Are You Okay?

“Grief is love that has nowhere to go.” – Roshi Joan Halifax

Grief comes to us when there’s loss. That loss could be a loss of ‘normal’, loss of freedoms, loss of safety, and a loss of belonging. It could be the loss of a role you’ve played in a family system, or in a titled role at your job.  Grief is what we feel after experiencing a loss of relationship, status, job, house, game, income, family member, a beloved pet, company, etcetera. It is the loss of something we love or have poured love into. For many of us, our less-than-fluent ways in the land of grief can leave us without a map for navigating through it’s deep and rich contours. Yet, it is in experiencing grief and letting it have its way with us, that allows us to find ourselves on the shores of aliveness. Failing to complete the arc of grief’s curriculum for us, we risk becoming stuck in our lives. 

Tending to our grief is good human being housekeeping. Surprisingly, opening ourselves to the altar of grief is life-giving, even though it’s tremors feel as if they are excavating us. If only we regarded grief as a holy place instead of something to keep under wraps so we can keep ourselves from coming undone. Grief is a terrain we’re not so much familiar with and traversing its pitches feels daunting.

Author Toko-pa Turner calls grief the result of a broken bond of belonging and a “reaction to being torn from what you love.” She writes: 

“…while grief may look like an expression of pain that serves no purpose, it is actually the soul’s acknowledgment of what we value. Grief is the honour we pay to that which is dear to us. And it is only through the connection to what we cherish that we can know how to move forward. In this way, grief is motion.”

Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow, tells us that grief doesn’t need to be kept in seclusion:

“Grief has always been communal, always been shared and consequently has traditionally been regarded as a sacred process. Too often in modern times our grief becomes private, carrying an invisible mantle of shame forcing our sorrow underground, hidden from the eyes that would offer healing. We must restore the conversation we need to have concerning the place of grief in our lives. Each of us must undertake an apprenticeship with loss.” 

In the most recent podcast episode, Avni Patel Thompson finds herself as a former founder and talks to Jerry about the grief that followed the closing of her company. It wasn’t until someone asked an innocuous question – Are you okay? – that she touched in with all that she was processing around the shutdown. That simple question opened up that well of grief in its wake. 

It was then, that she was able to unpack her feelings and begin to process them. “When you shut something down, or it goes away, it can feel as if it never had value,” she shares. 

In her book, Belonging, Turner writes: 

“In our culture, we are deeply unskilled with grief. We hold it at a distance as best we can, both in ourselves and in each other, treating it as, Joanna Macy says, like “an enemy of cheerfulness.” There is unspoken shame associated with grief. It is sanctioned in very few places, in small doses, for exceptional occasions such as death and tragedy. Beyond that, it can feel dangerous and weak. Perhaps because we fear we’ll drown in our despair, or because it means falling apart in a world which values ‘holding it together’ above all else. But grief plays an essential role in our coming undone from previous attachments. It is the necessary current we need to carry us into our next becoming. Without it, we may remain stuck in that area of our life, which can limit the whole spectrum of our feeling alive.”

Not long ago, I found myself in a pile of grief around my shifting role at a company I loved and had poured much of my best self into. It took me a while to put my finger on what I was feeling in the midst of it all. If you had asked me how I was doing back then, I couldn’t refrain from telling you how I really was feeling, even if it was a bit incoherent. There was no hiding it, even though at the same time it felt like too much–so much that I would rein it in. While I wouldn’t have labeled my experience as “grief” at the time, that’s exactly what it was. I was grieving the shift in my role, and feeling completely unmoored and bereft, as if someone had taken my baby from me. As if all I had done didn’t exist and had no value–and that I had no value.

That soup of emotions included sadness, anxiety, pain, helplessness, anger, shame, yearning, and loneliness. I would have moments of disbelief and shock. When I’d be included on an email thread, or respond as I normally would have, I felt equally out of place. I didn’t know where I belonged anymore. I felt miles away, lost, and worthless some days. I questioned all that I had done and wondered if it mattered anymore. Part of me felt erased. I felt untethered from this company that had become an axis mundi in my life. 

I found a lot of white space in my days as I reoriented and processed. Each day, I’d ask myself, “How are you?” so that I could then be present with myself and all that was there in that moment. “Irritable,” “Depressed,” and the ever-dramatic-but-honest “Wailing-ly sad” were common responses. I had to remind myself that my purpose had nothing to do with being hands-on in the company, and it had nothing to do with how many emails I cleared out each day. 

In the denouement, I sat in that blank space, knowing that I was also creating space for the new to be born. I had to dig deep into what I loved and who I was. Here and there, along the way, truths emerged: I am not my inbox or my inbox prowess; I am not my well-organized Google Drive; What I helped bring into the world was a success, and what I loved became even more clarified.  

“We shake with joy, we shake with grief,” writes Mary Oliver. “What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.” 

After a good chunk of a year slogging through the less-than-fun-feeling range of emotions, I found that blank space freeing for more self-expression in my work. I followed what I loved even more closely and put my focus there. Life was different, and more alive. My purpose was not only intact but much stronger, riding on a wider breadth of dedicated bandwidth–something I couldn’t have found in my previous role. As much as the transition felt excoriating at the identity level, I emerged knowing who I was more resolutely. 

While grief honors what you love, placing that love onto something is what moves you beyond the deep well of the trembling sadness that comes after heartbreak. In an oddly roundabout way, grief locates our love and longings so that we can reorient on the places in our life that are ripe for joy.

What’s at the heart of what you’re driven toward? Where do you put your love? What is the love that pulls you? What brings you joy? What moves you forward into what’s next?