A Perspective on Our Collective Grief

Events of the past few months have left the world reeling in a collective grief on a scale which most of us have never experienced.  I’ve written in the past about sociologist Robert Atchley’s views on grieving the loss of our work identity.  We are way beyond anything he or any of us could have imagined.  We have lost so much in such a short time from an invisible enemy that grief is an inevitable emotion.  Having spent the last several years adjusting to a heart-wrenching life situation where I was overwhelmed by grief I’m offering my perspective.  

Years ago as we grappled with the impact of Martin’s disease I remember sitting in a popular local restaurant lunching with a friend.  People bustled past the windows on that sunny day.  Inside seating was filled, glasses clinked, servers brought delicious food and drink.  In the midst of cheerfulness, as I poured out my despair, disappointment, uncertainty and anger over this unexpected disease, my friend said, “You do realize somebody else has it worse than you?”  

Surprised and hurt at how a friend invalidated my feelings, I recognized in that moment what we all crave in life.  We want everything to be normal, usual, positive, happy.  Perhaps even mundane.  I thought about all the people who told me to look on the bright side, think positive, at least you still have him.  Few wanted to listen to my grieving.

Today I read this post on Facebook:

Without thinking, I shared it.  Then, I realized I was diminishing someone else’s grief.  I did exactly what I complained about in other people. I was no different. We want to look on the bright side.  Yes, most cases of COVID-19 are mild.  Going to the hospital and being put on a ventilator is not a death sentence.  Yet, for some there is no bright side.  A person they love died.  In actuality people are losing a mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter.  They are grieving.  And we must recognize the death toll.  We must recognize the grief – their grief, our grief.  

This is now a melancholy time.  As with Martin’s disease so it is with COVID-19 – there is no vaccine, no cure, no surgery, no nothing.  Many of us may feel alone, helpless.  Our lives forever changed.  Normal is no longer normal.  Our usual day is replaced by shuttering ourselves in isolation.  If we are lucky we have at least one other with whom to share our space and our fears.  We have the internet, Skype, FaceTime, but we are social creatures wanting to go out into the world, rub shoulders with other people, go to work, shop, travel, have fun, be happy.  We mourn the loss.

In order to have someone to listen, just listen, I spent six years expressing most of my heartache to a therapist, at first weekly, then every other week.  Six years.  Without her I could not have found even a morsel of happiness again.  I learned that suppressing negative emotions leads to other negative feelings such as resentment.  Quashing grief only heightens stress levels, which leads to health issues.  Talking about my grief was cathartic.  For me it was a release that allowed me to go on.  I was able to discard the negative thereby making way for some enjoyment of life. Grieving is necessary for letting go of negative emotions.

I’ve read many articles on grief.  Most of the articles refer to the loss of a spouse or significant other.  And, every author points to people telling them exactly the type of comments I encountered.  Get over it.  Think positive.  Move on.  Most people who give this advice probably think they are being helpful as I did by re-posting the above quote.  But, for the person going through the grief process, it can feel belittling of their situation.  It can also make them think they shouldn’t be feeling the negativity of the situation – ahhhh – the guilt.

Now, today, we are also hearing about grief over what may seem trivial to some of us.  Grief, however, is personal.  For my young granddaughters the closing of school for the year brought tears.  Our 17-year-old will graduate without making “the walk” to receive her diploma or attending a senior prom or the planned mystery tour for seniors following graduation.  The celebrations, which are so much a part of this experience have vaporized.  To those of us with wider life experience this may seem small.  To her the loss is real.  She deserves to shed tears and feel the loss.  

This is a time for compassion.  Whether we see the loss as large or small is irrelevant.  What matters is that we respond with compassion.  We must honor the feelings of the person.  Grief is personal.

Both my doctor and therapist talked to me about anticipatory grief, meaning I was anticipating the final loss of Martin and grieving over that future event.  I had no idea when it would occur so I felt a loss of control.  Our future was uncertain.  I venture to say many are struggling with the same feelings surrounding the pandemic.  We have no idea when it will end or how it will end.  We have no idea what the final toll in human life will be.  We worry about money and jobs and the economic impact.  We worry about our children’s education and socialization.  We mourn the loss of our social ties, work, clubs, sporting events, classes.  Normal provides comfort.  When our normal, usual life is upended so is our sense of safety.  

I say it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve the loss of our lives as we knew it.  Grief, whether it’s because of a death, divorce, an empty nest, retirement or the catastrophic assault of a modern day plague, plays a very important role in our very ability to give way to the bright side, to move ahead, to adjust to our altered reality.  Depending on a number of factors, from our personality type to our personal circumstance to our support system, each of us has a different grief meter.  Divesting ourselves of the negative emotions allows us to move ahead sooner rather than later.   By grieving we also honor that part of our life.  It’s ok to mourn the loss.

We are in a time when an abundance of compassion is needed as never before.  Having a meltdown is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of someone requiring comfort, understanding and love.  In this time of coming together, albeit virtually for most of us, lend a willing ear to anyone wanting or needing to express their sorrow.  It will be good for both of you.

8 comments on “A Perspective on Our Collective Grief

  1. Kathy, what a beautiful post. Filled with empathy and understanding. I’m going to reread your post closely now — I want to take in every bit of it. Thank you

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  2. When I first started reading your post, I was relieved to see the Meme on recoveries. We could use more good news. But your perspective is much deeper. Thank you for opening to door to the concept of grieving, even when otherwise lucky, the loss of life’s routines. Tracey

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  3. Thank you, Kathy. I watch the news and read the paper. I am continually on the verge of tears. We have all lost so much. I saw the post above and the one, “The Greatest Generation” and how we are only asked to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. My granddaughter just had a major breakdown, we are dealing with it. Our families are out of jobs and all activities. I am trying to help any way I can in our community and family. It is helping me deal with this catastrophe that none of us have ever experienced. I hope that you can find some peace and comfort in the little things in life we still have.

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  4. Thank you, Kathy, for this, Like you, I’d have immediately posted the “good” news because it feels like we are so overwhelmed with the bad and the alarmist. I never would have realized how such an action invalidates those who have lost someone or are suffering through this pandemic in a far worse way than I am. Than you for sharing your wisdom — it is much needed and heeded! — Kim

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