Good Grief

The world has changed. We cannot go back to where we were, nor continue to head in the same direction we were set upon before this crisis. But that is easier said than done and will be impossible if we do not embrace the grief of what we are journeying through together. There has been and continues to be painful loss. We have lost dear friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues. We have lost jobs, income, holidays and social gatherings. We have missed births and birthdays, key social events, final goodbyes and funerals. We are bereaved of whole ways of behaving – our ways of life, everything we’ve known has been entirely interrupted.

 

For me, as a type 7 on the Enneagram, it’s all too easy to engage in the future, to think about the ‘what next?’, to avoid the pain of the here and now, by letting my imagination run wild of what the world might be like instead. But we cannot and must not miss the vital part of our current journey, which is to recognise, embrace and partake in the grieving process. Grief is not comfortable, it is not easy, it is not enjoyable – in fact it is both tumultuous and painful…..but it is good. Refusing to enter into it, or trying to suppress it, will only lead to a deepening of the trauma and a delay of this inevitable experience.

 

The thing about grief is that it is unpredictable and what makes it even more so in this current experience is that it is both personal and corporate. However, the cycle of grief is well known and although each of us will go through the cycle differently, it’s worth recognising where in the cycle we might be, both as individuals and as a wider community/society.


This is the classic ‘grief cycle’ (I’ve borrowed the graphic from psychcentral.com) and it demonstrates well how the experience of grief is neither straightforward nor easy. However, psychologists agree that each of us will pass through each of these phases, no matter how briefly – though we can remain stuck in some areas for quite some time.

 

The isolation of this time has been the starting place for most of us. For some that was coupled with an acceptance that we are where we are, but for others there was a denial that this could be real and a refusal to engage with the idea of social distancing (although with police enforcement, this quickly began to change!).

 

The anger phase is clearly present for many at the moment, and understandably so. Anger is not wrong, it’s how we respond to it that becomes the issue. Sadly, in many households we’re seeing a rise in Domestic Violence , particularly towards women and children and this is something we need to take really seriously. Learning to control our anger and find a positive outlet for it is absolutely key. There are all kinds of online resources to help with this, but the deep cuts to social services and policing over recent years have made it difficult to work with families in a more proactive way. The Violence Reduction Unit in Lancashire, led by Detective Chief Superintendent Sue Clarke, who is a brilliant leader,  have done some incredible work in this area over the past couple of years, which is well worth learning from. The approach is much more productive than traditional methods of dealing with this issue and involves being with families more proactively to bring restoration and redemption into broken situations.

 

We’re also seeing the rise of a corporate anger. Tony Blair stated the other day that this is the most difficult time to contemplate being in government, and it’s true that we are in unprecedented times, but he feels our response nationally was slow. However, many feel that more serious questions, now being asked across the media spectrum, still need an answer:

 

These are all important questions that require an answer. Anger can be used to facilitate the right kind of conversations to bring challenge to the status quo and demand that it never leads us here again. The outcomes we are seeing were not inevitable – so what will we learn? What will be different? How will we change? If people in positions of power are willing to own up to mistakes, are we willing to forgive? I hope so…..how do we rebuild society otherwise? We must be able to learn and change our ways. It’s at the heart of what it means to love. But we must also recognise that some of this anger is simply part of the grief cycle and there may be no answers. We’re angry in part, because we are grieving. Sometimes our anger brings challenge and change, but sometimes we yell into the night and are met with silence.

 

Depression in grief can become clinical depression, but the word, in the context of grief, more describes a sense of deep sadness, loss, numbness, apathy and is often accompanied by tears. We must not try and keep a stiff upper lip, or push this away. Some of us will feel this more acutely than others, depending on our personality type, but this is a vitally important part of the process. This deep sadness can catch us unawares. It can come almost out of nowhere and we can find ourselves having a good cry in the bath or struggling to find the motivation to get out of bed of a morning. Talking about these feelings is absolutely vital, and it’s important that those of us who listen, ensure that the person experiencing these emotions feels heard. They don’t need fixing. They need validating. They need to know it’s OK to feel like this. We can’t just wish it away or get back on with things. There is a certain wallowing in this place that is extremely healthy and right. It’s true, we don’t want to get stuck here, and by putting some positive measures in place, like exercising, eating well, mindfulness and keeping a positive sense of routine, we can avoid becoming more mentally unwell. However, we must not try and rush through this phase or refuse to embrace the pain of it.  But this can become a very dark experience and some people will wonder if life is even worth living. We can find ourselves asking searching questions: Can we really go on without our loved one? Will we ever get through the brokenness of this current situation, when we have lost so much? If this becomes overwhelming or there are serious thoughts of not wanting to carry on with life, this is where therapeutic interventions or medical treatment in the form of medication can be really important and literally life-saving.

