What Experiencing a Traumatic Loss Has Taught Me About Times Like These
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In the old world, the one where humanity was not confined to their homes, I’m on my way to Paris right now. I’ve just finished my in-flight meal, knocked back a perfectly mixed red wine spritzer, and am settling down with a movie, ready to sleep away the rest of this overnight flight. Over the next two weeks I’ll set foot in three new countries as I continue to eat and drink my way through Europe. Wine tasting in Burgundy, cheese fondue in Geneva and macaroons of every flavor.
But that’s the old world.
In this new reality, I’m spending Friday night alone in my bedroom, which now also serves as my office, my gym, the library, the therapist’s office and the hottest wine bar in town. Over the last two months I’ve occupied my brain with work, movies, books, spring cleaning, baking and video chats. I’ve turned off the lights and blasted angsty music as if I were a teenager again. I’ve prepped and planted a vegetable garden, complete with a (hopefully) rabbit-proof fence. As an avid outdoors lover, I’ve cursed the crowds of people on once quiet trails. I’ve planned a notebook full of adventures for when I’m finally able to leave my home and socialize again.
Yes, this is life in a global pandemic.
I am lucky enough that thus far, a canceled holiday is seemingly the worst thing I’ve suffered in the last months. Yet, when you layer a pandemic on top of years of traumatic grief, the emotional toll is compounded. Many of the universal emotions of this crisis — anxiety, anger, isolation — are so familiar that when the world started shutting down I almost felt prepared for what was to come. Having spent the last few years deep in grief, I assumed I could get through social distancing without too much effort.
After all, I’d been here before.
When my younger brother died five years ago I went from being a 30-year-old with a jam-packed social calendar on Sunday evening to a grief-stricken blob who couldn’t get out of bed Monday morning. In losing my brother I also lost the energy to socialize, the ability to smile, the desire to plan for a future. So yes, I’ve been here before, and I’ve survived the ungodly pain of a traumatic loss. However, the familiarity of emotions, currently felt the world over, is the very reason I know that the next months or years may be exceptionally awful and full of pain.
When you’re feeling alone and don’t know how to cope without the caring touch of a friend, when you are craving the simplicity of a hug — I’ve felt this isolation before. I spent countless hours home alone in those first years of grief. I isolated myself when the sadness was so overwhelming I could do nothing but sit in the dark and cry. Even now, with a strong social calendar, I find myself naturally distanced at times. There is an innate loneliness in knowing there is a part of you now that can never be fully understood by the friends you’re out at the bar with.
When you’re worried about the friend that lost their job or the grandparents sick in the nursing home — I’ve felt this anxiety before. After losing one brother, it seemed inevitable that I would lose another. I’d been lucky enough to have not suffered a significant loss in my 30 years, but in one tragic moment, it suddenly seemed that loss would just keep coming. Every time the phone rings I assume bad news is on the other end; so much so that I’ve silenced the ringer for most of the last five years. Every time someone is sick I stress about it being something more serious. Every time someone is late, there’s a gap between calls, or someone is slow to respond to a text message, I obsess about that person’s well-being.
When the government feeds misinformation and continues to fail us — I’ve felt this anger before. I was angry that no one saw this coming in time to stop it. I was angry at myself for not being home to protect my brother. I was angry at every person in the world who could still smile. I was angry that the world kept spinning when my entire universe had come to a screeching halt. There have been countless days when anger has become the reigning emotion simply because it was easier than facing the misery of mourning.
Throughout the last five years the anxiety, anger and isolation have gone from emotions I felt every minute of the day to ones that come and go. The sadness remains, but I’ve slowly found a new normal and built a life that allows me to both carry my grief and enjoy the world I am lucky enough to still walk through. My return to travel after losing my brother was once purely escapism, but after a few turns around the globe it became something more. Through travel I found a small glimmer of the old me, who seemed to be lost to grief for many years. Across multiple continents I gathered handfuls of positivity about this post-loss life.
So today, on the day I should be flying to Paris, I want to say, “Welcome to my world.”
Whether you’re grieving a canceled holiday, a routine trip to the salon, or a loved one, the coming days are going to be heartbreaking. Whether your trauma ends when life starts to fall back into place or you have suffered a loss that will permeate through the rest of your life, your grief matters. Without a doubt, it will not be an easy road as the world tries to heal from this crisis. But I continue to search for the light my brother brought to my life and in doing so I know that the darkness is not all consuming.
You will smile again.
You will laugh again.
Maybe even both.
Maybe even in Paris.
Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash