Coping with grief (amidst a pandemic)
by Chantal Bufe
Day 254759 of lockdown - or at least it is starting to feel that way. While I am so incredibly grateful that my family is healthy, safe, and lucky in so many respects during this extraordinary time, I am the first one to admit that there have been many challenging moments during the past weeks. There are tough days homeschooling (not only for the children), repetitive household chores that have me questioning my sanity (didn't I just do this?) and regular temper tantrums (pick a child: one of our three kids has one emotional outburst at least once a day).
The most challenging moment during the last weeks, however, was born out of true pain: my paternal grandmother passed away due to old age. Her health had been declining for months and while we were somewhat prepared for her death, we never anticipated not being able to say our goodbyes when the time came - which is exactly what happened: the imposed lockdown due to Covid- 19 had made a visit to the palliative care station impossible and my grandmother died alone. For some time after, I grappled with the knowledge of her passing without any family by her side. And I grieved.
And during this grieving process, something interesting happened: I did not feel the bottomless loneliness that usually accompanies my grief. On the contrary, I felt the powerful energy of a unified entity around me and it occurred to me that this was because I really was not alone!
While I was sitting in solitude (in literal isolation!) - grieving the loss of my grandmother - I realized that indeed a much larger, collective grief was taking place synchronously as each and every one of us is currently grieving something - loved ones, jobs, old lives, old selves.
In essence, we are grieving one and the same thing: time. Time as we used to know it (and used to spend it); the time we may think we are currently losing by living in isolation/unlike before and the uncertain times that still lie ahead of us. Unquestionably, we are all currently wondering what our new reality, our future, will look like after this pandemic.
So when we look closely (inwards and outwards), grief - or shades of its notorious seven stages - are all around us: some people are still in shock or denial while others feel anger and pain. Some find themselves depressed, lonely, or in deep reflection while others are accepting and optimistically hopeful.
And as we currently mourn time, those who have grieved before know that it takes just that - time - to get to the relieving final stages of grief: calming acceptance and affirmative hope.
Still, during a particularly challenging moment last week - as I was missing my grandmother - I
tried to remember: Besides putting our faith solely in time, what else is there that we can proactively - consciously! - do in order to inch ourselves closer to acceptance, to hope?
And then I remembered a letter that I received in 2016 which holds the answer to this very question.
2016 had been a particularly challenging year with the passing of my father in March, my best friend's father passing in April, and my maternal grandmother passing in May. Three deaths of three very important people and three funerals within less than three months. I remember life turning very dark for a while. Grief hit - so very hard and so very loud - and when it did, I remember not even knowing where to begin. There was so much pain and confusion and pure resistance on my part that I remember thinking (and saying out loud, my apologies here to anyone who was around me at the time): "No matter who dies now, I AM NOT GOING!!!"
And amidst my resistance - which had me running in circles - my brothers and I received a letter from my mother in which she reminded us that - while our pain may seem insurmountable - there was indeed something we could do to move through our pain, heal our wounds and lessen the scars. This is what my mothers' letter read:
To my children,
As mentioned I would love to share some thoughts with you that may be useful in guiding us through this time:
As you know, all of us collect experiences throughout our entire life. Some are beautiful ones and some less so. Most often, it is the painful experiences that let us come into contact with true reality, one that allows us the deepest insight and most profound understanding of the circumstances and connections around us.
Experiences let us consciously feel life: we suffer, and it is these painful experiences that help us learn and help us grow.
People come into our lives and they also leave our lives. And when these moments, days, months, years, or decades end, it is the memories that remain. And our entire life consists of memories. And during this life, all humans face different fates: babies can pass away, young people can pass away and elderly people can pass away. And then there are people who go on to live a hundred years or more.
Whatever fate, life just is.
Grief comes in waves and not everyone grieves the same way or at the same time as the rest of the family. There are days when you may feel lighter and more positive and then, on other days, grief just overcomes you and you feel all of its phases: anger and bargaining; depression/reflection/loneliness; pain and guilt; shock and denial.
These moments are moments of truth that require us to really look at what is happening with us: what is it that I feel? And to let that pain happen, which means to admit: yes, it is painful; yes, it makes me feel depressed; yes, it makes me feel desperate; yes, it makes me feel hopeless. In this case, letting the pain happen means upright recognition, honest recognition!
Upright means: realizing that I can recognize pain objectively and subjectively. I have a choice. Upright means: to not fall into the trap of self-pity (which is subjective) and to put yourself into the position of the victim (for then you enter a depressing, downward spiral towards increased helplessness).
And by recognizing the pain, in an upright and self- determined manner (which is objective) I can open myself up for the future and decide: at this very moment, what would help me feel better?
At times this can be sitting at home - by myself, quiet and cozy - at other times I need a friend to talk to or I need to go out or I need to do sports.... as long as choose consciously and in an upright manner, I am able to choose best what really serves me at that very moment.
It is a mistake to believe that we can control or influence every aspect of our life. We may think we can, but we can not. Life happens around us, so many things happen around us, none of which we have any power over. BUT these things can and will influence our lives so remember that wherever life may take us, we are always FREE to choose.... which path do we want to walk? This is our chance! This is our possibility!
My children, may these words serve as a reminder to stand upright and choose your future; a future filled with confidence and optimism.
Embracing you always, Your loving mother
In 2016, this was my mother's message to her children. Today, amidst a worldwide pandemic - one that has so many people in shock, in denial, bargaining with fate, guilty, angry or depressed - these life lessons remain just as relevant.
1. Life just is. While we would like to control every aspect of our lives, especially painful and challenging experiences, we really can't. And while we can choose resistance as our response to discomfort or torment, we really shouldn't. If our goal is happiness, we must remember to stand upright in order to feel deeply, accept fully, and love wholly.
2. Grieve is undeniably the most personal of emotions - only next to love - a human being can experience. Its uniqueness makes it impossible for any other person to fully comprehend: I will never know the shade or depth of my friend's grief only because I once had the experience of grieving myself. And for this very reason, there can never ever be judgment where there is grief.
This is extremely important to remember at this moment in time: while you may disapprove of or simply not comprehend why a person around you is currently behaving they way they are, remind yourself that that person may be struggling, grieving for something in one way or another. So instead of quick judgment why not offer kindness and compassion in its place? That person may need your generosity of heart more than you can fathom.
3: We do not know what the future will hold. All we can do is to remain open for it and to remember that we are always free to choose.
(Photo: Kristina Tripcovik/Unsplash)