A short reflection of a long year of grief
As the end of a full year of living in a pandemic approaches, we have been thinking a great deal, not only about the colossal loss of lives, but also about the changes we have seen in the world and in ourselves. Never before in peacetime has the world witnessed so much death or felt so much grief. We wonder what we have learned from all of this, and what we will take with us into the future as we begin to step out of this (hopefully) final lockdown…
Of course, we have learned to take steps to protect ourselves and others by making essential physical and practical changes – bubble-forming, mask-wearing, working-from-home, isolating, obeying the two-metre or six-people rules as they have been implemented. Many have taken up new hobbies, worked at getting fitter or losing weight, and now most of us are patiently awaiting our vaccines.
But what of the grief? The reported death toll presents a picture of lives lost. But for every person who has died this year, there are children, partners, parents, siblings, friends, neighbours, and colleagues who are now grieving. Whether collective or personal, Covid or non-Covid, there are few among us who have not been affected – or know someone who has been affected – by grief over the past year. And, to add previously unimaginable insult to painful injury, this grief has often been impacted for so many by the lack of a goodbye and the restrictions on funeral attendee numbers, travel, personal contact, and physical touch.
During WW1, there was a call to arms in the UK to stiffen the upper lip in the face of death, and grief became almost unmentionable. To a greater extent, we seem still to be living with the legacy of this ‘grief taboo’. But death is unavoidable. It is as natural a part of life as birth, so, at SeeSaw, we believe it is way past bedtime for this ‘grief taboo’ and we present our own call to action; that we become a ‘grief-informed’ nation, learn what grief is and what it isn’t, and become comfortable again in discussing death and dying, supporting the bereaved, and modelling healthy and natural grieving to our children.
There is no shame in being uncomfortable with talking about death and dying. Mostly it comes from the way in which we were raised, a reluctance to cause discomfort or distress in others, or even the fear of our own death – and there is nothing wrong with that! But often our silence is painful for the bereaved and can lead to a mutual non-mentioning of the person who died or a lack of acknowledgement of the grief of those who loved them. We hear people say they cannot find the words or do not know what to do to make it better for the relatives of those who are dying or have died, so it may help to remind ourselves that we cannot fix grief; neither our own nor that of others. David Kessler, a world-renowned expert on death and grieving, recently said:
“Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”
Just showing up and letting bereaved people know you are holding space for them as and when they need it can often be enough. But do not shy away from mentioning the dead by name, acknowledging their loss, or recalling memories. They do not need advice or platitudes, just the invitation – whether they are able to accept it or not – to speak about their loved one or their pain.
As we prepare to emerge slowly from lockdown, some of us are concerned about what lies ahead and how we will adjust and readjust again to everyday life. Children may be anxious about a return to school, adults to their workplace. Some say they will miss the safety of the restrictions and the cherished time they have spent with their partners and children. Some are excited about a return to “normal”, meeting family and friends in person, children’s play dates, eating out, visiting the cinema or theatre, or merely heading to the pub. But many now have to prepare for life without a loved one who died in the past year and find a “new normal” without their mum, dad, child, sibling, grandparent, friend…the list goes on.
Perhaps the thing we could all consider taking with us as we move out of lockdown and the current pandemic is a change in grief culture; a move to understanding that so many of us are grieving and need that grief to be considered. When we have been bereaved, having people around us who are ‘grief-informed’ can only be of great comfort and support. When the worst thing happens, could we all not benefit from an environment where our grief is “witnessed”, where we feel our loss is seen, heard, and understood, and where we do not have to hide our pain?