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A Year of the Covid-19 Pandemic, a Year of Collective Grief

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January has bled into February almost as if the two months are one and the same, one unending block of time. I momentarily stop to wonder if March will feel similar. I’m determined to write some of what I’ve been thinking, experiencing and reflecting on but I’m close to slipping away again, dissociating into the stillness. January felt like a fitful dream, where the desire to sleep never ended but an emotional surge prevented restful slumber. February has felt like forced hibernation, and I’ve railed against it, expressing frustration and outrage towards myself for not snapping out of it and doing something. “I want to do things, I want to move!” says my brain, but my body refuses. There’s a lethargy in the air, in my bones and yet my blood feels electric, coursing through me and demanding action. I feel restless and my brain feels itchy and yet my body wants to collapse. A thought, a recollection, an urge to move and get things done surfaces only to disappear again as if it never existed at all. And here I sit, wrapped in a warm blanket on this cold winter day warding off dissociation with every tap of the keyboard. I must wake up. I’ve been away too long. I must resurface. I feel like I’m sinking.

Everything is running so slowly and the slowness bumps up against the constant busyness that I had grown accustomed to. The chaotic, nonstop busyness that I hated and yet which I also chased because it made me feel alive somehow. It lured me into a pace that simultaneously felt energizing and draining, that I loved and detested. All of the stimulation, the churning out and running around kept me away from myself, and out of my body I think, and that felt safe. There were routines, schedules, places to be at specific times, a chain of commands, an order to be followed and an endless list of things to do. There was security in that. I knew what to expect. I almost always knew where I had to be and when I needed to be there. I had to show up no matter what. Just keep going, every day. And I did.

But something has shifted, and is shifting still, in the slowness.

I’m trying to remember, are these days of the year always like this? Oh sure, January is that awkward month when no one really knows what to do with themselves. The major holidays have passed, spring seems far off and a sleepiness seems to set in, whether we want it to or not. January can feel underwhelming as the start of a new year. January sometimes has a sense of expecting too much from us, of pressuring us into shiny new goals for the year ahead. New Year’s Eve tricks you into thinking that the start of the new year will burst forth bright and clean, propelled by a hopeful energy, and in reality it falls into place subtly and can feel dull. January seems to tell us to settle in and rest up, the other months will need you more. January can’t be bothered to reassure us, it expects us to be patient. January isn’t really a feel good kind of month, it’s more of a solemn period of reflection and remembrance, a time to gather our strength. And February, it just follows behind lagging, with an air of not quite ready for anything yet but perhaps a whisper of things to come.

But I’m sure other January’s and February’s weren’t quite as tedious and soul sucking as these past two months have been. I can’t tell whether I’m being funny right now or quite serious, maybe it’s a little of both. Of course COVID-19 is responsible for this extra layer of discomfort. And there are all the political and socio-economic issues. I feel as though I’m wading through sludge even as I think about all of it. I’m slipping away again, I can feel my brain stalling a little, almost like it’s wrapped in cheesecloth. The thoughts that were burning into my mind, ready to pounce, are now falling away. Thoughts with weight and substance become tiny granules, scattering, on the fringe, outside my consciousness again. I catch myself staring into space and notice the heaviness in my body, in my mind and it’s so hard to pull back from this. Each word requires so much stamina because something inside me leans into the dull, soft space of the nothingness, where time isn’t a reality and I float above my body. I have things I want to say, things I want to write, things I want to do and still these scribblings appear on the screen so slowly. I don’t have the patience for this, and yet I have no choice. This is how my mind is right now and no amount of prodding it will help.

This is January. This is February. This is months and months of COVID-19. Almost a year from when NYC went into lockdown March 2020, as did many other places either earlier or later.

Like many people, at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown, I told myself things would be back to “normal” soon and I just needed to wait it out a few weeks. Maybe a month, maybe six weeks. Weeks turned into months, seasons went by and even as late as October I persisted in telling myself things would be back to normal soon. Maybe I needed to do that. I fought against the “new normal” inside myself even while doing all the things to reduce the risk of COVID-19 such as wearing a mask, physically distancing, limiting how often I went out and more. The parts of me that fall into obsessive-compulsive disorder when faced with uncertainty took up new cleaning rituals with zeal, and my hypervigilant brain went into overdrive. In the early months of COVID, I felt sharp and energized  even as a deep rooted hopelessness and sense of dread ate away at my insides. Below the outbursts of productivity and the calm exterior was fear; fear that I’d never see anyone again, fear that I would be laid off, fear that everything and anything that was solid in my life was going to be taken from me.  I fought these intrusive thoughts off, throwing myself into writing and research. I painted. I brainstormed. I re-organized my apartment. I went for long walks. I took care getting dressed every day, keeping up that pretense that things would be back to normal any day. I don’t think I really believed that but it helped me get through.

