Working Women: Five minutes with Harper’s Bazaar writer and The Grief Network editor

Jess, we’re sure you’re the subject of a lot of pride having accomplished so much so young. By day you’re a writer for a hugely successful fashion magazine, and by night you’re working away creating content and helping others with The Grief Network. But you had to start from somewhere. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

That’s very kind, thank you! Everyone must have had a weird job at some point, but for me, I’m not sure that weird is the right word. I used to work at my local village pub behind the bar for a while and would pass the time chatting with all the regulars and hearing their stories. Some of them had some crazy lives and we became friends over the years. One man would tell me how he had taught himself how to do lucid dreaming and he’d come in every night to tell me what happened the night before. My favourite dream of his was where he’d be flying through great cities, taking in the sights from above. It was an odd job, there were kind people and not so kind. Being a young woman and working behind the bar was uncomfortable at times but the staff would always have my back. 

Have you ever experienced sexism in the workplace, in any job as a young woman? If so, what has it taught you?

With this first pub job was when I first experienced sexism in the workplace. It depended on who was on shift and who came through the door. Some men would be so pervy, making sexual comments about me under their breath when I was young enough to be their daughter and in some cases granddaughter. This obviously never happened with the male staff, or if they were on shift with me. Only when I was alone with them would they be watching me as if I was some kind of entertainment. This kind of behaviour continued in the kitchen too, one of the chefs was extremely creepy and I hated going in there when he was on shift. One night I called him out on it and he said I was pathetic and over-reacting as it was ‘just a joke’, and I remember feeling so angry. I think there are so many workplace injustices that we just swallow down when we’re young and unsure of ourselves, which is such a shame.

Many people are feeling pretty lost at the moment. Lots of people have just graduated from uni or perhaps chosen not to go and are unsure of their next step — especially in this gloomy economic climate — what advice would you give to someone stressed about finding the right career path for them?

I think it’s something you can’t really force on yourself. At the end of the day, it’s your life and it’s what you’ll be doing for a really long time so make sure you’re doing what’s best for you and not what you think you should do or what someone else tells you to. Something that this pandemic has really taught me is that it’s okay to slow down a bit, you don’t have to make decisions at a million miles an hour and you don’t have to put any pressure on yourself. 

Did you know from a young age that you wanted to work in journalism, or was it something that came to you because of your love of fashion?

I’ve always been into fashion. I was obsessed with dressing up from a very young age and used to spend hours flicking through the copies of Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan that my auntie would bring back with her to our countryside house when she was living in London. I’d watch her putting on her makeup, hearing the names of iconic brands like Chanel, Dior and Gucci for the first time. I was obsessed with girl bands growing up, not so much for the music, but I was fascinated by what they’d be wearing. My wardrobe was always organised and styled into outfits that I’d try to recreate from 90s pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. 

I was also always writing stories and loved doing English at school, it came very naturally to me and I’d often just sit and write non-stop, formulating these elaborate tales that just came into my head. Maths and science were never strong points and I’d usually spend those lessons daydreaming about what was going on in the lives of my characters. I hadn’t really put two and two together though and I’d never thought about pursuing a career in journalism until later on. Growing up in the countryside meant that the only journalistic job around was for regional newspapers, so I planned on going to University to study English. Something never felt quite right about that though, then one day I just thought about how working for a magazine would fit my interests like a silken glove — I could write and hear people’s stories for a living?! After I realised this was an actual option it all just went from there. 

How do you think the current crisis is going to impact the fashion industry, and is there potential for the pandemic to damage the progress that’s been made in the world of sustainable fashion?

What’s really interesting and exciting at the moment in fashion is that this pandemic has shown that what feels like such a fixed industry can actually change and adapt into something that’s more sustainable. I think with fashion, you will always need some kind of real life social aspect because that creativity and vibrancy is what everybody thrives off. But the scale of everything, from production to shoots to fashion week, doesn’t need to be so huge anymore. We’ve seen big brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Michael Kors stepping away from the traditional calendar and taking more of a seasonless approach, which is really encouraging. I hope that digital and real life can kind of work together to make fashion more accessible for everyone and sustainable at the same time. 

“I hope that digital and real life can kind of work together to make fashion more accessible for everyone and sustainable at the same time.”

We are huge fans of The Grief Network and everything you girls do to open up the conversation about how it feels to be young and grieving. Where did it all begin and where did you come into the picture/how did you first get involved?

Thank you! It all began when our founder Rachel Wilson wrote into the High Low podcast with journalists Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton to say she recently lost her mum and she was feeling really alone living in London. It was basically a call out to meet up with those who had felt a similar thing and just to get support and advice really on how you can cope. She had over 200 replies and was taking the time to meet up with everyone, but obviously this is overwhelming, so we all met at a pub in London Fields, East London. I was in a room of complete strangers, yet I felt so understood. We then wanted to really start things up, so a small team of girls from the network pitched together with their various skills to help build on what we had. Since then, the network has evolved into regular meet-ups, we’ve had events and parties and most recently we collaborated with Sister to create a magazine to help people feel less alone during isolation. 