 

At a corporate level, we share a sadness that 20000 people in the UK and 200000 people globally have lost their lives so far, due to COVID-19 – and that is just the recorded deaths. We will potentially feel lost that a whole way of being together is no longer possible, nor perhaps, desired. The artists will help us the most here. Songwriters, painters, choreographers and playwrights. Are we mature enough to embrace the songs and dances of lament? DO we know how to do this?

 

Bargaining is about us trying to begin to formulate some meaning or sense of what has happened/is happening. We might find that we want to talk about our experiences more, tell our stories, reach out to others and explore some of the ‘why’ questions we’re wrestling with. We might find we start ‘big conversations’ with God or ‘the universe’ – some thing like – ‘if you help me get my job back, then I’ll live a good life from now on’ or we might find we’re dealing with several regrets in our interactions or relationship with the person we have lost.

 

Acceptance is about realising that we are where we are and we cannot change a thing. It allows us to breathe deeply into the reality of the horrors we have walked through and begin to face into the future. Some people think of the grief cycle as more like a river with the grief cycle being a whirlpool that we get stuck in for a while. We go round and round, but eventually we come out the other side. On a personal level, perhaps, before we entered the whirlpool, we had a dearly loved one in our boat with us and we entered this whirlpool once that person became sick or was no longer in the boat with us, because they had died. The whirlpool can feel overwhelmingly difficult, with the stages above. We come out of the whirlpool with an acceptance that this dearly loved person is no longer in the boat with us….but there are other boats that we travel alongside, and perhaps there are others who still remain in our boat. We must now learn to live in this boat, without the person who was with us before but knowing we can face the future with our other companions. At a corporate level, this is about us sense making that the future cannot be like the past. Things have fundamentally changed. We cannot go back to how things were and so together we can build an altogether fairer and kinder future for our global population and the planet we inhabit together. This becomes what some refer to as the 6th stage of grief – ‘Meaning’. We begin to make sense of what we have journeyed through and use it to transform our experience of the world and how we want to live in it. My next blog will explore some of the meaning we may find the other side of COVID-19.

 

Whatever your experience of grief at this time, embrace it and talk about it, but don’t try and hurry it away. Good grief is a part of life and enables to process our loss, feel our pain, heal our wounds, accept our scars and find a new future. The ‘Good Grief’ movement is something I would really recommend exploring, especially if you are struggling to process your own grief. There is also lots of mental health support available through your local GP or online via nhs.uk. Grieving allows us not only to engage with the pain we are going through, but allows us to let go, so that we can reset and rediscover a way forward together. It’s impossible to walk through it alone, which is why as the city of Liverpool reminds us in the amazing song, sung at Anfield, friendship is everything.

 

 

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Easter Reflections: A New World is Possible

I tested positive for Covid-19 on Good Friday. As a doctor it’s always tough to be off sick – you feel a mixture of guilt (because you know how hard your colleagues are working), frustration (because you want to be back out there serving your community) and helplessness (because there’s nothing you can do about it). I knew I had the virus before my result came through – I felt like I’d been hit by a bus – like all the energy had been knocked out of me and I was very achey. This, along with the cough and other symptoms has made me stop. I am forced to rest. I can’t just continue. I need to let my body recover. Covid-19 hasn’t only shown us the fragility of human life, but of the way we have constructed our systems together – the vast injustices afforded to more than half the world’s population and the damage we are doing to the planet itself. This virus has created an enforced rest for the majority of us and made us stop. And whilst we do so, the earth itself is regenerating – perhaps we are too.

 

This weekend, along with millions of people across the globe, our family will be celebrating Easter. During this rest there is time for me to reflect again on that incredible story and think about its implications for the world. Easter, I believe, perhaps more than any other time, gives us space to pause and ask ourselves what life is really about – what is it that we’re really living for?

 

Easter can be thought of in many ways. It seems to me that we have entered a new space in recent years to be able to discuss issues of spirituality much more openly again. Here are a few ways that I see Easter, if you’re interested (!):

 

1) Easter is about new beginnings. The chance to start over, to see the world radically differently in the light of what God reveals to us about his own self-giving, others-empowering love. It’s an opportunity for us to press the reset button and find the grace and hope for the world to be made new. In the midst of the pain and complexities of the global lockdown of COVID-19, multiple voices are beginning to call for a reimagined world. Jeremy Lent writes powerfully about the reality that everything has changed. He states that the ‘neo-liberal era’ is potentially over and therefore we have an opportunity to reset the foundations upon which we build our lives together on planet earth, whilst working for its regeneration. It’s well worth making yourself a cup of tea and pausing to read his reflections.

