August 28, 2020

Grieving

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

These last few weeks, I have been sensing a need for an intervention—with myself and with those around me. While some people have lost profoundly more than others—family members, their own good health, their livelihood—all of us are rocked by losses in this coronaseason. I have seen so many of us try to put off grieving these losses with the story that this is just temporary. We can work twice as many hours or binge watch Netflix or have virtual coffee hours on Zoom and try to ignore that the conditions of our lives have materially changed.

I think it’s time, though, as weeks have stretched into months and the coronaseason seems increasingly likely to stretch into years, for us to grieve what we have lost, to say goodbye to the lives we have had and to make space for the beauties that might be coming. William Bridges, who writes so helpfully about transitions reminds us: “Transition always starts with an ending. To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now; to start doing things a new way, you have to end the way you are doing them now; and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old.”

One of the things Bridges recommends is that we have a sense of what we’re letting go of now as we go through this transition. I don’t know what is on your list, but here is a (partial) sense of mine.

  • I am grieving the bubbly sense of anticipation of delights to come, the peering around the corner of Now into some delightful imagined event I can almost see. I long for the belief that my longing will soon be sated;
  • I am grieving the time spent with my treasured colleagues in a big circle, crafting the way our innovative little firm works by day, telling stories and laughing over dinner, and dancing late into the night;
  • I am grieving my ability to help my nearly-adult children imagine their futures: I used to imagine plans with them, building and discarding possible futures the way we used to build with Legos. Now we just look together at the pile of pieces on the floor and have no idea how they might be able to connect;
  • I am grieving my ability to do my work in the way that fills me with joy, to be around people, to read the room, to have powerful and unscripted conversations over a coffee or a meal instead of orchestrating an experience over Zoom;
  • I am grieving my ability to see people, particularly my parents, and go places, particularly New Zealand.
  • (And oh, the laughing! How I miss the laughing!)

In March, I thought maybe I would miss these things briefly and then I would get back to them. As recently as July, I thought maybe I would be able to fly to see my parents in September or October, that I would be able to have Christmas on the beach in New Zealand. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that at least for the foreseeable future, I have to let it all go. No more circles of colleagues. No more anticipation of delightful plans. No more visits to see my family and friends. Not now. Not soon. Not in this chapter. I have to put it down and build again.

The leaders I work with are also waiting it out—waiting to have performance review conversations, to hire for a particularly tricky role, to take a break they desperately need. When this is over, they’ll be able to get to those things. They are working across all the time zones; their teams are burnt out and aching. They are still acting as if this moment were temporary and they can just put in more hours to get over the hump. But it’s time to not wait. It’s time to move through grief to whatever might be next. We will be virtual, we will be masked, we will be grounded for the foreseeable future. This is what it is.

So far, this practice of putting down things that I have lost hurts. I notice my desire to believe these changes are temporary and the simple stories I tell myself about the miracle that might be just around the corner. I keep having to remember that these losses are in fact lost, the way I sometimes remember with a shock that my grandmother is still dead.

Bridges tells us that in this space of ending, we need to also focus on those things that are not lost, those things from our old lives that we will put in our bag and carry into the new world. This reminds us that much of our identity remains even when our lives materially change. For me, this list comes with a different kind of energy, access to some part of me that feels good and whole. I will carry forward:

  • My deep love of transformative work and my knowing that organisations can be places of joy and sustainable goodness for the individuals, the collective, and their communities;
  • My connections with my colleagues and my clients, and our capacity to co-create new possibilities together;
  • My love for my family—my parents, my children, my aunts and uncles and cousins—and the knowledge that the time I spend in any form of connection with them is a balm;
  • My writing, thinking, researching, and theorising as ways to make sense of a world, find new pathways forward, and connect across distance;
  • My love of beautiful spaces—if not the currently-unreachable landscapes of New Zealand, then the quiet beauties of St James’s Park or the achievable (drivable) majesty of the Alps.

Finally, as we look at what we are leaving behind and what we are bringing with us, Bridges tells that these moments of transition allow us to see in a new way what matters most to us. The losses are dark spaces that illuminate our deepest loves, our deepest hopes. Facing into them helps us see what we can create from where we are now rather than simply being swept in the circles of longing and denial. As I get really quiet with myself, I am learning that I want to grow:

  • My ability to be filled with gratitude and wonder in the present, rather than searching for it in some imagined future;
  • My ability to teach, connect, laugh—and perhaps even sing and dance—in virtual ways with a global and increasingly diverse circle;
  • My connection to the place where I live—London—and to the humans who are close by and can go for a walk or have a cup of tea in the garden;
  • My coaching practice, which has been small for the last few years as I’ve been too busy with groups to focus on individuals, but oh there is such joy in supporting a leader to grow and live in the world in a new way–and it translates perfectly to Zoom
  • My circles of connection, to include people who are different from me, who have different life stories, different histories, and who show me the world in a new way.

Nature shows us that to make room for the new, we have to say goodbye to the old. Let’s see what happens if we can do more of this. Find your way to put down the grief you might not even know you are carrying. Take out the hopeless hopes, the impossible joys, the shards of the broken plans, and do them the honour of weeping over their loss. Then notice what you can carry with you, what you can grow. It is only then that our eyes will clear, and we will have the vision to admire the green shoots of what comes next.

One thought on “Grieving”

  1. Avatar Eric says:

    Thank you Jennifer – your words truly spoke to me in a way I was keeping a blind eye to before. I too am a fan of Bridges’ Transitions work and it didn’t even “click” for me fully until reflecting upon your post. I’m going to follow those 3 steps for myself first (like the airline oxygen mask analogy) and then be there for my colleagues who are also in the transition… or most likely, fighting it. Thanks again.

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