“Oh, you should definitely go to the Alps,” the guy said, swirling his cocktail to clink the ice. “We just got back from Switzerland and had the most incredible time skiing.”
I was at a party 1 1/2 year ago, talking to a couple I’d just met. They both were in cable knit sweaters and jeans, her hair bright red and his dark brown. (As I try to place myself back at the scene, my memory of what the couple looked like has been completely replaced by Daphne and Cameron from the last season of White Lotus — close enough.)
“What about Morocco?” Daphne asked. “Have you ever been? The shopping is unreal.”
“No, I haven’t...” My words trailed off as I took a sip of chardonnay to cover for the fact that I had absolutely no idea how to respond.
It was my first time telling strangers that I’d quit my job to take a year off to grieve. At that point, I hadn’t practiced answering the question, “So, what do you do?” I was so used to clinging to my impressive job title that without it, I felt self-conscious.
When I was asked that question that night, my face got hot, and I stammered out something like, “I’m taking a year to travel and write about grief.” I didn’t yet know how people would react, but for the Daphnes and Camerons of the world, it was apparently by glossing over the grieving part and zooming in on travel. It was easier to make small talk about traveling.
Cameron sensed I was uncomfortable, so he made a pivot to end the conversation.
“Well, anyway ― you’re going to have such a fun year!” he interjected as he raised his glass, and nudged Daphne to do the same. “Cheers!”
“Cheers,” I smiled politely, holding up my wine. “Here’s to grief, I guess!”
Not long before that, I was running on empty. I was a recently divorced orphan, all by the age of 32. My mother had died of brain cancer when I was a child, my father died suddenly in 2020, and a year later, I made the difficult decision to end my tumultuous marriage. On top of all that, I was (as we all were and still are) reeling from the impacts of the pandemic.
It was... a lot.
I’d always been praised for my resilience in the face of challenges. When the world around me was hard, I’d put my head down to focus on school or work. No excuses.
After my mother died when I was in middle school, my worst and most successful habits began. I compartmentalized my grief and cruised past it. That was how I learned to survive the pain — by ignoring it, completely, and instead making straight As, filling my calendar with extracurricular activities, and making sure I was everyone’s friend.
I basked in compliments from peers and teachers: “You’re so strong! I don’t know how you do it all!” In the words of the great Lady Gaga, I lived for the applause-plause.
I was earning so many accolades, it didn’t matter that I felt anxious all the time. I didn’t even notice, because it was the only way I knew how to be. I pushed through college, Teach For America, graduate school, and working my way to become a senior advisor for the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. And somewhere along the way, I was married at 26, establishing myself as one half of what everyone called a “power couple.” I was always moving a million miles per hour, wearing each achievement like a girl scout badge.
Meanwhile, I had to wear a monitor because my heart was quite literally skipping beats. The cardiologist told me to cut down on caffeine and get more rest. I did neither of those things. I also displayed symptoms of disordered eating and OCD, and I told no one. Why would I? I was winning at life.
But on March 14, 2020, my winning streak was over.
I was working that Saturday morning, preparing for the state’s COVID lockdown, when I got a phone call. My father — my rock — had died. It was sudden and completely unexpected. For the first time in my life, it felt like time had stopped.
In the aftermath of my father’s death, my anxiety mixed with grief overcame me. I’d interact with colleagues in ways I wasn’t proud of ― irritable and curt when I never used to be. I was often in physical pain I couldn’t explain. I’d sleep four or five hours a night, usually in tears when I got under the covers, overwhelmed by the day. Plus, my marriage that actually hadn’t been working for years behind closed doors was on its last legs. I couldn’t push through it anymore while I was pushing through everything else; it all felt unbearable. A year after my dad died, I decided to end my marriage. I was living alone for the first time in my life, and I was really scared.
It became clear that I needed to focus on my mental health — something I’d always told other people they should do, but never really knew how to do myself. I realized that I probably needed more than a bubble bath and a sheet mask every now and then. I was struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Some days I was questioning why I was here at all.
In all of the hard work I was used to doing for others, I’d never done the hard work on myself. It turned out that I was the thing I needed to dedicate more time to. In my three decades on this earth ― and my 10 years of hustling toward the career I dreamed of ― I’d never given myself the grace or space to feel.
But when I made more space for my wellness, you know what finally came into focus, especially in those really quiet moments? My grief. Feelings of emptiness and inadequacy that I had boxed up and hustled past when my mother died 20 years before, actually had some space to peek through the lid. My agony and loneliness after my father’s sudden death that I had shoved down and tried to avoid, were bubbling up. And now I had new grief rearing its head with my marriage coming to an end — even though it was my choice, I was still grieving for the life I didn’t get to have.
It became clear to me that I couldn’t rest and grieve and work. I couldn’t do it all. Something drastic needed to change in my life.
So, I quit my job... to grieve.
I quit the career I had hustled for my entire life ― and put everything else on pause ― to grieve, full-time, for 365 days. I had a hunch that if I spent time figuring out what it meant to actually grieve, I might just feel a little better.
I decided to call it my year of “Grieve Leave,” mostly because it rhymes, but also because it called out my decision to take time away to focus on my losses. I decided to write about my grief journey online — if my carefully crafted life was going to implode, I thought that the least I could do was try to help someone else as I processed all of that loss.
Not long after that party with Daphne and Cameron, I got started on the journey.
In my year of Grieve Leave, I grieved big, and I grieved small. I traveled to places like Graceland to visit Elvis’ grave, to the Final Four in honor of my father’s love of college basketball, and to Oaxaca, Mexico, for Day of the Dead. I read the stack of grief books at the back of the shelf that had been piling up since my father died. I visited my mother’s grandparents’ graves in England. I took a road trip by myself across the country to find peace and quiet in the Arizona desert. I organized old family photos in dusty boxes, and I deleted photos off Facebook when memories popped up of my former relationship.
I went to grief support groups in my hometown where I was the youngest person by decades. I volunteered at a summer camp for children who had lost parents, where, for the first time in my life, my grief felt completely normal. My last living grandparent died during my year of Grieve Leave, and I spent the final months of my grandmother’s life with her in Montreal. In each of these moments, I took time to feel the sadness and anger and nostalgia, and every other feeling that comes with loss. I was by myself more than I’d ever been in my life, and in that alone time I tried to find some peace in all of those griefy feelings.
Even though I thought a full passport would be a symbol of a meaningful year, I’ve realized that Grieve Leave wasn’t ever really about the travel at all. Travel turned out to be the means to an end: It helped me create spaces where I could better understand how I felt in my grief.
And while I’ve learned that grief looks and feels different for each of us, I can safely say that grieving is very, very hard. For me, grieving meant getting quiet enough to sit with those inner thoughts that scared me, that I’d never listened to before. It meant spending a lot of time crying. My year of exploring grief helped me realize that grieving is about letting yourself feel whatever it is that you feel. And ― here’s the real kicker ― that even if our losses happened long ago, our grief never ends; it just changes over time as we change, too. That last part doesn’t mesh well with our typical narrative of moving on from grief but, unfortunately, it’s true.
Most of all, I learned that almost everyone is grieving ― like all the time. Right now, in this exact moment that you’re trying to read this, you might be grieving the loss of a loved one, a medical diagnosis or injury, having recently moved, changing jobs, the end of a relationship, the end of a pregnancy, your kids getting older, not having kids, or something else in your life — like the pandemic changing normalcy for all of us.
I used to feel like my grief was my painful secret that made me different from everyone else. In our grief, we can often feel like we’re the only person who’s ever felt this way. But, in my year of Grieve Leave, I connected with so many other people who have gone through painful losses. I’ve realized over and over again that I’m not alone, and that sense of community has helped me feel more whole in a way that I didn’t know was possible. When we come together in our grief, we are stronger. It’s the club no one wants to be a part of, but damn if it isn’t amazing to meet other members.
After grieving for a year, I feel like I’m the most myself that I’ve ever been. That doesn’t mean I feel great all the time — I still feel sunk every now and then. But now, I feel proud of not just what I do but who I am.
So, should you quit your job to find this sense of peace? No, of course not. I recognize that it’s an immense privilege to be able to take extended time off work to focus exclusively on my wellness — and exclusively on grieving. My hope is that I quit my job so you don’t have to.
As humans, it’s a guarantee that at some point we’ll experience a sense of loss. Yet, as a society, we don’t talk much about one of the few things in life that impacts us all. So many of us feel alone in our grief as we go about our everyday lives at work or at school, but what would happen if we acknowledged our grief, and named it, without shame?
When we acknowledge that grief is a real, everyday thing, and when we make the choice to grieve, we can come together to support ourselves and each other. You don’t have to write about your innermost thoughts on the internet like I did. But maybe we can all be just a little more honest about our grief, and take the time we need alone, with the people who love us, in communities who understand us, or with professional support. It will make a world of difference in the isolation we feel in our grief, and its toll on our mental and physical health.
We need real, systemic change to support grievers, which (spoiler) will be every single one of us at some point. Our 9-to-5 workdays are designed for people to leave their grief sitting at home, march into the office looking strong as ever, and come back that evening to greet the grief that’s been patiently waiting for them all day. Companies and organizations dole out three days of bereavement leave as a cure-all, when anyone who has faced a loss while working knows that’s just a drop in the bucket. We need bereavement policies that are realistic and responsive to the actual time it takes to face a death and its immediate logistical aftermath, as well as policies for leave that recognize that our grief is ongoing —like allowing for leave on death anniversaries.
Companies and organizations should promote more open dialogue and education on how we can advocate for our own needs in our grief, and how we can better support one another as we inevitably face loss in our lives. When we create spaces that support everyday, open conversations about grief ― which is an everyday, ordinary thing ― it makes grief less scary, less taboo, and less likely to suffocate us in the long run.
These days, I’ve made talking about, writing about, and exploring grief into my career. I ― along with others who have joined along the journey ― support people who are grieving all types of losses. We share resources. We laugh together and cry together. We share our own stories of loss. We’re raising awareness and pushing for change in our world when it comes to supporting grievers. More than anything else, we’re building a movement that empowers us to grieve on our own terms.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that is not yet grief-informed. We live in a world where we think people are doing well when we don’t see or hear about their grief. But, our grief needs to be seen and heard. We need to make our grief seen and heard.
There is no cure for grief. There’s no linear path to peace or “healing,” whatever that means. And grieving still isn’t dinner party small talk, yet. But my hope is that by taking time to grieve and starting necessary conversations about grief, we can feel a little less alone and support each other in the one thing that is truly universal.
Rebecca Feinglos, MPP, is the founder of Grieve Leave, a community and platform that inspires grievers to intentionally take time to process the feelings that come with loss. Grieve Leave has been featured in Newsweek, ABC and Elle. You can follow Grieve Leave on Instagram for helpful resources, educational interviews and community grief support.