COLLECTIVE GRIEF

People seem to be pondering grief and a sense of loss as common COVID responses.  Articles talk about the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).  But this COVID grief is different than, say, the passing of a loved one, or losing a marriage.  Instead, we are losing our sense of normalcy on a global level.  And it is not a single event that grows more distant in time as we heal.  COVID is coming along with us, as close as the Grim Reaper, and no one can say what the end point will be, or whether there will be one.  How can we truly grieve, how can we “put it behind us” when we are facing constant changes on the ground, and a series of unknowns in our health, our financial picture, our social lives, and almost every aspect of our daily routines?  We cannot move away from something that isn’t an event in time with an end point.  The very idea of grief seems to presume that the loss happened in the past and it is over.  The grief model doesn’t fully cover the COVID experience, and yet there is grief.

One aspect that I haven’t seen discussed much yet is how COVID is bringing more people to question the very meaning of their lives.  It seems impossible not to wonder, in this quiet downtime, what was it all about?  Why was I in such a hurry?  Where was I going, and what did it all mean?  Being detached from our set goals and ways of doing things – and the rituals and daily routines that defined us – can create a sense of detachment from our very selves – our identities.  It can leave us floating in a void of uncertainty.  Not just “when will things get back to normal” but “what was I doing, and do I even want all that back, and if not, then what do I want, and why is it all so scary, when I could take it as an opportunity?”  Then we can easily start beating ourselves up for not handling it better, for not having better lives, for succumbing to all the uncertainty, for caving in to our fears.  What was it all for?  What was it all about?  Why does it even matter, and if it doesn’t matter, is that depression, or acceptance?

There is also more acknowledgment, at least in the medical community, that we are physically carrying sadness, anxiety, fear and stress in our very fibers.  Our heads are hurting.  Our muscles are tight.  We may feel a heavy weight upon our hearts.  Any old aches and pains we didn’t really notice in our busy days are rising to our conscious awareness.  Any problem we have grows enormous and insurmountable in the face of so much instability.  We cannot easily turn to our friends or our usual support systems. We are not “too busy to think” with our daily routines, so it is easy to ruminate and even become morbid. Our sleep is disturbed and off.  We feel more fatigued, even exhausted.  Spent.  We feel like we have been through the wringer.  Our bodies have all the stress hormones of running from danger, but there is no defined set point where we are declared out of danger, where we can start to shake it off.  No wonder so many of us have simply slowed down almost to a stop.  Fight, flight, or freeze.  Sometimes, freezing might be the safest and easiest waiting it out position.  The trick is we need to be able to ease back into movement when the time comes.

While hibernating is my natural refuge in times of pain, as the weeks have gone by, I have found unexpected solace in talking with others.  I was truly starting to wonder if something was wrong with me, if I had become some sort of weakling, for not handling things better. But in talking with others and finding that they have similar thoughts and struggles, I have taken great comfort and found relief.  So much of what I had considered to be a personal problem turns out to be collective sadness and loss that we are dealing with across the board.  This helps me hang onto the fact that I am still a part of a larger whole even while isolated. “I don’t know if I can do this” is transformed into “we are all in this together,” and that means I don’t have to handle it alone.  The old saying “safety in numbers” has never felt so real.

So yes, we have a new, uncharted form of grief.  We have dragging sadness.  We have an underlying nagging sense of unease.  Of impending danger, and unknown risk.  It is hard not to walk around on high alert “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” waiting for the next disaster, the next bad news, the next wave to hit us.  We are each finding ways to cope wherever we are holed up, alone or in shared housing.  We each have to decide how much to push ourselves, and how often to check in with ourselves and really notice how we are feeling, so we can take care of ourselves.  We also have time to develop our patience.  Time to forgive ourselves for our humanity, our puniness and fragility, in the face of these overwhelming unknowns and pending changes. And, if we are lucky, we have trusted loved ones with whom we can share these experiences, and we can take comfort in the fact that even when we are isolated, we are not alone.