 

2) Easter is about a new economy. Easter is about debts being forgiven and a resetting of our priorities. Never, in all of human history, has there been such stark inequality between rich and poor, nor has the climate ever faced such an emergency. Our economic systems are entirely defunct for the needs of the global population and the environment in which we live. The old lie that ‘there is no such thing as society’ is exposed for what it is and the story of ‘self-centred, selfish man’ as the basis on which to build economic theory is broken. In its place new experiments are emerging around economies of wellbeing. This week Amsterdam declared it is going to be the first ‘doughnut city’ in the world – read this and let your heart leap – we’re talking about the kind of economy that is regenerative and distributive by design! The world made new! Jesus proclaimed the economics of Jubilee – a forgiving of all debts and the chance for the people and the land to rest. So radical it was never adopted, but his manifesto has never changed. We have an opportunity together to embrace a much more loving and radical economics if we want to. We don’t have to continue as we were…..In fact there are fresh global calls to cancel the debt of developing nations – now that would be a reset!

 

3) Easter is about a new politics. Bishop Tom Wright calls resurrection ‘THE political act’. In other words, he’s saying that the ultimate power of the world is not that held together by the likes of Trump and Putin, but the life-laid-down-love of the cross – no power can overcome this love – it is the ultimate force in the universe and it is legitimated in the resurrection of the son of God, who lives this way and overcomes death itself and empire in all its forms. This politics of love is non-violent, enemy-loving and full of peace. It does not erect walls, it builds bridges. It is full of compassion and mercy. It always hopes, always trusts and always perseveres. Russell Brand and Brad Evans have a fascinating conversation about a new politics of love – something we have been actively exploring in Morecambe Bay (See Roger Mitchell’s brilliant talk). They discuss how this is anything but ‘airy-fairy’. Love, rather, as the ultimate foundation of how we build our lives together gives us an alternative reality on which to build a fairer and kinder society. Brand is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I like his ability to ask good questions and provoke our ability to think as we challenge our own presuppositions. Some people are now coining the term ‘glocalisation’ to think about how we become more locally focused, whilst remaining globally connected and concerned about the plight of others around the world. In other words, glocalisation enables a much more relational, loving, connected politics and economics whilst also enabling us to learn from other great ideas and initiatives around the world and care about our fellow human brothers and sisters more. The politics of Jesus is seen throughout his life and ministry and his death and resurrection makes it even more possible: prioritise the poor, put children in the centre, instate women, free prisoners, heal the sick, welcome strangers, renew the creation….not a bad starting point for a new world.

 

4) Easter is about healing. As we behold the wounds inflicted on God himself, we find one who is truly with us in our own suffering. His therapeutic healing is one which draws alongside to be with us in our pain and distress, washing our feet, bearing and carrying our infirmities with Him – sometimes that results in incredible miracles but often it’s just the knowing that he is with us in it that is enough. We see this kind of incredible healing at work through our health and care workers across the globe right now and in countless tales of lives poured out in service to others. The whole point of healing is to bring wholeness. I wonder what our health and care systems would really be like if we put wellbeing and wholeness at the heart of the design process.

 

5) Easter is about salvation and redemption. I personally cannot align myself with a theology of penal substitution. I don’t have time or space in this blog to say why, but would recommend ‘A More Christlike God’ by my friend Brad Jersak, or this blog to explore the issue further, if you’re interested. As we look upon the crucified Christ, we don’t look upon someone appeasing an angry Father, rather we see God himself, misunderstood and rejected, nailed to a cross, breathing out forgiveness and revealing to humanity that this way of life-poured-out-love is stronger than death itself. This way of life saves us from our own selfishness, greed and ego-promotion and invites us into something far greater and more beautiful. The invitation of Easter is to reset our relationships with each other, the earth and God himself; to discover that God IS love, not at all like an Imperial Sovereign, and the very nature of the Trinity is self-giving, others-empowering love! The truth is that unless we’re willing to deal with our own internal mess, our own ego-mechanisms and projections, then we will never heal the mess of the world together. The invitation from Christ through the ages is for each of us to take up our own cross, to crucify our own selfish nature, which fights against the way of love and put on the ‘new self’, to be made into new creatures and partake in the new creation.

 

I believe we have an opportunity in this time to rest, reflect, reimagine and reset. If we dare to ask ourselves some deeper questions and become uncomfortable with the answers we are discovering; if we can allow ourselves to feel some of the discord about the way things have been, but also recognise the fear we have of stepping into a different way of being together and the grief cycle we must enter to let it go; if we can embrace the inconvenient truth that the earth and the global poor are speaking to us about the unsustainable nature of our neo-liberal world, then perhaps we have enough critical yeast to change us and inspire us towards a new world together. I take great comfort in the idea that God is with us in this struggle and works through us, by his Spirit, to bring reconciliation to a broken society. Over the last few days I have heard my favourite childhood bible verse, from the prophet Isaiah, a number of times. I leave it with you as food for thought:

 

Isaiah 43v1

”Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.“

 

 

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