Grief and Loss Witnessed from Further Out

By Emma Pearson

June 22, 2024

27 August 2022

Main image by Sean Oulashin on Unsplash

As so often when I sit down to write, my starting point could be one of so many. My ending point could be one of so many. And where I go in between could be many many many directions.

One starting point could be the importance of mentors, and what it feels like when they die… my blogpost title for this would be, “When Great Trees Fall”.

Another starting point could be what it is like to lose esteemed colleagues when they are still engaged and working professionally vs no longer being professionally active. My blogpost title for this might be, “Impact Interrupted”. It feels wrong that for cherished colleagues I have had in the past, who have gone on to “retire properly” and disengage from work, that the connection I had with them has also gone – mostly. It is not inevitable, but it is more likely when you live a continent apart. It makes me wonder about legacy – professional legacy – and how that might be sustained if we do not continue to work post retirement age. I realise that legacy is broader than the professional stuff we do. It is how we touch people’s lives. Our relationships. Our love. AND my active professional network is – at this stage of my life – much bigger than my active personal friendship network. And my networks also massively overlap. Dear and esteemed colleagues have become precious friends, for sure. I am beginning to wonder what might be missed about me and my contribution in this life-time.  

And then my mind jumps to the utterly shocking and unanswerable line of enquiry around, “what about someone who dies with their music still (mostly) inside them?” Like Julia. For sure she touched people’s lives, she “Performed” and had impact, but her “Potential” was so unexplored. Her getting to deploy more of her potential and performance was so thwarted. My blogpost title for this would be, “Curtailed Performance or Curtailed Potential – what is worse?” and it might get read in the leadership press. Or not.

Another could be witnessing others’ grief and loss but from arm’s length. Where I am not in ground zero. Thank goodness. I don’t need another of those for a very, very long time. But some people’s deaths ripple out a long, long way. The circle of grief can be immense. Look at Lady Diana’s death. I cried and am sad to this day when I think of her. Despite being a gazillion miles out from the centre. Still, there is sadness and loss.

This is the line I will follow today – “Grief and Loss Witnessed From Further Out”. We will see where I get.

In the past weeks, two precious colleagues/mentors/teachers have died.

Val Arnold, from my rich and formative time at PDI. He was a highly experienced senior colleague, who, never in my reporting line, just offered feedback, perspective, wisdom and encouragement in great doses. I learned a lot from him. He had the most charming, cheeky and twinkly eyes and smile. I have a precious memory of going to see a West End play with him and his wife Darlene, accompanied by my Mike, back before we were married, back before we had kids, and back before I had any inkling that both he and one of our children would die.

Val got very ill just soon after his retirement, and spent much of the past years struggling with the complexities that came with his underlying illness. And then COVID came and did its dirty work. Val’s wife valiantly supported him in the way that wives can and must, and knowing some of this road, I bow deeply to her. I know it was not easy, however long their relationship, however rich their love, however deep their mutual faith. Some things are just shite, heavy to carry. And now that Val has died, she has another, bigger – in my opinion – loss to live with. Without his love and support. It’s the “without his love and support” that I think is the hardest part.

And while I was walking in the Pyrenees these past five weeks, and as messages occasionally popped up as phone coverage reached us, I learned of how another dear and esteemed colleague/mentor/teacher, Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge had caught COVID. On top of her underlying health condition. And like with Val, COVID did more of its dirty work.

On Monday night this week, as Medjool and I had completed the Haute Route des Pyrénées on the Atlantic coast, and had a good and proper meal for the first time in 5 weeks, I went to bed in a proper bed with proper sheets in a nice hotel in Hendaye. I slept well, which is unusual for me, and I dreamt of Mee-Yan. In my dream, I knew she was ill, but she got up from bed quite easily and came to sit and talk with me on the floor. She was completely and utterly Mee-Yan. Talking, laughing, being sharp-wise-funny-insightful-warm in equal measures. She even did some gentle somersaults on the floor.  (Yes – dreams can be odd).

And Julia was there too. Whenever I dream of Julia (as I also did last night), I always wake up abruptly. Instantly.  And so it was in the lovely bed in Hendaye. Julia was in my dream, and I woke up. 

I lay there for a moment, my heart pounding as it does, and recalled bits of my dream. And remembering that Mee-Yan had been in my dream too, I knew. I just knew. I knew Mee-Yan had died.

And when I finally put on my phone on getting up later in the morning, I saw 40+ messages from one of the many communities she helped create and inspire. The loss, the love, the shock and pain, is deeply felt and exquisitely expressed. The ripples run wide and deep across the globe.

I miss her. I missed her even when she was alive because I didn’t get enough of her. My last years have been so tumultuous that I haven’t been able to contribute, to practise, as much as I otherwise might have in our field of OD. But I joined calls with her whenever I could. I took up her challenges – occasionally directed at me specifically – because she sparked that kind of action and commitment. I have a voicemail from February 2021 (Chinese New Year, specifically) where she begins, “Emma – I love what you said – it is so right – it is a provocation to the world – you must write something – it doesn’t need to be academic”.

I have listened to her voice on that message myriad times these past days. And every time I wonder, how on earth can that life force, her energy and passion, her encouraging and inspiring voice, no longer be alive?

And I find that I cannot stay with my feelings of loss. Not because it is too painful but because I know there is deeper pain for losing her than mine. I shift, too quickly, to wondering – “What about those closest to her?” Her husband and her daughters, specifically. As well as colleagues and friends much closer to the centre of her life’s circle. For there, the loss of Mee-Yan as mother, wife, dear friend, will be felt so hugely. And they now need to carry the loss of their wife-mother-friend without her love and support.  So hard.

Without his love and support. Darlene needs to carry the immensity of her grief over losing Val without his love and support.

Without her love and support. Mee-Yan’s husband and daughters need to carry the immensity of their grief over losing her without her love and support.

It makes it so much harder. I think we could do some of this stuff with a little more grace and ease, a little more peace and comfort, if we had our lost loved one to support us with our grief. And therein is the massive conundrum.

I was remembering a dream I had earlier this year, in which Mike and I were sitting in bed, crying together, supporting one another, over the loss of our Julia. In my dream, Julia had died, but not Mike. It was so different to feel supported by him for such a huge loss. And yes, of course I woke up – as I do when I dream about Julia. I wrote about it here. (I see that I wrote about my also dreaming about Angela Brown in that post, another dear boss/colleague/wise mentor who had also recently died, in that post – which feels fitting in the broader context of this piece of writing).

I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child with the support of my husband and life-partner. Only without it.

I also don’t know what it’s like to lose a husband with his love and support. Only without it.

Such is the Gordian knotted, intractable problem of Grief close in. You want the person you’ve lost to support you with their loss. And they can’t. Which makes it so much worse.

To all of us who love Val and Mee-Yan – let’s continue to live their wisdom and sparkle, their passion and inspiration, and whatever other gifts they leave with you. Yes, we wish they were here alongside us. And even if they are, in some way, it isn’t the way we wish they were. And so it is.

Yes yes?

Image by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Thank you Mee-Yan, Val, and Angela, for the beautiful ripples you generated, that continue to ripple in my life, and through me, into others’ lives. I feel honoured and blessed to have had you ripple through me.

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