Social Distancing Day 10: Grief and the Pandemic

During this morning’s commute from the bedroom to the living room, it dawned on me that today marks ten days of social distancing. Despite not having set foot outside since Sunday, I can’t believe how time has flown by in this new world of isolation.

The range of emotions I’ve felt over the course of these last ten days of social distancing feel extremely similar to the feelings of grief I experience over the loss of my mom. The only difference is that with social distancing, I’ve felt this expansive range of emotions in a shorter span of time. A recently published and well-circulated article by Scott Berinato from the Harvard Business Review talks more in depth about the feelings of grief people are experiencing during this time, and in some ways, making that connection between my own grief and the feelings of uncertainty I’ve experienced as a result of this pandemic has helped me cope with this new reality.

As with any drastic and unexpected change, whether it’s a result of a pandemic or the loss of a loved one, the beginning is the most challenging. It’s disorienting. There are feelings of panic and disbelief. I can’t believe this is happening. Why me? Will I be okay mentally, emotionally, physically? What if I can’t cope? Will I catch the coronavirus and have to go to an overcrowded and under-resourced hospital? What happens if I run out of food? How can I possibly live without my mom? 

After the panic of having to stay in my apartment indefinitely settled in, I began mourning “the good old days,” which went hand-in-hand with the bargaining phase. Suddenly every moment pre-pandemic felt significant and if I promise to do the dishes in a timely fashion would you please let me be stuffed into a C train during rush hour, bumping into people with my backpack, old ladies yelling at me to get out of the way if it means I can move freely about the city without the fear of death by coronavirus or infecting others?! With my mom it was the same. I would have given anything to eradicate her illness or to have at least one more minute with her, one more phone call, one more hug. 

By day three of social distancing, when I acknowledged the reality and severity of the global pandemic, I oscillated between “this will be fine” and “this is truly a nightmare.” Similarly, when my mom called me on a beautiful September afternoon to tell me of her diagnosis, my thoughts raced between she will beat this and this is my worst nightmare confirmed. 

On day four of social distancing, I thought I’d hit rock bottom for all eternity. It was then that a tiny light emerged in the forest of my discontent, seemingly out of nowhere. As I went back to run again in the park (the mayor and governor said I could) after swearing off running the day before, I hit my stride with the sun at my back and my favorite tunes in my ears and it dawned on me: I will be okay. I will come out on the other side. I don’t when or what life will look like by then, but it will happen. The morning my mom passed away, I spoke to a couple of friends on the phone who had called to comfort me. When I heard my voice on the phone, I was startled at how normal it sounded given the circumstances. Hearing that semblance of strength in my voice signaled to me that somehow, some way, I would be okay. I would come out on the other side even if the path was unclear.

Shortly after my mom’s death, though the path was unclear, I did what would have seemed impossible just months before; I took baby steps in a new direction of life without her. I found myself asking: what do I do now?! Despite feeling like a ship lost at sea, I knew that if I didn’t take small steps forward, I might go down a road there was no turning back from. This weekend, the first of many weekends in (there’s a first time for everything), I asked myself the same question: what do I do now? This would be the first of many weekends at home and so I did what I’d done before; I took small steps forward and established a new quarantine-life weekend routine. 

It has been ten days of social distancing, and I’ve moved into the acceptance phase. This is my life now. I work, socialize, exercise, and eat exclusively at home. I rarely go outside, and if I do it’s only to get a quick breath of fresh air. Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, that all sounded like an absolute nightmare. But now, I am finding some joy in this new way of life especially since it’s allowed me more time to connect with my loved ones. 

For me, acceptance appears in unexpected ways. This past summer, while visiting my hometown, I walked by my childhood home where my family lived for 34 years. I stopped to admire my mother’s garden that was in full bloom. I smiled at its beauty and its living reminder of the love my mom put into it. I never thought I would live to see the day when I’d walk by my home as an admiring passerby and not a resident. It had never occurred to me that there could be a day when we didn’t live there anymore. But there I was standing in front of the lawn, my front lawn, as an observer grinning ear-to-ear trying to sneak a photo of the place that felt like mine.  

Nobody knows exactly how or when we will emerge from our new reality of social distancing and living in a global pandemic. But, if my experience with grief tells me anything, we will come out on the other side. It will be an ongoing process, and we will be forever changed. A new reality will emerge, the path won’t always be clear, and things will be different, but different won’t necessarily be a bad thing. 

In her poem “When Great Trees Fall,” Maya Angelou beautifully captures what I think we will feel years down the road when our collective path becomes more clear and we are able to make sense of our life before, during, and after this pandemic: 

“after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.”

 

 

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