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Nothing and Everything: Mourning Against Work 

by | February 26, 2022

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue. 



When my father died it changed everything. 

I crashed head-first into grief about a year and a half before everyone else I know joined me in it. It turned my life upside down, wrung me out, and left me alone with nothing left to give even though I kept trying. I kept thinking that grief was something I could solve, could ace like a test or a work assignment, that preparation and strength and labour could bring me out. It did not work that way. 

I hoped that I could write my way through it, that words on paper or a computer screen would provide the salve that they always had. I filled notebooks, scraps of napkin stuffed in my bag, began and abandoned documents, wrote email drafts to myself that linger like ghosts when I open a drafts folder and see fragments of who I was then. I could write, yes, but I could not make it make sense, and I could not make it stop. 

Grief is not a thing we do; it is a thing that happens to us. It is a thing that overwhelms us, that demands to be sat with, and lived through, and experienced, and felt, and that goes against everything the world we live in tells us. We are taught to work through things. We think there is a linear path. We assume we can do something to grieve, but the uncomfortable reality is that grief is a call to do nothing. And doing nothing makes us – well, most of us, who are expected to be productive labourers – extraneous. It makes us a problem. 

It is near-universally agreed that there are ‘stages’ to grief, but one friend-in-loss stopped me short with the observation, ‘What they don’t tell you about the stages is that sometimes they hit you all at once.’ Grief is not a staircase you climb or an elevator that ascends floor by floor. The assumption that this process, or indeed anything about being a human, can possibly unfold sequentially is, when you scratch it, so much more ideology. Grief will teach you that it simply does not work that way.



grief is nothing and everything all at once, inexpressible, and when you do try to express it it comes out in so many clichés, it dwells in the chest and flavours your breath and burrows into the pathways of your brain: nothing will be good again the worst has happened and therefore will keep happening. you have no control. you move through fog, one delicate step after another, unable to see where you are going, going anywhere at all seems ridiculous. 



Grief is and is not a political issue in this way; it is complicated by being so personal, so physical, so embodied, so animal. And yet. It stalks all of our political arguments, haunts our praxis. ‘Heartbreak is at the heart of all revolutionary consciousness,’ Gargi Bhattacharyya writes. We turn to the struggle because we cannot do otherwise, so often, because we have been broken or watched others break on the cruel torture-wheel of capitalist society. And we find ourselves stuck, melancholic, lost when the struggle fails to materialise the way we dreamt it might. We tell ourselves, in the words of Joe Hill, ‘Don’t mourn, organise’, but that is a command made of bravado, given by the martyr. 

Freud asks ‘What is the work that mourning performs?’

I read Freud in a pandemic lockdown winter in a borrowed New York City apartment that was always cold, the wind whipping off the East River forming a wind tunnel among the new buildings when I went outside masked and bundled against the weather and the virus. Sitting down with Mourning and Melancholia wrapped in a blanket, struggling through lockdown-induced brain fog, trying as always to turn my emotions into thoughts as though that would allow me more control. I wanted more than anything an answer to Freud’s question, because if there was an answer to it, if I could identify that work, then I could do more of it faster and be healed. 

But I was disappointed. Freud argues of the process of mourning that ‘reality-testing has revealed that the beloved object no longer exists, and demands that the libido as a whole sever its bonds with that object’, that in this process ‘each individual memory and expectation in which the libido was connected to the object is adjusted and hyper-invested, leading to its detachment from the libido’. Mourning, in other words, is about letting go of the past, about detaching desire from memory. There is in this definition the ‘expectation’ as well as memory, but this feels underdeveloped, incomplete.

Or rather, it seemed a bad description of what was happening, by then, to the world, to everyone except those in the deepest denial (which is, supposedly, one of those ‘stages of grief’). We were stuck inside, alone – even the tepid rituals of mourning still common in 2020s Western countries denied us. We could not see the death unless it happened to someone immediately touching us. The closest I got was talking over and over to nurses and healthcare workers, who told me of the layers of protective equipment they were piling on day after day, the grimness of holding a tablet so that family could say goodbye via FaceTime. We knew the deaths were happening, we were grieving human touch and all the other semblances of normal life that kept us feeling anything like ok, and yet we were supposed to just go on. Keep working. It was the stuckness that I kept returning to. 

