Grieving Pandemic-Related Losses
A few months ago, I joined an online group for women who wanted to learn skills to process the grief and losses they had experienced in their lives. Everyone in the group was a warrior with a story of personal loss that would make you weep - there were lost careers, children, homes, loved ones, mental and physical health, pets, innocence, trust, and so many other losses of the things, big and small, that bring joy to our lives. The group's facilitators walked us through a series of steps to grieve these losses, a dying art in a society that, despite its supposed focus on mental health, has become disconnected from collective and individual grieving.
The group just ended, which is itself a form of loss. But we made friends and connections that will last far beyond our weekly Zoom meetings. We shed tears and shared our experiences and strengths with one another. Adrianna and Kira, the group leaders from South Riverdale Community Health Centre in downtown Toronto, helped us dig into our grief work with an opening topic we could all relate to: pandemic-related losses which, no matter our personal backgrounds or demographics, we had all experienced.
Acknowledging our losses is the first step towards healing
I'm from Canada, where people are mostly quiet and humble when it comes to complaining about their problems. My mother had spent enough time in the States to bemoan the fact that you couldn't grumble about bad service to the person in line behind you here because Torontonians would just look at you silently, or nod politely like you were crazy. She missed New York, where people screamed at cabbies in the street and you could whip up a good mob against a slow bank teller in less than thirty seconds. I wonder what she thinks now. I suppose you could complain to strangers about standing outside the drugstore in -10 degree weather waiting for a security guard with a counter to let you in, but you'd have to yell through your mask and hope your voice carries the two metres. New York is probably even worse: we're all in this together, right? You're not supposed to whine about it.
What we ladies in the grief group discovered was that it's not whining to admit you have suffered as a result of the plague. With the exception of people who have lost their physical health or lost loved ones to the disease, I think it's mostly the policy measures, not the virus itself, that have thrown our country into chaos. Many of the social programs and supports the group members depended on for safety and sanity were severely curtailed, if not altogether eliminated, for almost two years. Meetings like ours went virtual, denying already-marginalized people of essential human contact and structure. Moving out of unsafe domestic situations became extremely difficult; homelessness, addiction, depression and anxiety rates soared. Members could not get in-person doctor's appointments for their serious pre-existing health conditions, and in some cases were too afraid to even go into hospital for fear of catching COVID, which some assumed would be a death sentence.
The group discussion was the most visceral evidence I've had that it's the most disadvantaged people in society, not the comfortable policy-makers, who are suffering the most from the isolation of closures and lockdowns. And the ironic thing is that everyone in the group (except for me) not only did everything they were told from the outset, but believed in these policies, minimizing their own mounting personal losses to support what they were told is the greater good.
Grief and loss is a no-judgment zone
In our self-sacrificing, virtue signaling culture it can be easy to refrain from talking about personal pandemic losses because obviously, someone else has always had it worse. The members of my grief group had certainly suffered more than I had, I thought. But in being open about what we had lost, we gained compassion not only for each other but for ourselves. Nobody judged me for being upset that I had lost my job of twelve years due to the colleges going virtual, even though I had a fallback business and many of them were on fixed incomes. Nobody said it was no big deal that my kids had missed so much school since everyone else has too, or that if I'd lost friends it was my own fault for not getting the jabs. I know I'm blessed, and I'm grateful, but that doesn't mean my own unique situation doesn't matter - or that there's nothing to grieve.
Not everyone may be able to join a professional group, but do you have at least one friend you can honestly talk to about what the past couple of years have taken from you? I'm all for soldiering on and making the best of things - it's what warriors do - but that comes easier if you first give yourself permission to talk about, and grieve, the things you have lost.
Some of the skills we covered in our grief group included the 7 stages of grief, identifying our feelings, recognizing our window of tolerance and building awareness of how trauma affects it, building resiliency and coping skills, and somatization of grief in the body. This was all good and useful knowledge, but what really made it work was the ability to connect with other people and be honest about our sadness, anger, and more nuanced feelings of grief.
Building resilience is key
Pandemic losses - personal, financial, educational - just go on and on for many of us. As we speak, Prime Minister Trudeau just compared the unvaccinated to bigots who hate women and blacks - an impressive statement for a man who's spent a fair amount of time in blackface! Many people in Canada have lost jobs and even relationships over mandates and restrictions. Elementary schools are only just now reopening, vaccine passports are still in full effect for the most basic things like indoor dining (currently closed in Ontario to everyone, period) and the province of Quebec has implemented a tax on the unvaxxed to go with their 10 p.m. curfew because, of course, it's unvaccinated people, not the obese or smokers or drunk drivers, who cost the health care system a fortune... and COVID only comes out after dark. On a more serious note, around the world, millions of vulnerable people we are supposed to care about are losing their livelihoods and even their lives to unintended harms of pandemic policy, including starvation, displacement, and lack of adequate medical aid.
When things seem to be falling apart, the key is building personal resiliency. How do we do that? For me, the CPTSD recovery basics - developing a routine, taking better care of my body and health, focusing on emotional healing and following through on goals - have been essential. But I can't do it alone. I've also been finding new communities and building friendships. My beautiful church community, which I am new to, has welcomed me and helped me build faith in transcendent values that bring a measure of hope and certainty to an uncertain world. And of course, I do a lot of writing, which helps me process feelings and articulate what I believe to be true.
It all starts with truth: pursuing it, not denying it or suppressing it. We can find like-minded people with whom to share our personal truths, trusting that we will be accepted and given the space to be ourselves - even grieving, venting, ugly-crying - without judgment. Then we can move on from losses and start focusing on the wins.