Grief is Grief, View from the Shoe

Out of Touch . . . Totally.

Welcome to the pandemic version of ‘home alone’, a place where stillness has a roaring sound, and touch is a thing of the past. We are embracing a new normal – without the embrace.

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As SNL’s Roseann Rosannadanna used to say, “It’s always something”.  Sometimes, that ‘something’, creeps up so sneakily you don’t even notice it until it pokes you on the shoulder. You might have thought it was in the rear view, then, bam — whiplash. Like your very own Pennywise, the shapeshifting clown, it feeds on what gets to you most. It gets under your skin because it’s there that this particular taunting creature, called ‘loss of touch’, lives. 

Yep, loss of touch is a thing. Humans need to be touched. When our arms and cheeks are stroked, nerve cells release boatloads of happy-making endorphins. Simple cuddling can slow the heart rate, and speed up digestion, helping our immune system to be its best self. We instinctively look to hold hands when we’re frightened. We put our arms around each other to comfort; kiss one another to show affection. We need touch to feel safe, anchored — and seen. But, those of us who live alone are on our own – literally. In a time of grief, of quarantine, we go without touch of another human for weeks and months. Stuck in the middle of today’s epidemic ‘touch starvation’, mental health professionals see depression, insomnia and anxiety issues in unprecedented numbers.

Why talk about skin hunger now, when it’s dwarfed by people dying in shocking numbers from a worldwide pandemic, and fear pulses beneath every face mask? Even with an epidemic raging across the globe, we are each quarantined in our own small worlds. Our thoughts, emotions, and feelings still live and grow there. Most have partners, kids that share their quarantine and touch may not be an issue. But domestic violence also finds fertile ground in quarantine and loneliness, anxiety and depression make no distinction between households. Whatever was lacking, lost or thought to be quieted, now has a loud voice and things like absence of touch takes on new life.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch. Leo Buscaglia

When I was first widowed, disjointed emotion and grief were in strong competition. My thoughts centered on coping with the worst trauma of my life. Sudden loss of the person you thought you’d go through time can do that. I assumed nothing, from that point on, that life could throw at me could be worse. In fact, I was pretend badass enough that not even a scary car accident a year later could knock me over. But, when the fog cleared, I realized the elephant in the room was a spouse’s touch I’d no longer feel. Funny how simple neck massages and hand holding can kneecap you. But loss of intimate touch, the kind that says ‘You’re mine. I have your back. I love you” leaves a lasting mark.

To any grieving person, distance is not a new concept. In fact, it’s probably the hardest consequence of loss. The distance of sound, touch and connection gets only wider between us and the person no longer in our world. When we were younger, in the midst of busy lives and busy households raising kids, we barely gave ‘touch’ a thought. We had plenty of it, whether we wanted it or not. Yes, I do remember those times I thought “Puleeese stop poking me” to kids or dogs anxious for attention. Back then, our tapped-out selves yearned for the utopia of sublime peace; maybe even an undisturbed month — alone. I get it. I lived it.

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Politics and other awkward stuff

The Pandemic that Ate the World 2.0

Once we’ve dialed back the epidemic, what will we bring to the world it left behind?

Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash

What is ‘the good life’? Everyone defines it differently. For me, it’s pretty much every day I’m alive, can see friends, squeeze grands, talk to my kids and my wonky belly feels decent. The good life isn’t always exciting, but if we’re fortunate, we’re living the one that feels good to us. That life can seem boring, hectic, or aggravating, depending on the day and our frame of mind. Our kids drive us nuts, ditto the spouse. Jobs seem like an endless Lucy and the Chocolate Factory conveyor belt. We dream of taking that great trip that doesn’t materialize, of having more money, more time, and more of well, life. Still it’s our life and it fits us.

