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Out of Focus: Editing while Grieving

17 May 2022 4:44 PM | Maya Berger (Administrator)

CW: death of an extended family member; death of a pet

This post took me a long time to write, and the thoughts in it are still a little unpolished, but it felt good to finally get it out of my drafts folder. Each person’s grief is unique, and we’ve all had more than our share of losses over the past few years. I don’t pretend that my losses are bigger than anyone else’s or give me special insight, but I’m sharing my thoughts in case someone finds them helpful.

An out-of-focus photo of a sun setting behind mountains, with water reflecting the sun's rays

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Distractibility is a symptom of grief for which I was unprepared. The ability to focus on the nuances of the text in front of us is something that we editors pride ourselves on – and rely on to make a living – and it can be destabilizing to lose that ability, even for a day.

During the past 14 months I suffered two personal losses, and I’ve often found myself sitting at my desk reading the same sentence over and over or stopping midway through writing an author query to doomscroll or check up on a family member or respond to someone kindly checking in on me.

The fear spiral

I’m hardly alone in being easily distracted these days, and I know this, but there’s a particular kind of spiralling fear that sets in when my powers of concentration go AWOL. It goes something like this:

“I need to finish this project today so I can invoice for it and get paid next month and pay my bills and maybe a walk will clear my head but I don’t have time for a walk because I need to finish this project today and also the dishes need washing and also the world’s on fire and all I want to do is look at memes and OH YEAH, THE DEADLINE, and where did that last hour go, and now I’m further behind and my brain is so full that I can barely remember the plot of the book I’m editing and oh crap oh crap oh crap.”

The fear spiral can lead to the disappointed-in-myself spiral (“I only managed two hours of work today, and that sucks”), and sometimes the grief-guilt counterspiral complicates matters (“Am I heartless for thinking about work at all right now?”), making it even harder to shift my focus back to my editing.

It can feel almost callous to try to shut out everything else going on in our lives and in the world and turn our minds to fact-checking period-specific details in a historical novel or hunting down awkward line breaks on page proofs, but this is what editing and proofreading demand. Not 24/7, of course, but even a 20-minute pomodoro can feel like an eternity when it involves trying to shove aside texts, emails, an interesting article someone tweeted about, sadness, anger, strong memories, fading memories, and the sudden realization that someone important to me isn’t there anymore – a realization that is no less jarring the 20th time it hits me that day.

Editorial assistants

My grandmother died in March 2021. We were very close, and she was a university librarian and my professional inspiration. She was very active in her professional society, and she loved to hear about my experiences at CIEP meetings and conferences. Her death hit me with a sadness and an unexpected anger that exhausted me. I waited for that grief to move out of the acute stage, and it did, but another grief was waiting in the wings.

In April 2022, I had to euthanize my cat after months and months of vet visits, expensive tests, and the thankless daily task of giving pills to a cat who’s in pain and trying to get her to eat when her liver is failing. I used to call her “Business Cat” and joke about how she needed the latest quarterly report on her desk by Monday, filed in triplicate. She loved to sit on the couch and listen attentively when I talked to anyone about a book I was editing or a new metric I was adding to my business admin spreadsheet.

In their own ways, my grandmother and my cat both contributed to my work life, and I’m having to adjust to being an editor without their motivational boosts.

Editing in a new context

I’m not always patient with myself, but I’m trying to do better. I know that processing grief involves giving ourselves time and compassion so the grief can weave itself into the stories of our lives. It doesn’t go away; it becomes a part of our larger context, and a good editor knows that context is key to understanding. Maybe the knowledge of chronic myelomonocytic leukemia that I gained during my grandmother’s final year or everything I learned about the end stages of feline liver failure and cirrhosis will come in handy during an edit one day. But more fundamentally, loving, losing, and remembering loved ones will shape who I am as a person and an editorial professional, and I hope my experiences help me to approach authors and my colleagues with kindness and empathy whenever they need it. I think that would be a fitting tribute.


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