Corona Ville II: Loss and Grief
A discussion of loss and grief during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As our world continues to oscillate between denial and reparation and endures the ‘terror of waiting’ for the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, we become increasingly aware of the transient, interim and permanent losses encountered on the way. Loss of health, money, job, role, place, time as we know it, occasions, the familiar and the reliable, life itself. We have watched the death toll rise, with some losing more than one family member within very short time intervals. Families can’t be present at the bedside to say goodbye. The impact on ‘frontline’ personnel when a member dies as a result of the pandemic, making ‘occupational hazard’ a constant and progressively more sinister. The loss of life on a global scale, is very much on view.
Our mind knows something bad is happening due to COVID-19, but just like the virus that is causing it, we can’t see it so it is hard to feel safe from it. We live in the epitome of what Sigmund Freud called ‘The Uncanny,’ debunked of our sense of place and being master of our own fate. We are experiencing a collective trauma, triggering existing trauma histories, for which our usual, prepandemic coping mechanisms, may now be unavailable to us. Indeed, an unconscious trauma engram may well be set up for generations to come.
At the heart of trauma, is grief. Compounding this grief, is the inability to fully and ritualistically mourn those that have died, not just due to the restrictions and inability to comfort one another, but because of the colossal scale of that mourning. The conditions are therefore set for an upsurge in complicated grief. Complicated grief happens when you cannot mourn or fully mourn a loss, when you cannot do the emotional work required to let a person go. Grief is prolonged, delayed, exaggerated or masked such that you may not have any grief responses, you have grief responses that are excessive, distorted or never ending or your ability to function physically and psychologically may be compromised.
Cultural practices can impact the mourning process and this is currently a huge, missing experience. We joke that some of us only meet up at weddings and funerals. Neither are happening now, or at least, not in the way that is familiar to us. Funeral rituals are an integral part of the grieving process. The wake, the eulogy, the funeral are all recognition, not just of a life that has ended, but a life that was lived. We come away with lessons in how to live and love, with a belief that the departed are in a ‘better place,’ reunited with loved ones gone before. The Irish traditionally do mourning well and a microcosm of traditional mourning rituals can still be found on our coastal islands and more rural communities. As an islander myself, I remember the ‘caoineadh’ (keening) – an ancient, structured, wailing custom, practiced by designated female members of a community. This practice has largely disappeared from the Irish funeral ritual. In many ways, this is a pity as it allowed us a communal means to project our sadness and fear into the wail, to contain it and to dissociate from the threat of our own mortality. The chant of prayers unifies us as the wake comes to an end and the deceased is ‘removed’ to the church and we chant prayers again at the graveside before burial. The carefully chosen readings, offertory gifts and music, are small but significant steps in allowing us to gradually release the departed while accessing our own sorrow. If we have a role to play in the rituals, we like to do it to the best of our ability, in respect. Every expression of human sympathy brings comfort; the shaking of the hand, the “I’m sorry for your loss” is all we can do to say “nothing can make up for a loss such as this.” That acknowledgement is so important to the bereaved.
I am reminded of the poetry of that great investigator of the human condition, Emily Dickinson, who through her use of the senses, meter and fragmented imagery, allows us to convert and transition from the abstract feeling to the concrete experience:
I felt a Funeral in my Brain
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading-treading-till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through………..
All of that funeral ritual is missing in real time now so in effect, we are ‘double mourning,’ mourning our loved ones and our inability to mourn them ritualistically, in a way that brings comfort and closure. It is good that memorials for those that have passed are planned post pandemic and the
sooner the better. Though not in real time, it allows mourners to access that communal outpouring and to be comforted.
The image of loved ones being buried by personnel in full hazmat attire is another aspect imprinted in the minds of the bereaved. Despite the necessity, even for non-Covid related deaths, it is hard not to feel upset at the ‘contagion’ connotation -that our loved one is a danger to others, even in death.
While we await a ritualistic mourning and in the meantime carry cemeteries in our hearts, we can expect to experience grief for all loss in stages, not necessarily in order and often, concurrently: denial (it won’t affect me/us); anger (our personal experience of the restrictions and our observations of other’s lack of compliance); bargaining (I am doing what is asked so I will be alright); sadness (this is relentless, it is too much) and at some stage, acceptance (this is real, I have to find a way through and there are guidelines and help available). Acceptance is where the control is and where we can reframe our thoughts. Naming what we are experiencing as grief, allows us to feel it and move through it so that it does not end up becoming complicated. Just like the community acknowledges our loss at the funeral rituals, it is important that we also acknowledge what we are going through, within ourselves.
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