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Grieving in a pandemic: On time, isolation, and what we must do

Always in grieving, time is distorted. Weeks pass by in a fog, but hours drag; it seems like forever since the loss as we start forgetting the contours of our loved one’s face; or else it seems like it was just this morning and we recall all too much of what we’ve been through.

Always in grieving, our isolation from our loved one is almost more than we can carry. Then it spreads to isolation from the rest of the world who are not suffering as we are. In normal times, we have our ways to bridge that gap with friends and family, with visits, telephone and texts and emails and these days, Zoom. But while we grieve, we may lack the energy to reach out. We want to be recipients of others’ caring, but others may not know how to approach us, so they stay away. We try to understand and forgive. Perhaps we have even been that person ourselves in the past, unable to step forward.

Always in grieving, it is not words that heal, but the presence of those who can show up for us, for whatever time it may take. We wish that the others could see how much it helps, how easy it actually is to sit together without words when you give up trying to fix the unfixable pain for someone after loss. The presence creates comfort, words or no words, touch or no touch, whatever the moment calls for.

Grieving during the pandemic

Grieving in a pandemic is the same in the needs it creates, but so different in the range of choices we have. Time is distorted now, four months in, not just the griever, but for everyone, whether sheltering in place, or staying at home, or quarantining, or having to go to work each day.

Time still moves from slow to fast to a blur. By now, we can barely remember what normal was like, yet we know we can’t have it anyway. We feel blocked, stunned, as grievers always do, but now we don’t know what to count on in place of what we are used to – visitations and memorials and ceremonies. We don’t know how long we will have to wait for those, and we need something sooner, much sooner.

Already family members have been thwarted – if living away, unable to travel to say goodbye. If hospitalization is involved, they have been unable to visit, being forced to make decisions from afar. And now, a thing that usually heals, joining with others to grieve, is not available.

When the loss is from the pandemic

For people who grieve for deaths from the coronavirus, the loss of a loved one has already been compounded by trauma – fear of the disease, helplessness as the virus took hold, inability to tend to their needs, the weight of guilt not to be able to be present with a loving hand, the attempts to be as-present-as-possible through phone or video calls and the help of kind and overburdened nurses. It is a nightmare, and the ache of longing to do what is impossible will remain over time.

What we must do

But, as grievers do, we will find our ways to live on and remember with love. There will be a new normal and it will be our job to find how to live in it. It will also be our job to grieve for our loved one, a day at a time, the best we can, as always.

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