Learning to grieve – coping with loss in a pandemic

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the news bulletins during this pandemic, here in London where I live, has been the daily death toll attributable to the Corona virus.  Each day photographs of those who have died are shown in the media and behind each face there lies a deeply personal tragedy.  This has been made even more unbearable due to the circumstances not only of their death, but because of the inability to fully participate in the processes of burial and mourning in the company of family and friends; the vital procedures that follow on from the death of a loved one, processes that help the mourners to grieve. And processing grief is an essential part of coping with loss, for without it healing of the mind and soul cannot begin, and it is difficult to move forward in life.

In Jewish tradition the levaya, shiva and saying of Kaddish in a minyan are part of the strategic framework of the mourning process.  Having sat shiva three times for my parents and husband, I cannot but admire the rabbis who instituted such practices as the immediacy of the levaye, the intimacy of the shiva and the staggered period of aveylut from the shloshim to the full year of mourning. My emotional needs and moods were paralleled in so many ways to the time periods during which I could or could not observe certain practices, being different for a parent and a spouse.  Anyone who has lost a loved one and sat shiva will understand this.

But in today’s circumstances the best one can do during a shiva is a video call, which is really no replacement for the intimacy of a hug and a face to face encounter, when the comforting energy is suffused through the personal presence of the other. The physical loss of a loved one is the most tragic and devastating form of loss, but for every person in the world today living life in quarantine, there is an element of loss and grief, though perhaps not in the classic accepted sense.

Losses in livelihoods and losses in relationships that result from the pandemic will also lead to grief. But even more mundane things like daily routines and forthcoming anticipated events such as family celebrations, cultural outings and long awaited holidays have been disrupted and those losses in one’s life also need acknowledgment of some kind.   Every loss is not the same but every loss is valid, and needs validation from the sufferer of that loss.  For you have to move from a life you had all planned out to one that can no longer fulfil its promises. You need to grieve for it is a process whereby you internalise that the people and things you once had or activities you were able to do, you no longer have or are able to do. It is exchanging a life that was once normal for one that is anything but normal, with the added uncertainty of just what that life will be like in the future.

Acknowledgement of any loss is vital for moving forward and healing, for acknowledgment is a companion, witnessing the truth of what you are going through.  You grieve over what you have loved but what has now been lost, whether it is a person in your life, an activity you can no longer do or an event that was missed.  Processing this grief is essential for it allows a person to heal and go forward by letting go. As our lives change from our expected path to the one we now find ourselves on, grief is the best response to bereavement, loss, regret and disappointment.

They say that time heals and who can predict when and how we will all come out of this pandemic, but there are things I have learnt since my cancer diagnosis years back and my husband’s death two years ago, that have made me understand just how time does heal. It takes time to acknowledge and experience grief, the process of which comes in stages commonly described as shock, anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are not always experienced in a particular order, but often move like waves which ebb and flow at different moments for they are descriptive, not prescriptive. Yet they are all processes that need to be experienced and worked through, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Even before my husband died, which was the most devastating loss of all, during the years that I was having treatment for cancer I had begun to process grief, as there were so many things that I had lost through my illness. My hair, my appetite, my strength, my muscle mass, my ability to visit my children and grandchildren living in Israel and be an active part of their lives, my twice weekly swimming sessions and simply just to hug those around me that I loved.  The framework of my life that made me who I am, that constituted my identity as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an active community person and ultimately a woman of worth, were lost.  When faced with the stark reality of confronting my own image in the mirror and the face staring back at me had no hair on its head, no eyebrows and scant few eyelashes, the sense of loss of self, of loss of my personal identity threatened at times to overwhelm me.  Yes it was shocking, yes I was angry, but I could not deny what was happening and my bargaining days with God had passed; I had accepted my situation and grieved deeply for what had been.  And grieving allowed me to find something deeper within myself. The will to not just survive in the future  but to thrive in it, because if I could confront myself in that most rawest of states I knew I would eventually heal.  For what you see on the outside is often a mirror to the inside and seeing yourself like that you know that you can reach inside and touch your authentic self.

Today there are so many of us who have lost part of our identities as we are isolated and unable to fulfil many of the roles that were part of our everyday lives, and indeed many of the activities too which made up our weekly routines.  We have become the ‘stay at home’ mums and dads we used to look down upon from our high flying careers.  We have become the isolated widows and single youngsters unable to socialise. So yes feel angry, feel sad, feel the grief of where you are now, but let it work its way through you and pass. Don’t forget that you are not alone in this, for even though the loss is different for each one of us, shared grief connects us just as love does. Grief and love are the opposite sides of the same coin and we have witnessed such an outpouring of love and kindness within our communities that hopefully we can cope with our losses, our grief and someday regain our sense of joy.  And joy is what we need to lift us up in this time of unremitting isolation. Joy discovered whether through counting our blessings with a deeper appreciation of what we have to be grateful for in life, or light heartedly through the humour generated on social media, helps us to cope.  Each of us is coping with loss of some sort, but if we are able to own the loss, work through the grief and process our feelings, it will allow us to discover meaning and joy in life itself, even in the most challenging of times, and eventually we will heal.

About the Author
Mindy is a former teacher who earned a Bachelor’s degree in geography and a Masters in Jewish Studies. She was Chairman of British Emunah for 4 years and is still actively involved in the charity. She now writes and blogs about her experiences and the lessons she has learnt coping with her life changing challenges of living with cancer and then sudden bereavement.
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