I had expected, before my father died, before I read Freud, that grief would be about the past. That processing the loss would be reeling through memories and crying a lot and generally being very sad. Freud describes it thus: 

Serious mourning, the reaction to the loss of a loved one, contains the same painful mood, the loss of interest in the outside world – except as it recalls the deceased – the loss of ability to choose any new love-object – which would mean replacing the mourned one – turning away from any task that is not related to the memory of the deceased.

Which is both accurate and painfully inadequate. I was not dwelling in memories as much as I was unable to imagine anything at all. What grief seemed to be more than anything was the loss of my future. A sufficiently close loss seemed to have taken all forward motion with it. Sometimes life seemed almost normal, and then it would require me to make a decision and I would be frozen. Stuck. 

What if, then, grief is actually about the future? What if ‘the work of mourning’ is in fact letting go, not of the attachment, but of the future that you thought you would have, and what if the most painful, the least possible part is that you have to learn, while in the midst of hell, how to imagine a different future and to make it? 



sometimes grief manifests as a simmering rage all through your body, the slightest thing liable to send you snapping into a tearful screaming reply: what the fuck do you want, who do you think you are, can’t you see? but they cannot see, there is no recognised period of mourning, no widow’s weeds to wear, no warning label, just the surfeit of emotion bubbling through you there is just the uncontrollable anger.



I think I prefer Mother Jones’ admonition to ‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living’ to Joe Hill’s dictum. Jones, after all, even at her age, had no inclination toward martyrdom (if she did understand self-promotion long before the age of the personal brand). I am not one for prayer, but there is at least some acknowledgement in it that we do after all owe something to the dead, and, through them, to ourselves. 

As I was working on this piece I got the news that Dawn Foster had died. It is one of the many bad clichés of grief-talk that it hits like a punch in the gut so shall we say rather that it made me want to punch others instead? Dawn’s friends mourned on social media, and some of her enemies chose to celebrate. While it is, as many said, a sign of a life well-lived and the right fights picked that she had angered such ghouls, it is still disgusting.

We abide by too many sickly-sweet rules around death because we lack the real communal practices to honour it properly. And yet the picture of the comfortable celebrating the loss of a young working-class woman who had had the temerity to challenge their power was so repugnant because even in her death they sought to diminish her, to put her in her place and through her everyone who mourned her. 

It is the hollowed-out starkness of moments like these that spark revolutions. We live through so many little losses, small wounds every day and keep going, have little choice in the matter anyway. But some losses are too big, and too cruel, and yet too emblematic of the way the world works. The callousness of the officer who killed George Floyd and the others who watched – the bravery of the teenage girl who filmed it all – touched off a rebellion that echoed across oceans. We do not know, always, which moments will be the ones that light the fuse; all we know is that our grief threatens to consume us. But, perhaps, we can turn it outward.

‘Who can imagine another world unless they already have been broken apart by the world we are in?’ Bhattacharyya asked. 

Yes, grief flattens, it erases, it traps. But it also, in moments, opens up a vast space of new possibility. With so much less to lose, could we imagine something totally different? Could we imagine life absolutely otherwise? Could we all, if we seized time for our grief rather than shambling on like zombies, imagine collectively something new? 



if you think of grief as a strike perhaps it will make sense, it seems at times that your body is on strike, you experience it as a loss of breath; then you realise that you are holding your breath yourself, you learn eventually to exhale deeply when you feel that tightening in your chest to tell your body to relax it isn’t under fire or rather under water you don’t need to preserve oxygen for the next onslaught. Somatically, the body remembers what it did to survive trauma and it tries to recreate that survival.



Freud notes, ‘It is also most remarkable that it never occurs to us to consider mourning as a pathological condition and present it to the doctor for treatment, despite the fact that it produces severe deviations from normal behaviour.’

That might have been true when he wrote it, not too far removed from the ostentatious mourning periods of European dynasties and the new bourgeoisie. But these days, as Will Davies writes in The Happiness Industry, grief is just one more problem to be medicated away. 

One of the last remaining checks on the neurochemical understanding of depression was the exemption attached to people who were grieving: this, at the very least, was still considered a not unhealthy reason to be unhappy.

