Grief during a pandemic -RUOK special
Once again it is RUOK day, and I can bet you that if you asked anyone who is alive right now, the chances of a “No” answer would be pretty high.
We all know the reasons for that.
Today I want to talk about grief.
Grief is “a strong emotion that appears when we face loss” from something that we have formed a strong emotional connection to. There are a few different types of grief, including anticipatory grief (when we anticipate losing something or someone), and disenfranchised grief (when society does not recognize your loss as being “worthy” of grieving over). We don’t just grieve when we lose someone – we may be grieving a loss of identity, sense of safety, autonomy, or dreams and expectations.
Six months after the pandemic was announced, and after the adrenaline has worn off, after all the sourdough has been baked, we are all dealing with some kind of grief. For some of us, the grief is substantial, all encompassing, it has taken over our world and swallowed us up completely and we cannot see the way out, especially in the harsh reality of Lockdown 2.0. We are drowning in our grief. For others, the grief is partial and compartmentalized and pops up at unexpected times.
The experience of grief is a very humbling one, that reminds me, in a very raw way, of what it is truly like to be human. Usually, grief is experienced in relative isolation. Other people aren’t involved in our grief or if they are, they experience it differently. Now, we are all grieving together, though we might be grieving different things.
Many of us are grieving the fact that we cannot continue on with the rituals and habits that we were used to. Family dinners, family holidays, birthdays, catching up with friends. Being able to be face to face with someone we love. We also grieve the lost opportunities in the future. Not being able to celebrate a special birthday. Religious festivals. Weddings and funerals, graduations. All the glue that bonds us together as a family, a community, a society. For those of us with family who live in other states or countries, there is the grief of not being able to see our loved ones, and not knowing when it will be safe to travel again.
Heck, I couldn’t even post a photo of two hands holding each other, because that’s not appropriate in the time of COVID.
Even in the relative freedoms of where I live (Sydney) there are reminders of how life has changed. We count heads carefully before organising a get together. We check the weather because it’s safer for us to meet outdoors. Choir and wind instruments are banned at school. Awards at assemblies appear without us being able to have the satisfaction of seeing our child walk up and receive it from the Principal. We haven’t attended a birthday party for months. This year’s Book Week Parade will not be seen by any parents, unless on Zoom. And while I complain about it every year, there is something wistful about seeing one’s child parade around the school oval dressed as a little witch, a Pokemon Trainer, or (this year’s attempt) – Moby Dick. It’s a fragment of life that we put away in our treasure chest of memories of “when you were little”.
But these are all very small things compared to the businesses that are closing, dropping like flies, across our country especially in Melbourne, where they must remain closed due to the ongoing high community transmission. And the grief that holds me down the most is that I am separated from my parents and family and friends in other States and countries, and I do not know if I will see my parents again because they are elderly and time is not on our side.
The grief of COVID is different for everyone. Noone’s grief is more or less valid than someone else’s. For some of us, there is the grief of losing someone dear due to COVID. Losing the ability to make a living – the disappearance of an entire industry with all its trappings. This has many consequences – loss of identity, a lifestyle, a purpose, friendships at work, maybe even a home. Loss of our habits and our routine. Loss of somewhere to go every day. Loss of hopes and dreams.
We have lost the ability to collectively celebrate and collectively mourn. Gone are the weddings where dancing and toasting, hugging and kissing were the norm. Gone is the ability to mourn together, instead there is the counting of heads and the Zoom links to a wake.
So today, after you ask someone else “RUOK?” I’d like you to also ask “What have you lost and how does that make you feel?”
Here are some ideas.
- Just listen. Don’t suggest or advise.
- Ask how you can help in a practical way.
- Don’t highlight the positive in their situation – but if they can see the positives, encourage them to keep doing this if they can.
- Be patient.
- Encourage self help and support.
- Just be there.
And as for yourself?
- Allow yourself to mourn.
- Allow yourself to express your grief.
- Seek help – from your friends and family, from health professionals. Remember there are additional psychological sessions available for people in Victoria under the Better Outcomes in Mental Health scheme. (See below for some useful resources).
- Be patient and kind with yourself.
- Keep looking after yourself. Eat well and exercise. Don’t forget the simple things – a walk in the sun, a laugh over the phone or Zoom, an activity that you love.
- Watch the alcohol intake. You don’t want to numb your pain. Enjoy a glass of wine if you must, but if you’re using it to numb grief, put it away.
And for us, as a community?
Let’s come together to collectively grieve and mourn, and support each other. Be kind on social media. Be patient with every human you have an interaction with. This will take time. Allow it to happen. Keep on sheltering in place, if it’s not safe to be outdoors. You are saving lives, as much as it hurts to do so. I’m so sorry.
Some day we’ll look back together and feel a lot stronger. In the meantime, keep asking RUOK (not just today) and be prepared to sit by someone’s side (figuratively) while they tell you about what they’ve lost.
If you need immediate help please contact your GP, your nearest hospital, or Lifeline on 131114