A Ceremony of Grief
Grief: deep sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. Oxford Dictionary
Sorrow: a feeling of deep distress caused by loss, disappointment, or other misfortune suffered by oneself or others. Oxford Dictionary
Trauma: a deeply disturbing experience. Oxford Dictionary
Grief is the acute pain that accompanies loss. Because it is a reflection of what we love, it can feel all-encompassing. Psychology Today
Many years ago, the birth of our first child was very traumatic. Our silent, gasping newborn son barely survived and required extreme life-saving efforts; he was ventilated and placed on additional life support machines. Thus began his vulnerable and tiny life. After a month in the hospital, we brought him home. Wounded parents of a newborn, dealing with deep sorrow, we were relieved that he was home. But we were also terrified when we thought we’d have great joy. Such conflicting feelings. Life didn’t go how we thought it would. Because of his respiratory distress, his lungs were vulnerable so we socially distanced his first year of life. When the Covid pandemic began, we quickly returned to the protective behaviors we had learned when he was medically fragile. Back then, I was advised to ‘Zen the grief’ by my spiritual director by being with the sorrow instead of ignoring or trying to numb it. It took me years to integrate that trauma. One of the best therapies I had was an informal support group of other moms of kids with special needs. I learned a lot about grief, particularly around significant losses. I also learned that grief needs a soothing friend, a witness, to help us make sense of what happened by listening to the story of our loss.
Early in this pandemic I, like many, had a hard time sleeping. Everything was disrupted and uncertain. Travel plans were cancelled. We stayed close to home and stocked up on food. Our youngest son returned home from college. I got busy and didn’t cry about the pandemic for a couple of months. It was such a surreal time. I kept my routines going. I got offered a job and then it disappeared. I did all the grocery shopping for my family. I exercised. I also quickly began regular support activities. I made a Zoom account. My book group of twenty years moved online. I hosted a monthly online group of spiritually-seeking friends from around the country who talked and prayed and journeyed though the pandemic together. We still do. It’s been two years and it continues to be a touchstone of stories, fears, laughter, and hope.
The losses of the pandemic: loss of routine, loss of jobs, loss of planned trips or experiences. Lost rites of passage: the missed high school and college graduations, the missed weddings and funerals and birthdays. These events anchor us to people. The loss of people who died from the pandemic: friends, parents, grandparents. Our friends who died during the pandemic whom we couldn’t be with to comfort and say goodbye. And the relentlessness of fear, the unease we felt and sometimes still feel around people who come too close. The pandemic has been like a slow-moving tornado that throws everything around as we try to take shelter and hold on.
And the awkward, confusing, unwanted grief. The out of the blue sadness. Concentrating was difficult, sometimes it still is. It was hard to read fiction. I did puzzles. I was irritated. My friend, who I’ll call Sally, died from cancer in October of 2020, before there was a vaccine. She couldn’t have visitors. We texted a lot because it was easier for her. Her last precious voice message is saved on my phone. We learned some of our friends’ marriages didn’t make it through the pandemic, while others thrived.
Neither of my parents experienced a pandemic. Both were born after the Spanish flu and both died long before Covid. I think of this sometimes when I’m folding laundry or making a bed and I find it a strange comfort. I’ve missed them both during this time. What would they have said about it?
A friend of mine used to work with families with terminally ill children. She said it didn’t matter if they had any sort of faith traditions because families still managed to create an altar of some sort to commemorate the life of their loved one: pictures, toys, favorite items, objects, flowers. That’s what we need and can be for each other. We need to respect and acknowledge each other’s losses. Like tornado survivors we’ll come out of our shelters after it passes and survey the damage. What is still standing? What has been shaken from its foundation? Like my moms’ support group, we need others to hear our stories. We need people to laugh and weep with in-person. Mechanical life support has limits. Lungs can’t take it indefinitely. Our infant son needed to be weaned off mechanical breathing. So too, we’ve learned online life is a form of mechanical support and it has its limits. Humans are social animals. We will need to share with one another our pandemic stories. Together, we need to commemorate what we’ve lost and celebrate what is still standing.