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Looking Back and Looking Forward: Grieving in the pandemic year

What picture comes up for you when you remember holiday celebrations from your past? Thinking of this week between Christmas and the New Year, do you think of warm laughter, sparkling lights, toasts, togetherness? Or a strained atmosphere and waiting for inevitable conflict to break out around the table or at the party? Or maybe you remember lonely days, painful to remember.

The holidays are always a tender time, especially after a loss. Now, in 2020, after this year of trauma and isolation, we are all more vulnerable than usual. After a loss, many dread the season, when the absence of a loved person looms large.

I recently came across a photo of my mother-in-law presiding over her kitchen as she did every year, with her band of helpers in the background. I can tell it was Christmas because she is dressed in red. I can smell the turkey resting on the counter, hear the mashed potatoes being beaten and the ice clinking into the goblets on the table. The potato rolls would be in the oven about now, in a surprising paper bag (what if it catches on fire in the oven, I always wondered) that turned them out to perfection. The table, extended to its full length, was always set before we arrived, the structure of the day already in place.

I can feel the warmth and security, the ease of being enclosed in a family embrace even though I wasn’t born into it. She is gone now, so others carry on, some collection of us together each year, as many as 35 with partners and a new generation sprung up, or as few as 10 or 15.

Just before we sit down to eat, we always remember those who are not with us—because they are somewhere else around other tables, missing us; and those who have died but are still present in our hearts. We include them in the words that precede the meal, but we wouldn’t need to, as they come up all day anyway in stories and “remember when…” conversations. As always, grief is best shared, and often most fully understood by those grieving the same loss.

In a normal year, people choose what the day will look like according to their circumstances or preferences. Some decide to be on their own each day of the holidays, to use as a time of reflection and renewal and self-care. Others volunteer to help provide a meal and social gathering for people seeking company and sustenance, or offer to work in place of someone who wants a day to be with their family. Some join together as a family of friends. The days can be satisfying in a way, and bittersweet, with the mission of recent weeks now fulfilled, however imperfectly. An oasis before winter takes over.

But in 2020, we have had to choose among limited options. We are wary of travel and its risk of exposure to the virus. Public health experts caution us, just this once, give up the idea of gathering as we usually do. We are warned that gathering at this time has risks for all of us, especially our most vulnerable loved ones, risks that we could regret taking. This year is different, and we are called to notice.

So we flex. We connect with those we want to and need to. We will call, we will Zoom, and we will remember our loved ones when we do. This year also offers an invitation to connect with ourselves. Even if you don’t keep a regular journal, you could write a few sentences to mark this once-in-a-lifetime year, put it in a drawer to take a look at next year when we will be well into building our new normal.

Or you could write a letter to your loved one who has died (I know that many of us talk to them all the time, but writing it down can be powerful and healing) to describe how life has changed, how you are, and to imagine how they might have responded to this crisis. And then put it in that same drawer so you will know where to put the next one, if you feel so moved.

Whatever your choices, I hope you search out what meaning and connection will serve you in this holiday time, soon to be behind us. Spring will come, vaccines are on their way, life will return to a new version of normal. And we will grieve, getting stronger as we go.


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