That was all wiped out with the advent of Wellbutrin – approved for use in the US in 1985 – which promised to alleviate ‘major depressive symptoms occurring shortly after the loss of a loved one.’ Grief is now a diagnosable mental illness if it lasts more than an acceptable period of time. Never mind your mourning, pop a pill and get back to work. 

And then there is the question of the appropriate object of grieving. We are allowed, for a suitable time period, of course, to mourn relationships that make sense to the rules of capitalism: the nuclear family, pretty much. We are allowed to mourn the end of a marriage, the death of a parent, perhaps especially the death of a child. Grandparents, sure, though too much feeling will be seen as excessive. If a friend dies we get maybe a few weeks of support and then are expected to move on. And to mourn the breakup of a friendship, a not-really-family family member, a person whose relationship to you does not fit into these neat little boundaries, is seen as excessive, a waste of energy. Why do you care so much? It’s not like it was your boyfriend, your wife. To mourn the loss of a stranger is flat-out unreasonable, even when those losses pile up, 100,000, 600,000 Covid-19 deaths, the uncountable death toll of the ‘war on terror’, 36 million deaths to AIDS. To sit with the vastness of these horrors and to let yourself even try to feel them is a disruption to our ideals of productivity. It is un-possible, perhaps inevitably in our psyche, but even more so to a system that requires us to keep working even as things fall apart around us, even as we fall apart, ourselves.

The lack of time and consideration for grief in particular is built into the capitalist mode of production, which cannot care if humans die. Capitalism cannot pause for death or accommodate the inherent weakness, frailty, and emotionality of human bodies. The dead can no longer produce value for capital; the living have too many inconvenient feelings about death. This is why Marx returned so often to metaphors of vampires, of undeath, and why robot panic hits us cyclically and existentially. We understand somewhere deep in our bones that this system would prefer robots to us, that labour-discipline would make robots of us. 

The workers at Frito-Lay’s factory in Topeka, Kansas walked out on strike this summer after over a year of ‘essential’ pandemic labour making snack foods, forced overtime shifts they call ‘suicide’ shifts. One worker wrote of seeing a colleague die right on the line. ‘You had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.’ Another worker’s father died of Covid-19 and she couldn’t hold a service because of lockdown restrictions. ‘You told her since there wasn’t a funeral she didn’t qualify for bereavement time. She had to take off two of her own days to grieve.’

This is telling, of course: we were denied funerals by pandemic conditions themselves created by the extension of capital to all corners and all habitats of the world, and without the brief socially-sanctioned ritual, we were expected simply not to grieve at all. The expectation once again that grief is just another form of work we do, and, without the performance, we must continue, unaffected.

The pandemic provided new opportunities for capital accumulation, particularly in the tech sector. Zoom’s stock reached the stratosphere, aided by Amazon Web Services, as web video suddenly mediated all of our I-love-yous and goodbyes, as well as our endless hellish work meetings where we were expected to pretend nothing was wrong. Zoom funerals – I attended two – and mourning rituals simply did not substitute for the real thing. Facebook and the like had already sought to commodify human contact, to rank and categorise all of our relationships, but now we were truly stuck, depending on the attenuated possibilities offered to us by tech-mediated contact. Our relationships with one another interrupted by the screen. 

Marx famously wrote, ‘Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ Capital is always pushing us beyond the merely human, even as it needs our living bodies. Even as late capitalism invaded our minds and hearts and turned our feelings into one more source of profit, it sought too to standardise those feelings, freeze our smiles into something inhuman because unchanging. Capitalism cannot allow for feelings that cannot be boxed. It cannot admit to human finitude any more than it can admit that there are limits beyond which it cannot push this planet. It cannot let us grieve.

This is why grieving collectively becomes revolutionary. What is a radical politics without consideration of these universal pains and struggles? What is it without making space for joy, yes, but also pain? What is it if not a demand that we stop that murderous process in order to acknowledge the toll it has taken? 