Just when we thought we were in control of that life, the coronavirus arrived and shook everything up like a vengeful snowglobe. Fear replaced anticipation, excitement with anxiety. Homeschooling replaced lockers and classrooms. We Netflix binged instead of going out to movies meetings, baseball practices, lunche  — or visits in with grandma.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. . .” Ecclesiastes

This, indeed, has been a hell of a ‘season’. An epidemic from across the sea, rolled in like a tsunami, leaving a deadly season in its wake. Social distancing became the new lexicon as we desperately worked to thwart the virus’ deadly rampage by our separateness. Yet, no matter where we stand in the collective narrative of this deadly virus, we all are connected in the fight to survive it — and what happens after. That’s where yin yang comes in.

Yin yang, the symbol of crisis/opportunity, is what we’ve experienced after wars, wildfires, monster earthquakes and yes, pandemics. Incredible crises have sparked incredible heroism, sacrifice and generosity. They also create opportunities for growth and change. We can either travel through hellish journeys, bitching all the way, or find our moments, however small or elusive, for positive growth.  We can get swallowed up in the sadness of a world gone incognito or use these uncertain times to evolve. We can lament our vitally changed individual worlds or discover, with gratitude, new ways to navigate them. When we look in the rear view mirror after this difficult time, we’ll also hopefully find that:

Technology can be an uber good thing. When social distancing separated us from friends, relatives and colleagues, technology enabled us to stay connected. We Zoomed our way into face to face chats with other isolated family and friends, discovering new channels of being together. We telecommuted, realizing we can be just as productive virtually. In turn, we decreased traffic, improved air quality, while increasing precious family time. Win win.

We trust science; politicians not so much. Desperate for information on COVID-19, our ears opened to everyone who had some. But we quickly discovered that political gain and re-election hopes can overshadow actual facts from medical professionals. Whether it’s climate change or pandemics, trust the experts.

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Grief is Grief

An Epidemic of Grief

Grief comes in an assortment of sizes, tailored to fit each type of loss. When you feel like the entire world has changed, grief can’t be far behind.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

It’s been said that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. I don’t know about your taxes, but if you’re reading this, I’m thankful, at least, the grim reaper is AWOL. Death drops by with nonchalant regularity, taking with him parents, friends, siblings and spouses. In fact, I can include one or more of each in my list of losses. But these are different days, first in lifetimes days when illness and death seem only a sneeze or cough away. And the perfectly fit the MO of a brutal, worldwide pandemic we have come to know as COVID-19.

Worries about, and results of, this coronavirus epidemic have touched nearly everyone around the globe. With each generation, the world becomes smaller, enabling shared experience as well as shared disease from countries oceans away. Since the virus arrived at our shores, we’ve watched death rates climb with frightening velocity each day. Sure, we lived through SARS, Swine Flu, and Ebola but nothing has struck fear in our collective hearts since the flu of 1917. Some infected become merely carriers; some present with mild symptoms. The unlucky others feel the savagery of the disease — and many, too many, die of it.

And that’s where death’s natural partner, grief comes in. Grief is the way we process trauma, death, and losses of all sizes and flavors. It can devastate us enough in normal times, but in the era of COVID-19, grief can be unnaturally derailed. Where do we put grief, when loved ones die alone? How do we express it, when the people death leaves behind are dumped into socially distanced shock and loss?

Mourning rituals are critical to healthy grief and healing yet, uniquely absent in a pandemic. Instead, overloaded funeral homes greet no grieving families. Masses, wakes and shivas are non-existent. In their place, awkward digital groupings are becoming common as family gathers on Zoom to mourn. The basic comfort of connective touch is absent, making grief as grim and devastating as can be.

Losing my husband in a blink of an eye one night was obviously an unparalleled shock. Yet, many have endured similar experiences; mine was not an anomaly. But, to lose a loved one without warning, in a lonely COVID-19 cocoon of masks and humming ventilators, is incomprehensible.  My heart breaks for every single one whose grief is quarantined, without the ability to offer last words or touch. Long ago, when my 19 year old brother died of leukemia, half the town turned out to grieve with our family. My parents deaths, 12 years apart, saw their friends gather to grieve, and when friends died, I shared my grief along with others they loved. These are not those times; this is fear and grief on steroids.

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