But now? Now I’m just flat out, collapsed on the floor, wearing the same clothes as yesterday type of exhausted. My regular depression has morphed into the kind where every little thing takes so much energy and the sadness is so expansive that tears that feel forever at the surface take too much energy to actually cry. There is a terrible foreboding sense within me that nothing will ever be OK again. I’m grieving a future I have not yet seen while simultaneously grieving a past I cannot change. And in this present moment I’m feeling loss and loneliness stretch their arms around and I feel frozen in place. Some days I wish that I wouldn’t wake up, and my body aches with a longing I don’t know how to cure.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you are far from alone. More people are having a harder time right now than ever before. The shock of the early days of the pandemic were hard but this long haul is what is really taking a toll. We can’t even take it all in yet because we are still waist deep in it, but our bodies are constantly reminding us that this is all too much.

Grief underlies all of this. It’s a complicated kind of grief, with many layers. A heavy, dense grief that seems to grow, and yet an abstract one because not all of the grief is knowable, some of it remains hidden but we know it’s there. We are caught in a web of grief, individual grief intertwined in our collective grief.

Here are some things to remember about grief, trauma and the period of time we are in:

1. There are many types of grief and every person’s experience is valid.  Comparing one another’s grief does not help anyone. Part of living is experiencing grief. We cannot love without also experiencing grief.

2. Grief doesn’t just arise from the physical death of a loved one, although that’s often the one we all recognize. Grieving can also occur in response to change (positive or negative) or lack of change (knowing what needs to change and not seeing or knowing how to make that happen), as well as transitions. People sometimes grieve ways of being or the ways they might have had to adapt or function as a result of a physical or mental health condition. For some people this pandemic year might bring up a sense of lost time or a loss of opportunities and experiences they might have otherwise had (e.g. time spent with loved ones). For people with histories of trauma, there is grief in realizing what trauma took from them as they begin to take stock of its full impact.

3. If you identify as having a history of trauma prior to COVID-19 and/or a trauma disorder, it’s very likely this period of time has caused more traumatic material to surface. This may be showing up as memories or realizations, body memories and sensations, intrusive thoughts, emotional flashbacks and a whole host of symptoms and behaviors. If you were struggling with mental health issues prior to COVID-19, you may be struggling more now. If you felt you were doing well with a particular mental health issue before COVID-19, such as an eating disorder or substance abuse issue, you might experience frustration, confusion and anger if you find yourself falling into old patterns now. It’s important that you extend compassion towards yourself and do your best to take care of yourself, reach out to any supports you have and take things one day at a time. Piling on the shame and judgment won’t help.

4. Grief is more than tears. “I can’t cry” is a common refrain from people experiencing grief. While other people might say “I can’t stop crying.” Both are normal, and so is everything between. Grief looks different on everyone and it changes over time and under different circumstances.

5. Grief causes physical sensations in the body and can exacerbate pain. Migraines, joint pain, stomach upset, lack of appetite, insatiable hunger, chest pain, racing heart, dizziness, nausea and more are just a few of the ways grief can show up in the body.

6. Grief can negatively impact health, complicating current health conditions or creating new issues. This is particularly true for grief that festers and remains stuck in the body. Grief is similar to trauma in that way.

7. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no timeline on grief. Grief isn’t there one day and gone the next. Grief may shift over time but it never fully leaves us. But the deep pain of grief can transform into the powerful acknowledgement of what was and leave an imprint on our soul.

8. Pushing grief away or willing yourself to get over can only increase your suffering. Your grief deserves compassion and attention. Pay attention to your emotions and how you feel physically. Respect where you are at this moment. It may help to create rituals around grief and engage in acts of remembrance as a way to be with the grief without it completely flooding you. And if all you want to do right now is sleep, honor that.

9. There are times when grief consumes us and we dwell in it. This can be very problematic and prevent us from engaging in the here and now and what’s true in this moment. This is not about passing blame or taking on shame, this is part of being a human. Anticipatory grief is one example of this. People who have anticipatory anxiety often fall prey to anticipatory grief, grieving loss that has not yet come and expecting the worse to occur. A constant re-experiencing of grief is another example of this. Sometimes people will return to an old grief, and submerge themselves in it (consciously or unconsciously), bringing up old narratives and feeling states because at least that is familiar, unlike like this new grief which seems impossible to face.

