No time to grieve

On mornings when I walk my children the first part of the way to school, for the past few months, I’ve been noticing a woman walking her son the other way. She’s always dressed thoughtfully, with well-cut clothes in bright colours, and the most wonderful shoes. Yesterday she was wearing a pair of sky-blue ankle boots.

In more recent weeks, we’d finally made it past the stage of smiling politely at each other as we passed, and graduated to saying hello. I used to look forward to passing her, hoping each day she’d still say hello. And she did. It would brighten that part of my day, send me on my way back to my desk with a smile. But yesterday as we approached each other, we knew it was almost for the last time, for who knows how long. I don’t walk the children that way in the morning on Fridays, and so as we passed each other and acknowledged the strangeness of the times we were finding ourselves in, I said goodbye to her, and told her to take care. Then I walked back home, had a little cry while I hung up my coat, and got on with some work just as I always do. 

Except, nothing is just as always at the moment, and we don’t know when or indeed if it ever quite will be. And I think we need to be kind enough to ourselves to admit that it hurts. And give ourselves the space to grieve for all sorts of things. They’ll keep hitting us, as we go about trying to keep things going while living with tremendous uncertainty (and possibly illness). The ‘small’ losses of personal freedoms and things we took for granted until less than a fortnight ago. The potential enormous losses of people we love. The eeriness of empty streets. The worry of family in different countries, and not knowing when we’ll see them again.

The government, and our prime minister in particular, would like to emphasise (if he can be arsed, in those inconvenient press conferences he’s being forced to endure) that it is business as usual. That we can ‘get on top of this’, that it can be ‘turned round in 12 weeks’. Whether or not those are realistic or responsible comments isn’t really the subject of this blog post. We are meant to ‘do the right thing’, which I understand is practise social distancing as a matter of course and self-isolation if necessary, and ‘pull together’. They’re stopping short of compelling us to do these things with any force, perhaps because if they do that the imperative to actually compensate individuals for loss of earnings might become too great for them to ignore. Perhaps. 

As freelance editors, of course we worry. We’re paid to worry at the best of times. But at first it might have seemed like no big deal. We’re used to working from home! We’ve got this whole self-isolation thing down. All these articles about how to set up a home office, and whether or not to get dressed to have a video conference – they were kind of cute, right? But we didn’t need to read more than the headline, because we’d been doing it for years. 

But after the elation (Yeah! Everyone’s a bit like us now!) came the realisation. Our work must come from somewhere. And would the place where it came from continue to operate as usual? Well, it might and it might not. It’s looking more likely, not. We’re all in this together as we keep being reminded, and that is a double-edged sword. 

What’s happening to all of us is seismic, on every level, and we need to try to give ourselves time to cope with it mentally – while also taking care of ourselves and our loved ones on a practical level, and coping with way too much information. (Some of it designed to misinform and scare us. Some of it quite useful. Some of it just noise.) It’s too easy to get sucked into thinking that we need to move heaven and earth to replicate normality in these difficult times. But I’m not convinced there is that normality to cling on to anymore. You’ve all been to your local supermarkets. People are scared, and they’re behaving in ways they’ve never behaved before. Last year I proofread and copyedited a slew of textbooks on procurement and the supply chain, and you know what? I kind of wish I hadn’t, now. If this crisis exposes anything, it’s how thin the veneer of calm that overlays the chaos really is. 

And when it comes to grieving for things, I haven’t even touched on the impact of the children being at home, for those of us who have them. I’m trying to approach the need for homeschooling as a positive – I know I am immensely fortunate to have the resources and flexible enough work (assuming it continues, at least in some form) to have a proper stab at it. But it wasn’t what I ever envisaged. And all our children’s grief – at the cancellation of maybe a term and a half, and exams or graduation, and transition between schools, and school trips, and plays, and just the simple joy of mixing easily with friends every day. My children have so far taken the news very well, but it won’t be easy for them in the coming weeks and months.  

Good things have happened. My phone’s been alive with the buzzing of WhatsApp. I’m in touch more regularly with some friends and family than I have been in years. Freelance editors are again fortunate in already being used to maintaining online networks, and right now I’m so grateful for that. 

Coming back to the title of this blog post: it is not an allusion to needing to just roll up our sleeves and get on with this, elbowing our way forward in the new world order, without pausing to reflect, as some might expect us to do, as we might expect of ourselves. It’s about also admitting that we need to be allowed time to be sad – devastated – for the things we’ve all lost and that we don’t know if we’ll get back. We need space to acknowledge the shaking of the foundations of everything we thought we knew. 

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She’s doing what she can right now, and getting lots of very early nights.  

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