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Grief Work: Labor, Emotion, and Cutting Through Loss in Severance

Published onJul 25, 2023
Grief Work: Labor, Emotion, and Cutting Through Loss in Severance
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In the third episode of Severance, a silver-haired woman carries a glass of milk into her spare, shadowy living room. Mrs. Selvig, the alter ego of overbearing Lumon Industries manager Harmony Cobel, lives next door to the show’s central protagonist, Mark Scout. Selvig keeps a watchful eye on her neighbor and employee, who—having lost his wife in a car accident—spends his time away from work in a daze of drinking, television, and chores. Wearing a starched, colorless nightgown, Selvig gazes out the window with an unreadable expression, searching for Mark and murmuring to herself. Behind her, on an otherwise blank wall, is a needlepoint sampler, embroidered with the following words: “We Must Be Cut To Heal.”

The premise of Severance, and the grand experiment of Lumon Industries, is of cutting. The employees of Lumon’s ‘severed floor’ each begin their tenure with brain surgeries separating their lives into dyads: work life and home life, inside Lumon and outside, before and after the procedure. At best, managers like Cobel may believe in an underlying principle of beneficence for employees. The complete separation of work and home, says Lumon’s fictional website, is intended to make “the work experience better than ever” (Anon 2023). But, as viewers will recognize just minutes into the show, the world of Lumon is a hostile one, and severance allows for the abject exploitation of employees’ ‘innie’ worker halves. The arc of the season is a narrative of slow rebellion, as solidarities form between the putatively separate halves of employees’ selves.

Through the dystopia of Lumon Industries and the world it inhabits, Severance asks: what does a separation of work and life cut through? And what is at stake in stitching them back together? As I watched the show’s first season, I was struck by how emotion—and grief, in particular—could defy the cut of severance, traversing domains kept separate by surgery, memory, and power. In the process, questions arose about the relationship between grief and labor in our working world.

Episode 3, “In Perpetuity”

Early on in Severance, viewers learn that Mark, who once worked as a historian, opted to receive the severance procedure following the sudden loss of his wife. He explains to a chorus of outsiders—family, friends, and even a first date—that the separation of selves is good for him. Part of him, at least, is protected from the pain of grief. Being severed “hasn’t been a blight to me,” he exclaims to anti-severance protestors he encounters on the street. “It’s helped me.” Interestingly, the Mark who now only lives outside of Lumon Industries, his ‘outie,’ does not have access to the part of himself that is shielded from his grief. Mark seems to find comfort in the mere existence of that fragment of self, somewhere at work in the depths of an office building.

When I first saw Mark opt for the severance procedure, I was reminded of my own relationship to work following the loss of my mother to ovarian cancer. Loss creates, in the words of anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, a “rupture” in a life (Ratcliffe 2020; Rosaldo 2013; Schönherr 2021). In the midst of grieving, I plunged myself into work, speeding ahead into the activity of graduate school. There can be a refuge in inhabiting a laboring body, a laboring mind. Generally speaking, work does not ask one to feel. Instead, there can be a suppression, a sequestering, of the tender parts of experience. Pain doesn’t disappear, exactly, but it can be submerged under or into something else. Yet, as Rosaldo writes in The Day of Shelly’s Death, a loss “leaves traces.” Those traces circulate in a life.

Though Mark understands his severed self to be protected from emotional pain, we learn that he would often arrive to work with the markings of grief. Petey, a former colleague of Mark’s, explains this to his outie:

Petey: At work, you’d come in sometimes with red eyes. We had a joke that you had an elevator allergy. There was even a song for it. But I always wondered. You carry the hurt with you. You feel it down there, too. You just don’t know what it is.

Mark (curtly): Okay.

Mark thinks of his severed half as renewed, a clean slate, but he learns that he often arrives to work with sadness lingering on his face. Initially, Mark is hesitant to believe that he might “carry the hurt” with him into his work as a data refiner. With an expression of disdain, he clings to the fiction that his working life can protect him from emotional pain.

Lumon Industries, and the cinematography of Severance, supports this fiction through choreographies of work-life separation. Throughout the season, we witness scene after scene of characters entering the Lumon building, leaving key belongings in a locker room, and taking the elevator to the severed floor. As an employee rides the elevator, their body language shifts in an abrupt choreography of memory: the person changes from a body at leisure into the ‘productive body’ (Guery and Deleule 2014). Each character appears to take on, as we understand it, a different persona, shedding their attachments and burdens for the workday. The world of Lumon contains its own history, lexicon, and—of course—a battery of inane rules. Yet, despite the spatial and psychological separation of work and life, emotions seem to leave their marks on workers’ bodies.

Down on the severed floor, Mark and his team of macrodata refiners find themselves disconnected from the significance of their labor. Day after day, they sit at their desks, diligently sorting through endless streams of data, oblivious to their underlying meaning. They are coached, surveilled, disciplined, and at times celebrated for their work in macrodata refinement. Yet they, as well as viewers, remain oblivious to the purpose behind their work. They are kept in the dark about the identities, roles, and locations of their fellow employees on the severed floor. The team is, through these repertoires, alienated from the value of their labor. In Mark’s case, this alienation takes on a double dimension: not only is he cut off from the significance of his work, but he is also separated from a direct relationship with his own grief.

As the season unfolds, the severed selves of Mark begin to piece things together, on the outside (what is happening at Lumon) and on the inside (between severed selves). Grief emerges as a catalyst in the process of integration. When Mark learns of a friend’s death, his outie takes off work to attend his funeral. After the ceremony, Mark finds himself compelled to visit the tree where his wife was believed to have had her fatal car crash. In a poignant moment, he presses his hands against the trunk, struck by a wave of sadness. Later at work, his innie participates in a ‘wellness check,’ a controlled environment for Lumon to provide relief to employees while observing them. By the glow of a scented candle, Mark is asked to sculpt his emotions. As eerie music crescendos, Mark molds a ball of clay into a delicate sculpture of a tree. Though Mark, his managers, and viewers are led to believe he cannot access memories of life outside Lumon, this moment allows the possibility of imagining otherwise.

Severance offers an extreme example of the reality that, in many workplaces, grief is simply not welcome. Further, when employees like Mark are eager to avoid the pain of being present with grief, workplaces are happy to comply. Following the loss of a loved one, a standard U.S. corporate bereavement policy gives employees just three days of leave (Eddy, Wolfson, and Wagner 2023). If my university has a bereavement policy for doctoral students, I am not aware of it. A cursory search on the topic pulls up a glut of ‘how to go back to work’ guides for grieving workers. The overarching emphasis in these articles, of course, is how to return to productivity, rather than how to hold space for healing. A systemic lack of support reenforces the expectation that grief be swiftly and neatly compartmentalized, disregarding the intricate and complex nature of the grieving journey.

Grief, as a rupture in a life, insists on being known. In Severance, it defies the cut of the severance procedure, and, further, leads to the early stirrings of justice. In life, even when grief is not reckoned with or cared for directly, it has a way of showing up. A force of nature, it cuts through fictions of separate selves that we carry to divvy up the domains of our lives. Connecting with their grief, Mark and his colleagues link parts of themselves that have been surgically separated, using emotion to push against the tyranny of their workplace. Watching the dystopia of Severance unfold in the sinister, modernist milieu of Lumon, I wonder: is it possible to grieve at work as a whole person in late capitalism? Tapping into our emotions, how might we better confront the alienation of late capitalist structures, building towards more integrated selves and communities? While Severance prompts us to ask these questions, the show provides us with few answers.

Despite the common parlance of ‘grief work’ in the psychological literature, there has been little critical attention to the shape grief takes in the workplace, nor to the mark of work on grief itself. Providing scenes of grief—in and out of the severed workplace—Severance illuminates the traces of grief in a life, and the limits of this dystopian imaginary in cutting right through them.

References

Anon. 2023. “Lumon Industries.”

Eddy, Liz, Dan Wolfson, and Kellie Wagner. 2023. “The Importance of Building Grief Processing Into Company Culture: A Guide to Inclusively Addressing Grief at Work.” American Journal of Health Promotion 37(3):429–30. doi: 10.1177/08901171221145217e.

Guery, Francois, and Didier Deleule. 2014. The Productive Body. Zero Books.

Ratcliffe, Matthew. 2020. “Towards a Phenomenology of Grief: Insights from Merleau-Ponty.” European Journal of Philosophy 28(3):657–69. doi: 10.1111/ejop.12513.

Rosaldo, Renaldo. 2013. The Day of Shelly’s Death. Duke Unversity Press.

Schönherr, Julius. 2021. “Two Problems of Fitting Grief.” Analysis (United Kingdom) 81(2):240–47. doi: 10.1093/analys/anaa051.

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