COMMENTARY: Grief and isolation: Two sides of the same coin

Megan Slobodin

A year ago, my husband passed — unexpectedly, suddenly. I felt myself plunging deep into grief, fighting for air and forcing myself to take active steps just to keep myself alive. Coming to grips with the loss of my partner and best friend was devastating enough.

Realizing the magnitude of all the secondary losses that accompanied it sometimes felt insurmountable.

I was unprepared for the loss of identity, for the lost sense of personal safety and security. I was unprepared for the loneliness.

Suddenly I was having to confront everything I had taken for granted in my life.

Experiencing grief made me dig deep to find new sources of resilience just to navigate each passing day. Over many months, I slowly began to feel alive again, one day at a time. Deep personal loss and ensuing grief have been unexpected teachers, difficult teachers, and the lessons learned have been hard ones.

I am grateful I didn’t have an everyday job to force myself to attend. I was grateful I didn’t have to take care of anyone else, because taking care of myself sometimes felt hopeless. I was really grateful for those people who did not abandon me to the solitary depths of my grief. They were willing to sit in quiet witness to my expressions of grief, neither advising nor judging, and supported me in this unwanted journey. And I am grateful in hindsight to be able follow my own timeline in coming back to life. Gradually I’ve begun to claim a new personal space in this unexpected landscape.

Just as I felt I was starting to rebound with the close support of others, a new social isolation caused by the coronavirus descended. Another sense of loss began, not only for me but for millions on the planet. Even as I wrestled with my now familiar but gentler grief, I became acutely aware there are so many who are becoming first-hand witnesses to their own fresh sense of grief.

Grief for their loved ones dying alone in makeshift areas in staggering numbers. Grief for the loss of personal freedoms, and longing to be physically close with others. Grief for the loss of the pleasurable distractions of everyday life, like eating in restaurants or shopping. And, overwhelmingly, grief for our previous sense of personal security and physical safety.

Now we are all alone to face this new adversity of social isolation as unwilling participants, and to get to know ourselves a bit better in circumstances we never could have imagined for ourselves.

COVID-19 is forcing us to confront grief and loss in their many manifestations. As a society we have lost ample ways of living that we previously took for granted, at least until a vaccine is found. Alone, we are struggling with the question of how we will endure.

One of the most common questions from people has been, “How long is this all going to last?”

It’s not because we’re bored already, or have no attention span and need the next new diversion in our lives. It’s because of what little we have experienced so far of this viral isolation already feels awful, and we just want it to stop. We want desperately to go back to the way it was. This is a familiar expression of grief.

In our society until now, grief for many of us has largely been a compartmentalized one, a funeral for an acquaintance, a story of loss in the media, an uncomfortable reference to a lost someone raised in conversation. Under COVID-19, however, many of us are facing myriad fresh personal losses.

And from the millions of people who are now experiencing the sudden onset of fear, deep loss, and personal grief caused by the coronavirus, our society will expect a swift return to normal working order. We will expect them to keep working at pre-virus levels of performance, especially in those services we are coming to understand as essential. We will expect them to do their part in putting the economies of nations back together, to restore supply chains, and to take care of others.

But I know grief brings emotional trauma that takes a long time to work through. These survivors will literally be the planet’s walking wounded.

Until a vaccine is found, and perhaps even afterwards, people who are grieving will need more than our understanding to survive, and to help them navigate their deep sense of loss.

We will not be able to hold them, attend funerals for their loved ones, or lighten their loss with physical closeness. We will not be able to give them even the limited succour for which our North American society has come to been known.

For our own personal survival, we will have to find new ways to comfort our fellow human beings. We have to learn to talk openly about grief.

In March 2020, the author began a blog, Northerncoronagrief.com, to catalogue the various faces of solitude which come from living in the north, living in isolation under the coronavirus, and the ever-constant living with grief.

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