As a clinical social worker, grief counselor, and thanatologist (fancy word for a person who specializes in death, dying, and bereavement), I have worked with many individuals who have lived with a terminal illness and have journeyed alongside even more survivors as they mourned the loss of their loved one following death. I have observed grief in its rawest forms. I have borne witness to people who do the hard (and utterly painful) work of mourning, while I have watched others attempt to bypass grief’s pain, usually leading to further and more complex hardship.
Our Collective Grief
While a full discussion of all grief resulting from COVID-19 losses (including death, unemployment, isolation, loss of financial security, loss of health, loss of physical safety, etc.) is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to acknowledge how these contribute to the collective grief we are experiencing. Most of us are mourning the loss of our sense of normalcy, our pre-COVID way of life, that felt easier and safer. We are experiencing many emotions of loss including anxiety, anger, sadness, fear, frustration, isolation, apathy, and protest. I have observed the phenomenon of protective denial more among those who are grieving the loss of normalcy from the pandemic than I have observed in the past 20 years of counseling survivors following death. Why are we struggling to accept the reality of our present circumstances?
Our Innate Responses to The Threat of Loss
When our human understanding is threatened by loss, when something we believed always to be true (i.e., “my loved one is alive,” “my marriage will last forever,” “I am immune to illnesses that threaten death…”) is no longer accurate, our brains respond in a way that attempts to protect us. Often, their first effort at preservation is to deny the change. We deny the loss. We deny our new reality. Our minds enter threat management mode sending us messages that we are mistaken; there must be another explanation; this information cannot be accurate. Our brains would prefer we stay in these safe spaces they are creating instead of moving through the treachery of emotional terrain that will inevitably follow our acceptance of a new reality. Unfortunately, just as we begin to acknowledge the very existence of the loss, we start to protest our present circumstances even further. When our world feels out of control or unsafe, we often attempt to control anything within our reach, sometimes creating narratives that might guard us against future threats, harm, or pain.
Our Journey Toward Acceptance
In most modern models of grief, clinicians and researchers propose that people must eventually acknowledge the reality of the loss before they can move forward in reconciling their grief. This means that to begin healing, we must stop fighting loss’ existence and slowly allow it to enter our lives. This, my dear readers, is terribly difficult.
And, it is made more complicated by the society in which we live. It’s no secret that North America is a death avoidant culture. We keep death at arm’s length and avoid discussing it in a futile attempt to deny its existence (or at least protect against it entering our own lives). However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the reality of illness, death, and loss to the forefront of our minds. And our brains are not very appreciative. This is why so many among us are searching for anything- any idea, meme, fact, or social media post- that will confirm the protective narrative our brains are creating to ensure we are “safe.” But, when we are in self-preservation mode (keyword: “self”), we do not always love others well.
Our Path Forward
Remember, we can only move forward after we acknowledge the reality of our loss. We must speak truth to our minds and allow our hearts to experience what follows. The loss of our pre-pandemic lives and the resulting grief we are experiencing as a society from the pandemic is real. It is hard. It leads to a multitude of emotions our culture is not very comfortable feeling.
Instead of denying our suffering, let us begin supporting each other in these spaces of grief. We can no longer allow our brain’s attempt at self-protection to distance us from our shared humanity. Let us move from our heads to our hearts, so we can begin to love others well again. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. We might pause before we post or speak, to carefully examine our own core thoughts, feelings, and motivations behind our words. We might extend empathy or grace to those among us most impacted by the pandemic. This work is not easy (in fact, it is grueling), but it is the work required if we desire to move from a place motivated by inward self-protection to a heart motivated by outward love. This work will empower us to acknowledge our collective loss and support one another in our collective grief. I believe we are called to this earth to love- to be loved and to extend love. My dear readers, let us love others well, even amidst the overwhelming grief and loss we are experiencing. It is possible. Love is always possible.