Life seems sometimes like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. That’s the given. How you respond to those losses, what you make of what’s left, that’s the part you have to make up as you go. ―
Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. ―
This is grief, I thought, finding myself choking up. I tried to answer but the words got stuck in my throat. Grief. Four months in and suddenly I’m rocked again by the reality of loss.
‘Timeline’ of grief
Back in 1997, my then-husband and I were considering opening a center for grieving children who lost a parent. While in graduate school, several of my classmates had worked with The WARM Place affiliated (at that time) with Cook Children’s Medical Center in Ft. Worth, Texas. The non-profit organization (which still exists) offers support groups for grieving children of all ages and their surviving parent. For a child to lose a parent, grieving is complicated because the surviving parent is also grieving. Three of us went to Ft. Worth to do training with them as they have a very successful model.
You can’t be a good therapist and not work with grief. It shows up in our lives over and over. In tangible and non-tangible ways. We experience small losses and of course, the life-changing ones. I knew a lot about grief.
The people at The WARM Place were highly knowledgeable and I completed the 2-day training only struck by a couple of new bits of information. I’d asked them about when the families began to come to the group and how long they stayed. The answer intrigued me: “We never take families until about 3 months after the death and they generally stay about 18 months.”
the reality of loss
Three months into their process of grief? “Yes. The reality of the magnitude of the loss really takes a while to sink in.” The day-to-day routines shifting into a new normal and the long-term impact settling over peoples’ lives requires a realignment. Annual events, like birthday, holidays, and vacations, suffered with the loss of that very important person in the family. The heavy lifting of making meaning of loss and realigning their lives was just beginning.
The reality of the magnitude of a loss really takes a while to sink in.
So why am I addressing grief again? Amy already wrote about it in week 4 of this pandemic series: Feel, Name, and Tame the Grief. But when she was leaving my house (appropriately socially distanced, of course—sadly with no hugs), and asked me what my plans for my classes were, it happened. The lump in the throat. The choke of emotions that undermined my voice. “I don’t know. I’m just stuck.”
I understand grief. The heaviness of low motivation, a brain fog of uncertainty, and the restlessness of unease. “I can’t decide because I’m just grieving it all. I can’t do it the way I want to and that I know I’m good at—I think those days are gone. It’s just not going back to how I want to do it.”
Then it struck me—the wisdom of The WARM Place—it’s been well over 3 months. Time for the realignment of reality to begin.
No one is without loss
I daresay that no one has gotten this far in the pandemic without loss. Some have lost family members or even the ability to say good-bye to loved ones. Others have lost their livelihoods and stand to lose much more. Millions have lost health insurance. Everyone has lost former routines, connections with others, and handshakes and hugs. Vacations. Travel to see family. Visits to our elders or our children and grandchildren. Dinner gatherings. House guests. Movies. Concerts. Sporting events. The arts. Personally, I miss hugging goodbye.
Grief is known to come in waves and at times, we think we’ve gotten past it. Then it reappears unbidden. Sometimes it knocks us down.
Dubbed the “Coronacoaster”—we are all experiencing these ups and downs. My clients are all talking about it: “I just feel lost.” “I’m overwhelmed but I’m not sure by what.” “I couldn’t start a project for any amount of money right now.” “I’m more depressed/anxious/unmotivated than ever.” “I laid on the couch and cried last night for no apparent reason.” “I got on my computer to work and instead, I piddled the day away.” I even have a colleague who admitted that on month three, she went on an antidepressant herself. “I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no energy.”
Honestly? I thought we would be feeling a reprieve by now—not record numbers of infection and deaths. Not being banned from traveling to other countries and even other states. My expectation was that by late July, we would be doing much better than we are. I believed I would be able to squeeze in some travel. Now I’m feeling it—the reality of the magnitude of this loss of life as we knew it.
my effort to realign
So, I dragged myself back up and began to realign: What CAN I do? I can readjust my expectations and realign my plans. I can muster up my courage and try a new way of approaching my job—not the way I prefer but the way that fits now.
I’m working on school with a plan to make everything available online and with the hope that we may meet once weekly in person. But maybe not. I’m trying to be more fluid in my planning. The loss is interacting with my students and creating lively class discussions. That is my strength as a teacher. But I will have to realign to the reality of this current loss. Hopefully, my students will learn lessons on flexibility, grace, and resilience. Clients will continue to be online and I will continue to grieve for those in-person sessions. The loss for me is palpable. And I will realign.
A realignment antidote to the summer blues
This is a trivial example, I know, and I am aware of my privilege here. I decided to take a short, 5 day vacation, staying in the state, traveling by car because I’ve barely left my house since March. My partner and I rented a small condo on the beach. We took groceries and I cleaned most all of the surfaces upon arrival. We made no plans other than to not watch a clock, drink our coffee looking at the ocean, and walk on the beach. I took a novel—only the second of this summer. I floated gently on the smooth waves and I got knocked over and rolled through the crushed shells by another. Grief. It does that.
On a whim Friday night, we put the top down on the convertible and drove into the part of the town with shops, bars, ice cream, and restaurants. I heard music playing, so we parked. We masked up, wandered out, and heard the last 2 songs being played by 3 young musicians outside next to the boardwalk at a typically crowded, well-known beachfront venue. There were maybe 8 clusters of people scattered around listening. The song (Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen) was both haunting and prophetic:
…well I guess everything dies, baby, that’s a fact; but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back…
One song and my heart felt full and yet oddly, sad. Sweet memory of a loss. A wave of sadness overlaid. One chorus and I gathered back up some hope. Two songs on a picturesque evening that reminded me of the Messy and the Marvelous journey that we are all on—full of losses—and the challenge to realign ourselves with their reality.
deal with the Reality
So figure out what small shifts are within your control. Shoot for approximations of what you might prefer but which are out of reach. Slip past the expectations you had in January. Realign. Grieve the losses some more. And then realign yourself again. It’s how we get through the long process of grief in this MessyMarvelous life.
Rhea A. Merck, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, passionate about making life better every day…
visit my outdated website at ramphd.com or email me at [email protected]
photo credits: me