We are all reacting to the rapid changes in our lives, as social distancing and self-isolation, and then CV-19 lockdown, settle on us. People talk about stomachs churning, moods swinging, about not being able to focus, feeling a sense of unreality, a disconnect. Fatigue. We talk of not sleeping well, sleeping too much, feeling anger, stress, irritability. We’re sad. Most of us probably do slightly odd things from time to time, like putting keys away in a peculiar place or getting into a scrap with someone we love.
Beyond the shock of the seriousness of the virus itself and a growing, sickening awareness of the scale of global suffering, we are having to take on board, daily, enormous changes to our public and private lives – because of measures to control the spread of CV-19 and limit the damage it will do.
We try not to complain about the disappointments and the losses but each individual, and every community of every kind, is suffering loss after loss. The pace of the hits is extraordinary.
For so many – the loss of work and income, of what security there was. For some the loss of the promise of a new job or a new relationship unlikely to survive separation, for others the loss of a family celebration, or a wedding, or a special holiday planned for years. For those in need of an operation that will change their life, the loss of that and the new life beyond it. For sports fans the loss of events, excitement, team spirit. For older people the loss of company and contact with loved ones, the fear of losing the chance to say goodbye. For children, the loss of activities at school; for parents the loss of working time at home. For students, the loss of some idea of a future. For every artist and maker the loss of performances, exhibitions, book launches, sales, audiences, readings, festivals, reviews. The loss of the end result of all the hard work. For some, the loss of sparkling professional opportunities, for others the loss of a retirement or farewell party. With each loss, for each person or family or community, comes another dose of grief.
That’s before we start on the big grey grief-elephant in the room: the lives the virus has already taken, the lives the virus will take or transform over coming weeks and months. Many of us will know the loss of friends and family, whilst not being able to attend funerals and celebrate those who die.
People are being so brave, trying not to appear sad or show their multiple disappointments – but really, as we get on with what we have to do, we’re all grieving, whether we acknowledge it or not. And mostly we don’t – maybe because we think of others who are worse off than we are, and how they have lost, or stand to lose, even more. Who are we to feel sad, or disappointed, when our neighbour’s daughter is in the frontline of the NHS as a newly qualified doctor, or when those in refugee camps will have no medical support at all? We know we should be thankful if we’re privileged enough to be able to stay at home. We are thankful, just as we are so so thankful for the NHS medical workers and the new hospitals being prepared from scratch. But thankfulness is not incompatible with grief.
And no, we’re certainly not all in the same boat. We’re being swilled around in and on the same ocean, but we’re all in different boats. Each person’s losses, each person’s griefs, are different; all are real, painful and valid. There’s no hierarchy of grief. We need to find ways of expressing it, though, or at least feeling it, working through it, so that it’s not bottled up to damage us later, so it doesn’t burst out in unpredictable ways. It’s okay to feel grief; it’s appropriate.
Here are some strategies I find helpful at the moment. Common sense, but easy to forget or overlook as we scrabble to adapt:
– Listen even more carefully than usual to what others are saying. What kind of losses are they experiencing? Be kind, responsive. Honour the griefs of others. But limit the time you give to listening. It’s tiring.
– Give your own losses attention too. Audit them, list them if it helps – dwell for a while on how your losses make you feel. Sit with the feelings. Cry. Be kind to yourself. You can’t listen helpfully to other people if you don’t listen to yourself.
– Sit still and breathe in and out, slowly, for at least 5 minutes a day. Do yoga if you can.
– Make bread if it helps. Eat chocolate if it helps.
– Try and grow something, even a tiny cactus on a windowsill.
– Rest as much as possible, and especially when you need to. And take breaks whenever you can with a good book or film. Listen to your favourite music.
– Tell yourself that some days it’s enough just to cope. You don’t have to show superhuman powers. You’re not superhuman.
– Any loss and any grief bring back other losses and griefs. If you have anniversaries coming up, remember you might feel them more acutely than other years.
Grief is lonely, tiring and lowers our immune responses. All three of those effects are unwelcome at the moment when we’re having to stay at home and try our best not to get ill. Can we at least acknowledge and manage our griefs, those that are shared and those that are unique to each of us? Can we show a little less of the stiff upper lip? Can we perhaps talk about these things? And ask others, ‘What has been your most bitter disappointment recently, your most painful loss?’ Then listen, really listen, to the answer.
A PS to this post: here’s a helpful link via Harvard Business Review, to more about the subject of grief at the moment.