Four tasks of mourning, for #Brexit & more

If you’re stuck in a profound change process – where something you care about is lost permanently – you might try the four tasks of mourning: accept the reality; experience the pain; adjust to the new environment; and withdraw from the past, and put into the new without guilt.

Death and transition has been on my mind a lot recently, for a number of reasons. A former work colleague died before her time. The sister of a former colleague also. I felt grief from 2016’s shocking politics.

The Brexit vote killed number of things at once. A future being part of Europe that was so deeply engrained I didn’t realise it could be lost. My understanding of the values of my country, as the campaign stoked fear of the Other, which seemingly grew in people. My understanding of how well informed I was – I had missed just how much immigration had run ahead of people’s acceptance. And also of my hoped-for path to a sustainable future. I had been naive, believing that as crises hit us we would behave rationally for the collective long-term. Instead, it felt as though people – left behind by globalisation, ignored and derided by the London powers – had turned to anger and to protecting their own in a desperate kicking against the dicks.

The Trump election confirmed that last death, and more: that the transition to a sustainable footing will bring enough of the exiting power centres of business, investors and government along. (Also, the inauguration day was the 8th anniversary of my Mum’s death. While my friends had celebratory Champagne about Obama, I was mourning over red wine with my Dad.) Result: my hope for an insider-friendly and smooth-ish shift to a sustainable footing also died in 2016.

Now, grief is an odd thing, particular and personal. And yet, Kubler-Ross’ Stages (denial, anger and so on) has seeped into general knowledge as The Way Grieving Happens. There’s an expectation that you will be somewhere on that cycle. And in the way it’s usually spoken about there’s an implied passivity; you’re just waiting to go from step 3 to 4. But that wasn’t my experience.

When my Dad died in 2015 I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. She points out that Kubler-Ross was originally studying the terminal patient, not the grieving family left behind. Her work had been extended into the grieving, and then into the change process more generally. That seems a stretch too far. Instead, Didion quoted the work of William Worden, which has four tasks of grief.

When I read them I felt a small fission. For one thing, these tasks give me – the griever – agency. I can try and do something, not just waiting. For another, the tasks themselves made a lot of sense to me. Here they are:

  1. Accept the reality of loss.
  2. Experience the pain of grief. 
  3. Adjust to environment where person is gone.
  4. Withdraw emotional energy from deceased and put into new social activity without guilt or uncertainty.

When my Dad died it helped that I had had the chance to touch his forehead before the funeral directors took the body. There was no doubting he was dead. Also, over the previous year he had withdrawn. There was not a routine of interactions, or regular memory triggers (the keys in the lock that widows say make them think their husband is back). So, adjusting to an environment where he was gone had, in effect, already happened for me.

Applying these tasks to Brexit show that there work to do, for me personally and for the country collectively. Through the second half of last year it was difficult to imagine what the environment would be after UK had gone from the EU. Would it be ‘soft’ or ‘hard, ‘complex’ or ‘clean’? Now we have the Prime Minister’s opening negotiating position and some of those questions are resolved. Plus Parliament has voted to give her authority to trigger Article 50. Whether you agree with it or not, in the next few weeks, the UK will trigger Article 50. Two years later, short something extraordinary, the UK will leave the EU.

There is now a concrete reality of loss to accept, and a status quo-to-come we can begin adjusting to. It is now possible, in my view without guilt, to withdraw emotional energy from the Remain campaign and put energy into what’s next.

For me this is working on the institutions that the UK (and the rest of the world) need to flourish in the 21st Century. Creating institutions that evoke the values I think we need – global, interconnected, fast-adapting, change-seeking As a country we need leaders, experiences and institutions that help many people to go through their Brexit mourning – at least, judging by the vitriol in my Facebook feed between Leavers and Remainers, and also at people who have reluctantly concluded we’re going Out so let’s make what we can of it (splitter!).

My experience last year was I could apply these tasks prospectively. As I was thinking about whether to leave Forum, I realised that something was holding me back: the career I had already imagined for myself in Forum into the far future. I had to go through the four tasks on that, or I would always have had might have beens. So, I spent a very difficult evening or 3 working through the tasks, mourning for the career I wasn’t going to have in Forum.

Others will have other thoughts. This may not work for you. But, if you’re stuck in a profound change process – where something you care about is lost permanently – you might try the four tasks of mourning.


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