Grief Within Grief: What Happens to Grievers of Profound Loss When an Entire Community Is Grieving?
What I remember about May of 1992 is the crushing weight of silence. A silence that pressed down hard on my chest during many a random afternoon as I sat inert, watching the clock hands move, while my 14 month old son napped in his crib upstairs.
During that same month, historic floods bore down on my city. People died. People lost their homes.
Yet the destruction all around me barely registered in my awareness.
My whole world had blasted apart — my husband had suddenly died in February, leaving me widowed at age 30, alone with a baby son. I was in searing pain, struggling for emotional survival. My singular, unique, personal grief was so intense that I didn’t have the wherewithal to notice or join in collective grief about the floods.
One of my clients describes a similar scenario in her life: Her teenage son died from a terrible terminal illness two days before the World Trade disaster on September 11th 2001. Her life was so wrecked that societal distress and trauma barely made an impression on her.
When the bedrock of your life has shattered, grief and pain are so overwhelming and intense that there’s no room to take in or respond to traumas outside the immediate center of your life.
Even though all grief in response to the pandemic is legitimate and needs to be welcomed and held, I’m here to offer extra support to those of you who have sustained a soul-crushing loss of someone dear to you just before or during this pandemic.
Grief: It’s Not Just One Thing
Our culture is so emotionally unintelligent that we lump all grief into a one-size-fits-all package. Which is completely inaccurate. And we’re not very good at dealing with any kind of grief at all.
I think that’s why people who grieve feel so alone or pathologized or confused in our society.
The pandemic has generated countless losses and disruptions for almost every person alive. And because of our cultural ineptness with painful emotions, many people have been struggling with the grief and anger and anguish about all of these losses.
That’s why I’ve been writing to help you understand, name, soothe, and express those painful emotions— to contribute to the emotional skills and understanding of everyone in our society, so that everyone can bear and receive comfort in grief. No matter what your grief is for, no matter how large or small the loss.
Yet grief is complex. It’s not just one thing. There are many more layers to explore.
As you learn to face and express your own painful emotions, you learn how to accompany others when they feel painful emotions, instead of perpetuating the isolation that so often accompanies grief in our world.
Different Losses, Different Griefs
They truth is that there are different types of loss.
Which means there are different types of grief.
All grief is necessary, valid, and important.
All grief, expressed, leads to the adaptive actions of seeking support, pulling in to heal, and softening into gratitude and compassion. (See my post with more details about this.)
Yet some losses pierce to the center of your being and shatter life as you know it. Grief due to these kinds of enormous losses calls for additional support and understanding.
Note that I’m not saying that shattering grief is more deserving of support than other griefs. I don’t think it’s accurate or productive to rank the types of grief according to whose grief is more or less valid, or more or less worthy of acknowledgement.
Yet I am saying that loss that smashes the center of your soul is going to last longer, and be heavier and more intense than other types of loss. It’s going to call for more robust understanding from others, and extensive support for a longer period of time than other types of grief.
The reason I love the Stephanie Ericsson quote that opens this post is that it’s an accurate description of the type of grief I’m talking about: Colossal grief. Grief over the loss of someone dear and precious to you, grief over a loss that cuts close to the bone. Grief over traumatic loss, or any loss that shakes the foundation of your being.
I’ve written a lot about this kind of grief and will continue to write more. Here, let’s explore how this specific type of massive grief might be generating specific experiences within coronavirus time.
Contending With Personal, Enormous Grief in the Midst of a Pandemic
Above, my story and my client’s story — where we couldn’t attend to societal distress during our own times of grief — illustrate an aspect of this type of overwhelming grief: It’s all-consuming.
Personal loss of a close loved one can obliterate interest in anything outside of your immediate circle of life. That type of grief can be so shattering that it can cause you to wonder why people who are dealing with grief over losses less central to their very soul are struggling.
If you’ve lost a precious loved one recently, either before or in the midst of this pandemic, you might feel:
- Unempathic, to a degree, about the losses other people are experiencing right now that are due to something other than illness or death — losses of vacations and graduations and restaurant outings. (At least no one’s dead!)
- Forgotten in your pain, as all the folks around you have become preoccupied with their own fear, grief, and discomfort about the pandemic-rendered chaos and uncertainty. (Can’t they see that you can hardly breathe?)
- Like an outsider, because you can’t fathom joining in the collective grief about societal issues while your personal grief is so huge. (You see the news; you understand it’s an out-of-the-ordinary time, but it barely makes a dent on you.)
- Crushingly disappointed and isolated if the pandemic has rendered you unable to host, participate in, or receive traditional grief rituals, such as funerals, memorial services, or wakes; or the outpouring of food, hugs, visits, or dinner invitations. (Loss is bad enough. Add these layers of loss upon loss, and life starts to feel cruel.)
Please know that every one of these responses makes sense.
When you lose someone who’s central to your daily life, or you lose someone in a traumatic way, or you lose a young person outside the natural order of life, grief can overtake your entire being for a very long time. Little else matters.
Because losses of this magnitude shove you into survival mode.
Every. Single. Breath. Takes work.
Plus, not only are you dealing with the loss of your loved one, you’re also required to rebuild and reorganize the very ground upon which your life is built.
Every. Ordinary. Routine. Is pulverized.
When you’re struggling to survive (emotionally if not physically), it takes heroic energy to keep living.
When you’re fashioning a new life from the ground up, all while experiencing wrenching, perhaps unfamiliar and overwhelming emotions, it’s hard to focus on anything beyond putting one foot in front of the other.
All the tools I offered in the Bearing Our Souls series are designed to help you with your emotions even in the midst of this vast kind of grief:
- Offer yourself kindness and presence by telling yourself the (true) story that your emotion makes sense under the circumstances.
- Become gently curious about what, specifically you’re feeling.
- Notice what your feeling is about.
- Discern whether your emotions call for feeling, comfort, action, or distraction.
The loss of a close loved one has already forced a tidal wave of surging emotions to smash down upon you that you’re learning to manage.
And COVID brings additional emotions into the mix. (Sheesh. Just what you needed, right?)
As with all the emotions explored in the Bearing Your Souls series, being able to name what your emotions areand what they’re about goes a long way toward being able to express and work with them. Given that coronavirus is here and your life and your grief are affected by it, it’s important to acknowledge and name the extra layers of emotion that have come into play.
It bears repeating — emotions such as the following are a real and normal part of experiencing the loss of a loved one during this crazy time of upheaval:
- Low empathy for, envy of, or anger at others experiencing less piercing losses at this time;
- Anger, despair, or sadness that you feel forgotten in the midst of everyone else’s pandemic struggles;
- Confusion, loneliness, or ostracism from not joining in the societal suffering of the pandemic; and
- Crushing disappointment, isolation, fury, loneliness, or despair about not being able to receive or participate in grief support and rituals in person.
These emotions fit the circumstances.
They warrant compassion and expression.
They generate their own, specific needs for feeling, comfort, action, or distraction.
Permission for ALL of It
I’ve heard from quite a few of you who’ve been feeling like outsiders within enormous grief experiences during this time. One of the most important kinds of support humans need within grief is to feel met and held within their painful emotional experiences.
I hope that my offering permission for these additional emotions, along with accurate naming of what these emotions are and are about, helps you to know that at least one other person on this planet understands. And that I’m bringing you some clarity, reassurance, and maybe even relief.
And if you yourself are not going through this kind of loss but you know someone who is, take a look at this post: How to Help Your Grieving Friend: 5 Truths About What REALLY Helps, for ideas about how to help.