It’s devastating consequences the latest reminder that despite all our progress we still live in a society where vulnerability too often leads to aloneness and fear, and where the most vulnerable are more likely to suffer injustice, indignity, and early death through lack of access to life’s necessities.
As Midlands Psychology Group might say: “What are too often seen as private predicaments are in fact best understood as arising out of the public structures of society.” But in the face of such wicked problems, how can a seemingly simple conversation with grief help?
Grief probes deeply, painfully, but cathartically into those often-neglected inner spaces in our lives that are intimately connected with deeper meanings and a larger collectivity. Here, change does not reside in the innumerable, always ‘revolutionary’ and commodified new starts that are pushed at us at every available moment, but with a compassionate acceptance of endings and the whole, often messy, awkward canvas of human need and living.
In this perspective, policy conclusions are difficult to gauge, since progress pe-empts a willingness to challenge some deeply held cultural values and assumptions. Better awareness and adequately resourced support and bereavement services would be a welcome start.
Such improvements could open space for networks of empathy and trust to flow and flourish, building upon more hopeful (and accurate) models of human behaviour such as mutual aid that emerged during the early stages of the pandemic.
More broadly, much can be learnt from complexity theory; efforts to reframe and reorientate economic activity as primarily about caring and circular sustainability; re-organise work and life around collective responsibility for the commons; and reinstitute social care as a fundamental public good.
But in an age of extraordinary loss and uncertainty, we’d be wise to start with a degree of humility, courage, and openness in the face of this strangely neglected but undeniable pattern of change.
As Jonathan Prescott of Wiser Caregiving reflects: “Grief is an elemental thing, beyond the control of our intellect and best left to find its course like water down a mountain. If we dam it, it gains energy until it becomes a destructive flood. Best to let it find its way.”
Covid-19 has already added to a toxic global pool of anxiety and repressed grief, showing us the cracks in the social foundations of the dam we have built. We need these conversations because grief must be allowed to find its way down the mountain before it turns into the tragedy of that destructive flood.