The other day I received a message from a friend that read: “I just needed to talk. To say these things to someone I know who gets it.” We hopped on a video call. Then, she began to cry. “Sorry, it’s all getting to be too much,” she said as she wiped away the tears. “I wish you were here. I could really use a hug.”
Over the past few days, I’ve had this type of conversation several times. It’s becoming familiar as I’ve chatted online with friends. There’s been a shift in mood from anxiety to a pervasive sense of sadness.
Many of us got word yesterday that our children would not be returning to school to finish out the year. Another massive blow on the heels of all the other changes we’ve made in recent weeks. Most of us now work from home, that is if we still have a job. We can’t gather in groups larger than ten. Doctors and dentists’ offices sit empty of patients in lieu of online medical visits, except for emergencies.
Even the simplest of errands has required planning and preparation. This past week I grocery shopped wearing a surgical mask. I waited my turn to enter the local grocery store’s large interior since only a maximum of fifty people is allowed inside. Instead of a friendly handshake, the store’s employee greeted me at the main entrance with one pump of hand sanitizer and a wet wipe to cleanse the handle of my cart.
I no longer recognize the new world. The initial feeling of novelty has worn off, replaced by fatigue and a longing to return to the familiarity of what once was. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I want to click my heels together with hopes I can return to the life I had before the COVID-19 pandemic.
I recognize this new mood; it’s grief. We are collectively mourning the loss of the world we knew as we enter the uncharted territory of the world that has yet to become.
I’m intimately familiar with this feeling. I’ve been here before.
Five and a half years ago, I had big plans. As my youngest son entered his senior year of high school, my family and I sold our large home in the country and bought a lot closer to town.
Together, my husband, Brad, and I poured over new house plans and looked at appliances and finish materials as we dreamed of being empty-nesters. Brad had eight more years before retirement. We could see the end in sight. We thought we would soon be able to focus on leisure activities and strengthening our marriage after surviving the crazy years of child-rearing.
We discussed trips we wanted to take, new hobbies we planned to pick up, and friendships we would prioritize. Brad’s face mirrored the excitement I felt as we discussed our future.
That all changed in an instant.
Brad ended up in the hospital for odd bouts of vomiting and nausea. We all thought it was nothing. Maybe Brad had caught the flu that had been going around.
“Mr. McAvoy,” the doctor said as he rushed into the hospital room, “you have cancer.” He then pulled out a whiteboard that had been sitting in the corner and began to diagram in a crude sketch an outline of Brad’s GI system. “It’s a cancer of the duodenum, part of the small intestinal tract.”
Five short months later. Brad died.
And with that diagnosis, life as I knew it ended. The new house, my private counseling practice, our retirement dreams, and my marriage. Suddenly over with no fanfare. No loud bang. It just disappeared.
At first, the pain of loss was so intense I could barely breathe. For a while, I just existed. I waffled between tearfulness, rage, envy, and hopelessness.
My therapist suggested I give this pain space — to make room for it purposefully. Her suggestion sounded crazy. I worried creating time for pain would worsen it.
Despite my misgivings, I gave it a try. Each evening, I sat in my living room alone and listened to a gloomy piece of music. I held onto wads of tissues as the tears fell.
At first, it hurt, but the deliberateness of this practice seemed to help. Surprisingly, the pain changed and eased in time.
That’s where we, as a world, now exist — in this same spot of loss and unfamiliarity. All the well-known landmarks of our day-to-day existence have disappeared. The rhythms of life — kids’ school schedules, graduation parties, church gatherings, after work drinks, hanging out with friends at a baseball game — are all gone.
What will replace it? We can’t answer that yet. It’s too soon. Something different, though. We will discover a “new normal,” but it won’t be the same. And someday, it might even feel good again.
In the meantime, we’re here. Amid this transition between what once was and what will be. It’s a hard place because most of us have never done this before.
There’s plenty of advice going around, though. Mediate, one friend suggested. Another surrounds herself with positive thoughts. Practice a daily habit of gratitude, I hear suggested from someone else.
These are all great suggestions…when done at the right time. This is not that time. Right now we are suffering lots of losses. So many — big ones and small ones. And they all hurt.
It hit me today that my sons’ Christmas gift of enjoying a weekend music festival as a family this fall probably won’t happen. That’s a minor loss, but I’m bummed. My oldest son is currently in remission from cancer. He decided to stop his chemotherapy this week in lieu of a stronger immune system. If his cancer returns, the losses will be beyond imagining. The thought of that terrifies me.
David Kessler, one of the foremost experts on loss, said in a recent interview with Brené Brown that there are no shortcuts in grief. We must feel the pain. He explained that the way we individually grieve is unique but it is emotional work we cannot avoid. “There no way around the pain. If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it,” he stated. (Unlocking Us Podcast, David Kessler and Brené Brown on Grief and Finding Meaning)
It is crucial we permit ourselves to be emotional. To miss what is gone. To be angry, scared, and sad. The only way to get to the other side of this pain is through it. The good news is that we got each other. I used to go to a support group for families of cancer patients. It helped to be with others facing the same tragedy. With COVID-19, we don’t need to find a support group because we have one another. We are all in it together.
The anniversary of Brad’s death is fast approaching. It will have been five years ago in June. I no longer feel the same intense pain I felt right after he died. In its place are nostalgia, love, and gratitude.
Someday that will also be true in regards to the pain we feel for the loss of the pre-COVID-19 world. But not today. Today, we are still reeling and hurting. And that’s okay. We won’t grieve forever, but we will for a while, and that is as it should be. It’s all part of the healing.