Our Sacred Grief

With nonessential procedures and medical visits postponed, an eery quiet has descended on hospitals on the High Plains. The surge is not yet here, and the curve, thankfully, appears to be flattening.

It is, however, the quiet of an undisturbed bowstring. Taut and tense under pressure, yet ready to snap. Most of us have tried to lose our anxiety in work, yet work provides little respite from the anxieties of this moment.

I am awash in time aplenty to catastrophize and perseverate on my anxiety regarding our current pandemic. I am thankful not to be sick. I am thankful not to be doing battlefield triage on people’s grandmother and grandfathers.

Yet, the time means I am awash in stories of others’ grief. Of people losing children, parents, spouses, siblings. All tragic, some seemingly more so than others.

The stories of young parents and children lost strike me the hardest, of course. The distance all too small between them and I. There but for the grace of God.

I Know This Valley

While my own grief is not in the front of my mind anymore, I know it is not gone. It sits on a shelf in my soul, perfectly undegraded.

Occasionally, I pick it up in my mind, dust it off, and the pain of it comes rushing back. I reminder of love as well as pain. As I read stories of other’s grief and know of how much more grief is yet to come. I feel their pain reflected off my own preserved grief.

Even moreso, I feel the pain of their loneliness. I think of the thousands of people who, panicked and in fear, kissed their love ones good-bye in the ambulance or at the ER door. They watched gloved and masked helping hands carry them away, desperate to see them discharged safely from the hospital in few days.

Yet, too many will never hold them again, never see them again other than through a camera lens in an App. They will grieve at a distance, knowing that somewhere, their loved one’s bodies have been hermetically sealed and placed in refrigerated trucks, waiting to be taken somewhere else.

I know the pain of holding my daughter and watching her take her last breaths. Yet, no matter how painful that was, it was better than not holding her, not carrying her around the house she didn’t get to grow up in.

I am reminded of stories of how grief changes when the world is turned upside down. During WWI, Russian villagers would have a funeral for any young man called up to the front from their village before they even left.

As a teenager, this story simply seemed really sad and evidence of how likely death was in the Great War. Now, I also see it as an attempt to maintain something human in the midst of inhumanity.

Better to grieve together and be wrong than to never get closure.

I can only imaging the anguish of not being able to grieve next to all who also loved your beloved. So, this disease steals not only lives, but the opportunity to grieve together, to say good-bye in an embrace.

Why Do We Grieve?

When I was struggling with my grief, I did what I always do when I don’t feel prepared. I read about it. I am an intellectualizer to the core.

I read multiple books and grief and grieving. A question I had never asked myself, but which exists in the literature is a simple one:

Why Do Humans Grieve?

Grief extracts such an intense cost, personally and communally. Some literally die from it. What could be the evolutionary basis of such a thing?

I found a few posited answers to this question, none with good evidence. One was that grief shows the community or future mates the intensity of the bonds you form.

This didn’t really hold much water for me.

The one which resonated with me was that grief serves to bind a couple, family, or community closer together. Not only in sorrow, but in love for the who or what is lost. It is a sacred function of grief. When we grieve well, we grow richer in love for everything.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight

-Khalil Gibran

What strikes me is how, on a physical level, COVID will deny many of us the opportunity to participate this sacred aspect of grief. I literally cry thinking about it.

Yet, the lack of that connection in the moment also amplifies a need for community, for humanity on a much larger scale. A time will come when contagion no longer separates us from each other. We will hold hands and embrace again.

We must remember to take that opportunity and hold it with the weight and reverence it will have earned. All of the death and loss will give us a gift. A gift of communion in pain with more people than we have ever met. Our local, national, and international loss has the power to bind us together in sorrow and love, if we let it.

Every one of us will be touched by this event. We must not slide into comparison and recriminations as a people, but join together in a collective wail of wild grief and love for what we have lost, but also with whom we are will be so blessed to remain.

Grief is pain, yet it is also a gift, because it can only come from love. I hope we do not waste the gift this plague will bring us.

Photo: Grief, by Oskar Zwintscher, 1898.  Work created before 1925 and public domain in the U.S.