How has the network helped you personally to process your grief?

The Grief Network has really opened my eyes to what grieving really is. My Dad died six years ago and for a long time I was doing anything I could not to deal with my feelings. Shortly after he died I went straight to study at University, as I knew he never wanted his death to cloud the rest of my life. So I didn’t let it, but probably too much. I went out a lot, never slept and despite making so many great friends that I still have today, I felt more alone than ever before. Life can really feel as though it’s going by too quick, so the network helped me realise that grief isn’t something that just happens temporarily after someone dies. It’s a constant for the rest of your life from that point on — I will always be grieving and that’s okay. It’s helped me process and accept that sometimes I’ll be fine and that could last for days, months, even years. Things will go dark again, the same familiar feeling of longing to be with him once more will return. But, as always, there will always be brighter days ahead. 

Language around grief is often shrouded in metaphor, and often people struggle to find the ‘right’ words to say to someone suffering from a bereavement. How helpful do you think it is to tiptoe around death? Is it always best to say something to someone who’s grieving, even if you’re worried you might get it wrong?

I think this is a massive problem in the UK. I don’t know if it’s because we live through the stereotype that we are a stiff upper-lip, ultra-polite and ‘keep calm and carry on’ kind of country, but it seems so weird to me how we’re so uncomfortable talking about death when it will happen to all of us one day. It’s definitive, it’s inevitable and no one isn’t affected by it. It seems to me we only want to talk about death when we’re going through grieving ourselves. 

Death seems to be such a taboo, when in other cultures it’s completely different — look at Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. Our approach to death seems unhealthy and unnatural. Of course, it’s heartbreaking and horrible and feels unfair when someone you love dies, but we need to talk about the fact that it does happen. It’s always better to say something to someone grieving, but that doesn’t have to be vocal. You can show you care by doing little things to help that person out or just simply giving them a hug can mean the world. Even just saying that you don’t know what to say is something, because chances are neither will they and that’s okay. 

“The network helped me realise that grief isn’t something that just happens temporarily after someone dies. It’s a constant for the rest of your life from that point on — I will always be grieving and that’s okay.”

Your work with The Grief Network has helped so many people to feel connected and understood. We, as females, are typically better at talking about our feelings and sharing our pain. As a society, we need to get better at allowing men to feel confident about opening up too. What would you say to someone who’s wanting to provide support to a remote or detached griever who’s going through a tough time?

I think women are generally more comfortable talking about their feelings, but that being said, some of the most caring and supportive people I have in my life are men. As you say, we do need to get better at encouraging and supporting men to be open with how they’re feeling. The conversation around mental health has improved so much, even in the time since my Dad died. He struggled with depression and I can’t help but think about whether he would have died the way he did if the conversation surrounding mental health was the same as it is now. 

However, there’s a long way to go. I think if people want to provide support to someone who’s closed off, don’t wait for them to come to you. They’re probably feeling so lost and overwhelmed by their grief that you need to reach out a helping hand without being told to. Send them surprises in the post, organise something to take their mind off things, be there without saying anything at all but simply provide a shoulder to cry on and always support them when they need it down the line in the years to come. I think that’s the hardest thing about grief. People are there for you when someone first dies as it’s so fresh and raw, but it’s the later years when you really need support. You’ve processed things yourself, the shock of them dying is over, but you’re still left with the same emptiness. It’s at this point that you need others around you. 

COVID-19 has seen loneliness manifest itself in peculiar ways. We’re sure that the stress and strangeness of the pandemic has opened up old wounds for those grieving, and opened our eyes to the fragility of the lives of our loved ones. What do you think we can take from this unique experience of isolation in relation to grief? 

I think for me personally this time has really allowed me to get more comfortable with being alone and just given me time to process my own thoughts and feelings. As a very social and extraverted person, it’s very common for me to go months without scheduling any down time or self-care, which means I get to breaking point and become overwhelmed. I guess you could say I stay busy to distract myself with how I’m feeling and how I’m still grieving. This unique experience of isolation has made me realise how important it is to give yourself that space to process and heal, which is something I really never did (or quite knew I needed) until now. 

One last thing that we like to ask all of our interviewees…

Can you please name three people who you think make you a better feminist and tell us why?

I’m going to pick my mum for all three. From a young age she taught me that having a career is instrumental to independence and she truly made me feel like there was no job too big for me, that I could put my mind to anything and succeed. That freedom of choice and ability to go out and take your big bright future into your own hands and mould it to the shape of your abilities is surely what feminism all boils down to. She gave me that, so nobody else compares.

Find Jess on Instagram here, and find The Grief Network here.

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