The transformative power of Grief

We talk too little …

We talk too little about the transformative power of grief. 

Of the power and resilience and determination of those most impacted by disasters.  Of those – who lose their families, and loved ones, and communities, and innocence – that are so eloquently and relentlessly a voice for change.  

But also of the grief, of those who are on the margins of disasters. Whose souls are touched in ways that compel action. Grief that gives courage and wisdom and a drive for learning and progress. I fall into this second category and struggle to articulate how I am changed. There is a pre-Grenfell ‘me’ and who I am now (more a becoming…). And the line that connects them I call ‘grief’ – but really is something that is beyond language and better expressed in art or poetry.

We each have our reserves of sorrow that rise to the surface, provoked by one little thing or another, to remind us we are human and that we love and that we are a part of the great human story that flows along the ancient waterways of our collected and historical griefs.
This breaking down is not something from which we need to be saved or cured, but rather it is the toss and tumble of life, and the occasional losing of oneself to the sadness of things is an honouring of life itself.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files #228

Walking the wall

On the 29th March 2021 the Covid Memorial Wall was born. An act of love and grief and pain and of resistance and accountability standing provocatively opposite the Palace of Westminster.

In my quest to better understand this ‘power of grief’, I recently ‘walked the wall’. Or more accurately, I walked a portion of the Wall. Before I was overcome by the depth of pain that each of those red hearts embodied.

And I had the honour of meeting the the founder of ‘Friends of the National Covid Memorial Wall‘, Fran Hall. A force of life and grief and love – who lost her husband to Covid. In a beautiful chapter of ‘When this is Over: Reflections of an Unequal Pandemic’, Fran shares how much the wall means to those whose loved ones died during the pandemic.

The chapter ends with the following quote from a member of the Friends of the Wall group:

This is our wall, our wall of pain and love. We should never have been placed in this position, of being devestated widows, bereft daughters, lonely sisters. We will keep coming here week after week, for the rest of our lives, to look after the wall. That’s how much it means to us.

From Fran Hall, A wall of pain and love in ‘When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic, (2023), p. 261

I wonder what Ministers and politicians and civil servants think as they look out at it in quiet moments of reflection.

Our understanding of loss

Recent research found that disaster managers felt that loss and suffering were not well understood.

The same research found that the leadership traits most needed after disasters were those of compassion and kindness and courage and wisdom.

I wonder if there is more that we could do to build these characteristics and develop our capacity for a new way of leading.

I am reminded of Eddie Daffarn, the Grenfell Survivor, who had campaigned for change prior to the fire and been labelled a rebel resident. Ed said in his evidence to the Inquiry:

They didn’t treat us with respect or empathy or humanity, and if they had I wouldn’t be sitting here now.

Edward Daffarn, Grenfell Survivor, Campaigner and Rebel Resident, Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Maybe if we talked more openly about grief, it would help us to develop more compassionate ways of leading. Perhaps then we’d discover how to care at scale and perhaps then we could collectively begin to heal.

When this is over

Finally, I highly recommend ‘When This Is Over’ – a devestating accounting of the pandemic and how its impacts were felt so unequally.

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