Even if we could not see the death toll Covid-19 wrought in order to grieve, everywhere it has left us reminders that we are only essential as so much blood and muscle and nerve to be exploited. Over and over politicians told us to keep going. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said that grandparents would cheerily die to keep the economy going: ‘There are more important things than living.’ Boris Johnson apparently opposed an autumn lockdown because ‘the people dying are essentially all over 80’. Lives that were not productive were also not grievable; the old and the incarcerated, the ill and the disabled. ‘Morbid’ isn’t a strong enough word for the voracious way the commentariat and Twitter trolls alike sought evidence that the dead deserved their fate because of some pre-existing conditions. We became little nations of insurance adjustors, seeking reasons to stamp onto the dead: compassion denied. Value denied.



the thing about absolutely gutwrenching rock-bottom grief is that getting out of it briefly makes just living on an even keel feel blissful and something to be savoured, your body feels alive again, sore feet, muscles straining, a slight sore throat and the desire unsatisfied at the pit of your belly feel amazing, the knowledge that it could flatten you again at any time that makes you hungry for this brief flare of life, save it, save it, capture it now while you can.



The world is on fire as I write this and yet as so many have noted, mostly the wrong things are burning. Yet some fires express grief, like the Catholic churches set on fire in Canada after the discovery of the unmarked graves of more than 1,000 First Nations children at former Church and state-backed ‘residential schools’, where Indigenous children were taken to have their culture beaten out of them. (Noted radical publication the Economist began its story on the discovery of the graves, ‘The purpose of Canada’s residential schools for indigenous children was to “kill the Indian in the child”. Sometimes the child died too.’) In the wake of the revelations, nearly two dozen churches were vandalised or burned, many of them on First Nations land. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response, that ‘burning down churches is actually depriving people who are in need of grieving and healing and mourning from places where they can grieve and reflect and look for support’ was the perfect finger-wagging reminder that grief is only acceptable if it is orderly and mannered and within approved walls, when the truth is of course that grief is anything but contained. Anything but containable. 

These deliberate fires sit uneasily alongside the fires sparked by the record-shattering heat wave in June and July and then August, when the town of Lytton, British Columbia, first marked Canada’s highest-ever temperature of 49.6°C and then was consumed by flames, trees and homes alike baked into so much kindling. In one video posted by residents fleeing the blaze, black smoke and orange flame curl and spiral menacingly toward the road, debris flying, the air a haunting grey-green, the title of the clip – ‘Fleeing ‘Q’emcin aka Lytton’  – reminds us that this town too was built on the bones of the colonised, if not quite so literally.

Harsha Walia, organiser and author and fierce opponent of all this violence, stepped down from her job after using a common Internet-ism, ‘burn it all down’, in response to the latest horrors, an Internet-ism that captures the very real rage of a generation with no future and very little present beyond the virtual. 

The fires remind me how useless all of that is. 



you cry, or more often you cannot cry but sit in silent rage, the emotions stuck in a place in your chest near but not quite in your heart the feelings echo around your hollow insides, pounding away as they seek escape, but when they reach the place where they might find a way out instead they hover. The tears don’t come. There are no words. You simply wait. 



When I began to write this it was ‘Freedom Day’ in England, when the government decided to lift all Covid-19 protective measures and throw the doors open wide even as Covid-19 cases  spiked around the world (including in England) and Richard Branson went up in a rocket and then Jeff Bezos did too and new oil fields were opening up despite the fires. 

Climate activists in Scotland occupied a government building demanding a halt to the approval of drilling off the Shetland Islands. They would not stop the fires or the floods that came later in the summer, to cities I once called home. Nothing I could do and nothing they could do would change the immediate weather. And yet. It is with those people who act beyond the grief, despite the grief, no, more accurately, within the grief that I can find something other than despair. My grief was made manageable by people who loved me and people who barely knew me, who reached out with words and jokes and poetry and fierce hugs and voice notes and wordless care that reminded me that I was human, alive, not alone. And most importantly, that it was alright to feel emptied of all volition. To take time in the quiet to find myself before I could move was also a little revolution. Grief requires that we stand in the ashes and the rubble, accept it with our whole hearts, and then slowly take step after step forward anyway. 



Sarah Jaffe is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. She is a Type Media Center reporting fellow and an independent journalist covering the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New Republic, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, as well as a columnist at the Progressive and New Labor Forum.

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue.