Deliberate Grieving

This post is hopefully useful on its own, but begins a series ultimately about grieving over a world that might (or, might not) be doomed.

It starts with some pieces from a previous coordination frontier sequence post, but goes into more detail.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t have much experience with grief. By the end of the pandemic, I had gotten quite a lot of practice grieving for things. I now think of grieving as a key life skill, with ramifications for epistemics, action, and coordination.

I had read The Art of Grieving Well, which gave me footholds to get started with. But I still had to develop some skills from scratch, and apply them in novel ways.

Grieving probably works differently for different people. Your mileage may vary. But for me, grieving is the act of wrapping my brain around the fact that something important to me doesn’t exist anymore. Or can’t exist right now. Or perhaps never existed. It typically comes in two steps – an “orientation” step, where my brain traces around the lines of the thing-that-isn’t-there, coming to understand what reality is actually shaped like now. And then a “catharsis” step, once I fully understand that the thing is gone.

The first step can take hours, weeks or months. The second step often goes quickly for me (but, ultimately grieving is messy. See notes towards the end)

You can grieve for people who are gone. You can grieve for things you used to enjoy. You can grieve for principles that were important to you but aren’t practical to apply right now.

Grieving is important in single-player mode – if I’m holding onto something that’s not there anymore, my thoughts and decision-making are distorted. I can’t make good plans if my map of reality is full of leftover wishful markings of things that aren’t there.

I now think of grieving as relevant for coordination as well – if I’m hanging onto something that’s not real anymore, the distortion in my map also affects people who are trying to negotiate with me and find the least-bad-option available. My clinging becomes their problem.

Grieving is tricky because it’s often unclear when you’re supposed to grieve, and when you’re supposed to fight for something you still care about.

Grieving healthily takes time. But I now think grieving healthily and quickly is a skill you can learn.

Unfortunately, practicing the skill of grieving requires you to actually experience loss. The biggest things to grieve are (hopefully) rare. But there are smaller, day-to-day losses you can practice on.


Example 1: Grieving for Justice

What’s grieving actually like?

My first explicit model of “applied grief” came early in the pandemic. It was a bit of a “grieving on hard mode”, because I had to grieve for an abstract concept. I had a conflict in my quarantine-bubble about covid policy.We had disagreements about the facts-of-the-matter of how dangerous covid was, or what mitigation efforts would help. We had disagreements about the best ways to negotiate over policy, and how to interpret our policies, and how to enforce violations. We were also just, like, really stressed out.

Different bubble members have different takes on exactly what happened. My from vantage point, what I remember is:

Some bubble-members did things that I felt hurt by. A few months later, I found myself recovered from the raw-stress of the experience, but still feeling psychologically messed up, waking up crying about once a week.

For awhile, I was confused about what I actually wanted. Maybe I wanted a bubble-member to admit they were wrong and apologize. It became clear that wasn’t going to happen.

After several weeks of ruminating, I eventually figured out I actually wanted something like: “Bring in community elders that I respect, and that the bubble-members in question respect. I want the hypothetical elders to interview everyone, forming a judgment about what went wrong and whether anyone was at fault. And somehow I want this to enter into my social sphere’s overall accounting.”

Maybe the result might be “No Ray, your story about the situation is wrong”, but at least it’d feel resolved.

And the fact was… it just wasn’t really possible to get that. There weren’t many contenders for “community elders” that my bubble-members and I all respected. One of such community leader was kinda available. But actually adjudicating the dispute properly was a big time commitment, in a period where the entire world was reeling from the pandemic. It required buy-in from other bubble-members. Insofar as everyone was willing to spend time on it, it wasn’t really worth the rest of my social world’s time to track the social accounting for one particular quaranbubble’s disputes.

At some point, I was talking through all of this with a friend, and things sorted themselves out in my head. I saw clearly that the particular flavor of justice I wanted wasn’t practical, and wasn’t going to become practical, and wishing for it wasn’t helping me. And that was sad.

And with that...

...I understood the shape of the world. And I let my wish-for-justice go. And I cried. It felt cathartic.

I wasn’t fully healed, but I felt a weight lifted, and could focus on moving forward.

Example 2: Grieving for a no-longer-good doctor

I had a friend who had a doctor that was really good for them. The doctor was attentive to their problems and their psychological state. The doctor paid attention to lots of details, formed models of what might possibly go going wrong with my friend’s body… but also listened when they got contradicting evidence and updated those models.

The doctor was respectful of particular traumas and triggers that my friend had. This was important, because the sorts of problems my friend needed a doctor to fix often related to those triggers and traumas.

But, slowly, over a couple years, the doctor started seeming more impatient and sharp. They stopped listening to my friend’s requests. And meanwhile the hit rate of “new useful interventions” that they proposed started dropping. (I actually knew multiple friends with the same doctor, who around this time reported the doctor being increasingly unpleasant to work with.)

At some point my friend decided “Man, this doctor is no longer net-positive in my life.”

And this sucked, because good doctors are really hard to find. My friend’s expected search process for a new doctor is really labor intensive and painful. And meanwhile… once upon a time, the doctor had been both really competent and actively nice, which was so rare. There had once been a really good working relationship there. And the health problems that were triggering and traumatic were going to make it particularly challenging to find a new doctor.

So my friend decided to hold a little funeral for the relationship-that-once-was.

My friend sat in her room, and lit a candle. She thought about all the good memories that her doctor had given her, and the help they had provided. She spent time reflecting on each of those memories.

And then, she blew out the candle, and moved on with her day.

Grieving for Decisions-At-Work

My most common type of grief, which I do most deliberately, is for decisions at work.

Often, it is the case that I want to execute a project one particular way. My teammates want to implement it some other particular way.

Maybe my way really is better. But often the relative value of my solution is less than the value of the time I’d have to spend arguing with my colleagues about it. It’s not worth the time to hash out every single decision. And it’s not worth the damage to the coordination-fabric to constantly be second-guessing the authority of the decisionmakers in charge of a project.

Some examples of minor-grievings-at-work:

  • I wanted some particular UI change on our website, which made the site feel more beautiful and usable to me. Other people wanted a different UI with different tradeoffs. It wasn’t really worth hashing out. I let it go.

  • Not wanting to go to a conference at the last minute because I’d have to change some weekend plans, but eventually realizing that the conference was more important than my weekend plans.

  • Wanting my team to use some particular decision-making protocol, when other people didn’t care or it didn’t make sense to them, or it turned out that there were tradeoffs and my preferred protocol was making other people’s lives worse.

  • Wanting my team to use any consistent decision-making protocol for one of our policies (instead of just sort of doing things differently depending on what mood the team collectively was in each day, which I found really aggravating), and then eventually acknowledging “I guess the benefit of a consistent protocol isn’t actually as big a deal as I’m making it out to be, and it’s not worth the hassle of being a stickler for it.

Grieving vs Letting Go

In an earlier version of this post, I considered focusing on “Letting Go” rather than “Grieving.” One of my goals was to highlight how grieving was relevant to coordination. “Letting go” was the actual thing coordinators need to do. Grieving is one particular way to do it, and isn’t always the right approach.

But I decided to focus on the grieving frame. It highlights that there was actually something important about your-preferred-way-of-doing things. “Letting things go” sort of implies you’re the one with the problem, and you just need to stop clinging. Grieving acknowledges that there was something special and meaningful to you. It’s sad that it can’t exist.

In an earlier Facebook post on this subject, Logan Strohl noted, and I can’t think of better phrasing than:

I prefer “grieving”. I think “letting go” is more likely to cause people a kind of confusion that leads them away from the correct action, while “grieving” will only cause them confusion of a “what is that supposed to mean?” kind.

In practice, it seems to me that people who talk about “letting go” tend not to maintain a clear distinction between “letting go” and “giving up”. But I don’t think anybody accidentally gives up when their intention is to grieve. They do something like the opposite. Grieving is holding onto your awareness of the value of something while you take that awareness into the new world you’re learning to live in, the one where the valued thing itself does not exist.

What’s my deliberate grieving process like?

“Deliberate Grieving” is my process of noticing “Oh man, I sure do seem to be clinging to something that is maybe not real, or is gone now, or is no longer serving me. It’s starting to look like that clinging is shooting myself in foot, and it’d be nice if I could stop.”

And then… grieving, on purpose.

Despite having gotten a kind of ridiculous amount of practice at this, I’m still not that great at it, and not sure my current process is best. But here’s what I currently do:

  • Step 1: I’m in a situation where grieving is the right move, but I haven’t yet noticed that. (This typically means I’m experiencing annoyance, frustration, fear, or defensiveness.)

  • Step 2: Notice a note-of-discomfort, an awareness that the reason I’m feeling that annoyance/​frustration/​fear/​defensiveness is that I’m clinging to something, and then a bit of a sinking feeling that that something no longer makes sense.

  • Step 3. Think “oh, man, I guess it’s time to grieve.” (Often this comes with some flinch reactions of “man.… do I have to?”, which I’m hoping I’ll get better at navigating over time.)

  • Step 4. Tracing the contours. Start thinking through what it is that I’m clinging to, and what reality seems like it’s actually shaped like. Sometimes it turns out I’m clinging to something that’s just totally important, and real, and worth preserving. Sometimes this results in me eventually seeing clearly “yeah, this thing that was important, it’s not part of my reality anymore. That’s sad.”

  • Step 5. Catharsis. Sometimes step 4 results in me organically moving on, without much fanfare. But if I was grieving something particularly important, there’s usually a specific moment where it all sinks in, and I feel like I can let go without a feeling of “but I’m not ready.”

Your process might be different. I have no idea what the typical mind experience is of grief. But hopefully this is at least a useful starting point.

Step 4 is where most of the work lives. The exact details vary depending on what I’m dealing with. Sometimes, once I’ve gotten to step 4, it happens kinda automatically. Once my attention is directed to the thing, my mind just starts adapting and loosening its resistance, and the thing fades away. Sometimes I deliberately reflect on it with explicit, verbalizable thoughts, and then I figure out what’s going on, like a puzzle.

Sometimes step 4 takes months or years. I had several massive life transitions last year, which were extremely confusing to orient to. I left a relationship that’d been important to me. I changed my orientation to the concept of “community”, which had been a major deal for me for the previous decade. I grappled with the question of how to relate to existential risk, and whether I felt “obligated” to work harder to prevent it.

Knowing that “it’d be helpful to grieve” couldn’t make it go much faster. I’d spend a couple weeks reflecting deeply on the subject of my grief, and then I’d be pretty exhausted and need a month or two of not thinking about it.

Sometimes step 4 benefits some kind of major ritual. Last year culminated with a small, personal solstice ceremony with a few close friends. We leaned harder into “facing the darkness” than larger, public solstices usually do, and deliberately didn’t structure the event with an explicit “return to the light.” We sat by a fire, mostly silently, for about an hour.

Something about this dislodged some of my “stuckness” with grieving for community and x-risk. It didn’t fully process the grief, but I felt something like 1/​3rd of the heavy melancholy had faded away.

Sometimes, steps 4 and 5 repeat. I think one source of repetition is when you’re not actually grieving a single thing. If you’ve lost a friend, you might be grieving many different aspects of the relationship. In the Art of Grieving Well, Val notes:

When I watch myself grieve, I typically don’t find myself just thinking “This person is gone.” Instead, my grief wants me to call up specific images of recurring events — holding the person while watching a show, texting them a funny picture & getting a smiley back, etc. — and then add to that image a feeling of pain that might say “…and that will never happen again.” My mind goes to the feeling of wanting to watch a show with that person and remembering they’re not there, or knowing that if I send a text they’ll never see it and won’t ever respond. My mind seems to want to rehearse the pain that will happen, until it becomes familiar and known and eventually a little smaller.

My own experience is that I might have grieved many different aspects of a person no longer being in my life. But months later I might find another aspect missing that I still hadn’t processed. So I have steps of tracing and catharsis that repeat.

I have more to say on the subject of grief, but this seems like a good stopping point for now. Grieving isn’t just a thing-that-happens-to-you. It is a skill, which can be cultivated. It can be practiced on relatively “minor” things (which may still feel like a major deal). Minor and Major grievings can have significantly different feel to them, but I think there is transfer in the skill between them.

I’m interested in hearing what other people’s grieving processes are like.