10. Making space for grief in a society that often ignores grief or demands that we get over it is very difficult. Loneliness is often amplified during these times. The toll on the body is very real. Grief cannot be contained inside a few personal days away from the work and life responsibilities. Grief is messy and deserves time and care. Try to surround yourself with people who understand this vulnerable time in your life. You don’t need to explain your grief or what you are experiencing to anyone, unless you want to.

11. When we are still in survival mode it can be impossible to know the full impact of things. We might not even be able to feel our emotions. We might not be able to grieve until the dust settles a bit and we can make sense of what has happened. You might feel disoriented. You might feel as though you’re on autopilot. Adrenaline might kick in. You might experience yourself as living outside your body. The grief is there, waiting until we can meet it. It doesn’t ask us to rush in, notice it and fix things, but we also can’t put it off forever.

12. During times like this it’s normal to feel an almost constant sense of not OK-ness.

13. When we are still experiencing something which is causing us suffering or anything that is bringing up feelings of loss, it’s normal to look for ways to distract ourselves and to try and buffer the intensity. This can make people more susceptible to using unhealthy coping strategies. For our long term well-being though it’s best when we are able to use a variety of coping strategies that do not cause us further harm.  They may not work as well as the unhealthy ones, at least at first, but they can help us build resilience, and more importantly trust in ourselves. Basics such as nourishment, sleep, staying hydrated and gentle movement are really important.

14. Just like in trauma work, grief work is not something we can move swiftly through.  We cannot bite off too much at one time to make it all go away faster. It doesn’t work like that. Grief heals a little bit at a time. We need to dip our toes into the grief and then give ourselves a break from it, then dip our toes in again and then find ways to soothe ourselves. This is titrating grief so that it doesn’t consume us, but instead we begin to metabolize it.

15. Don’t deny or be afraid of your anger. It’s normal to feel angry, even to feel rage whenever grief and/or trauma are involved. Shout “I feel so angry!” at the tops of your lungs if you feel the need bubbling up inside you. Anger that goes unrecognized feels worse than anger that is expressed in healthy, intentional ways such as through talking, writing, art and somatic work.

16. A collective experience of trauma can remain unprocessed for many generations. It can distort our future. Sometimes within society there is a pull to look the other way and go on as if nothing happened. But trauma does not go away, and grief becomes exacerbated. Healing can only begin when these things are named and validated.

17. Our individual traumas do not exist in isolation but rather twist and turn underfoot as a series of roots in the soil, interlocking with one another. Our traumas seep into every aspect of our lives, mingling with the trauma of other people. Our traumas are not contained within our body, they flow out into the ground we stand on and the air we breathe. Our collective trauma and our individual traumas speak to one another through our nervous systems.

18. The importance of: connections, community and a sense of agency in healing from trauma and/or moving through grief cannot be overemphasized. All of us need to learn how to better hold space not only for one another but for ourselves. During the pandemic, part of what is so hurtful is that we cannot physically come together with loved ones in the way we ordinarily would when experiencing so much loss. But we can still be there for one another. We may not be able to hug one another but we can hold one another in our mind’s eye and connect through our voice. We may not be in the same room together but we can bear witness to one another through the screens of our devices and take in one another’s presence. It’s not the same but it isn’t nothing either.

Grief, loss and trauma are all such visceral and raw experiences, and these are wild, dysregulating times that we are living in. It can feel like we are in a battle with invisible opponents at times, with grief and trauma as nebulous forces all around us.  Words often fail to capture what this truly feels like. And the more we fight against, the worse we feel. So what can we do? We can feel. We can be with ourselves. We can allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotions that comes with being a human. This sounds so simple, when in reality it is very complex and isn’t something you can just will yourself to do. You might have even felt yourself rejecting these words and getting angry at the suggestion. But often it’s in the times when we feel we are about to be swallowed up, when things feel unfathomably dark, that things begin to shift if only we wait things out and do not react against what we are feeling. This isn’t about feeling all better or doing anything particular, it’s about being in our bodies and meeting ourselves where we are. This is about recognizing in our bodies that no matter how alone we might feel we are all a part of this universe, and that behind us are thousands upon thousands of our ancestors and amongst them there’s at least one who speaks to our soul and would physically stand by us now if they could. Imagine leaning against them, feeling held, safe and fully seen. Allow yourself to mourn. Take your time.

“We show so little mercy to ourselves. We barricade the heart and feel alone in a hostile world. We seldom let go of our judgment and make room in our heart for ourselves. How can we so lack compassion for this being we feel suffering in our heart? If we fully acknowledge our pain, it would be difficult not to be swept with a care and compassion for our well-being.” — Stephen Levine (“Who Dies,” 1982)

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Originally published: February 23, 2021
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