“The pandemic forced me to confront the grief I’d buried for 5 years”

Welcome to Rest Lessons, Strong Women’s new weekly series that asks women about the moment their relationship with rest and recovery changed forever. 

Amber Jeffrey is the founder of The Grief Gang.

Hi Amber! What’s the one lesson you’ve learned about rest?

That rest is where all the good stuff happens. I never used to understand it when people would say that rest is your best creative time, but now, I totally get that you need to do nothing in order for the juices to flow. 

I went on holiday last year for the first time since 2019, and I came back with a million ideas ready to go. That break also allowed me to think about my mum in a way that wasn’t work-related. I just connected with her. 

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That must have been quite cathartic. So, what does ‘rest’ mean to you right now?

Rest has become sort of like a currency for me. It’s the thing I definitely neglected last year, and when I was reflecting and thinking at the start of 2023, I knew I had to change my attitude towards rest. It’s not a luxury but a necessity.

With grief, it’s only when you allow for rest and time to do nothing that you allow those darker feelings or the feelings you’ve not allowed yourself to feel to come in. Rest has become a priority and allowing myself to rest is a better thing for my grief.

How did dealing with your mum’s death factor into making rest a priority?

I was 19 when she died. I thought that if I rested, didn’t go back to work and didn’t fill up my diary with obligations or friends, then the big, bad thoughts were going to come and seep in.

So, I went back to work five days after it happened, and work gave me rest from the constant pain. Five days after mum died, the house was still very much the way she’d left it – the house stunk of her. That’s the only way I can describe it. So going back to work and getting out of there, being just another employee among my colleagues, gave me a bit of rest. It gave me respite. 

During the pandemic, however, that changed. You couldn’t bury yourself in work or distract yourself; all the thoughts and feelings I’d suppressed for four or five years came to the surface.

That must have been a really torturous time. How did your relationship with rest and recovery change in that moment?

I definitely had to unpack all of that last year and realise that rest can be a benefit. Rest isn’t a scary, weird space where everything’s going to unravel.

From the conversations I was having with my community, it was clear that during the lockdowns, we were going mad. We weren’t able to distract ourselves from thinking about our grief. All you could do was wake up, go to the living room, sit there and watch TV. 

We often talk about having to dedicate time to our grief and to sit with the sadness, and the joy of grief – the longing. But the pandemic made it feel too much. You need a few distractions, and that’s why people turn to online communities like mine, in a bid to break up a few of their own thoughts.

So, taking that time out must have had some benefits, right?

Absolutely. Grieving can be pleasant; when you’re doing the work that needs to be done with grief – whether that’s resting, journaling or whatever it may be – and allowing that rest in. If rest is something that you’re trying to become acquainted with, it can feel quite overwhelming. Again, I had that fear that if I rested, I’d have to let all those bad thoughts in and I worried whether I’d ever come out of it. But finding a community that gets it really helped.

My best friend has come from Grief Gang, and although we do a lot of work for that, we also very much prioritise doing things for our grief that will honour our people, which allows us that time to remember. It’s really nice having someone to do that with. It can give you the confidence to then go, ‘OK, I can do this on my own.’ 

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What do you think women tend to get wrong about rest?

A lot of us feel that we’re not like deserving of it. I’m the only daughter, and when my mum died, I felt like I had to fill her boots. I felt like I had to take care of everybody – to keep everybody together. Even when I started to crumble and my mental health had a serious decline, I felt that I couldn’t afford to let the ball drop.

It’s not just women who feel that way; grieving people in general feel we’re not deserving of rest, because rest is joy. You feel great when you’re rested, but when you’re grieving, you don’t want to feel good. My mum died so why should I feel happy? 

There’s a real survivor’s guilt cycle around feeling good or good things happening in your life. When you laugh for the first time after a death… in that moment, you really think you are a big piece of shit because your person should be here, enjoying this joyous moment with you. 

The thing is, however, we’re all deserving of that joy and to be rid of that guilt.

You’re so right, but that’s probably very hard to come to terms with. How do you prioritise rest day-to-day?

This year, I’m really prioritising spending time with my mum. It sounds strange to say that about a dead person, but you can do it in so many ways. After work, I can ask Alexa to play Whitney Houston; I’m very much into my journaling – talking to my mum, writing in the morning and evening. I’m cooking meals that we loved to cook together. And those are the places that I feel like the most rested and connected with my grief – and not in a huge, elaborate way. 

I’m putting in more boundaries when it comes to rest, whether it’s stopping work by 7pm or deciding not to go out at the weekend.

I find that people who have gone through a lot have pretty much learned the hard way that life is short and that we’re all on borrowed time. You’ve got to cherish life. For me, it’s been about stepping away from the rat race and enjoying what’s around me and the people who are with me. I’ve learned the hard way that nobody’s here forever. 

Images: Amber Jeffrey

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