Encounters with Grief

Photo Credit: Andrea Paterson 2020

When I had my first baby it was a lesson in grief. What I expected was joy. That’s what I was primed to expect by the prevailing messages around the ever fulfilling and wonderful role of mother, and there were joyful moments but they were brief and fragile and sometimes slipped through my fingers. Our society is brutally silent when it comes to grief and I was not prepared for motherhood to be a crash course in letting go of my old life and my old self and actively learning to grieve the loss of those things. I find myself revisiting that time now as I am suddenly faced with another loss of self, structure, routine, and purpose. With the dawn of this global pandemic we are all struggling to find our footing again and I think that a lot of the work that has to be done is grief work. While adults try to hide their fear and grief under facades of keeping busy and taking on a million projects, children are more transparent.

My son is most certainly grieving. At eight he is old enough to understand that he has lost a good portion of his freedom but too young to understand the nuances of the world wide attempt to keep this virus from overwhelming our health care systems. What he knows is that he can’t go to the park or play with his friends or hug his grandparents. He knows that he was supposed to travel to Australia this summer and likely won’t be able to go. He knows that he’s missing out on birthday parties, hockey practice, and the comforting routine of school. He knows that his parents are anxious and that he must try to avoid other people while out for a walk. But he can’t quite grasp the “why” of it all. He doesn’t fully understand the repercussions if we pull back from social distancing too early and because of all this he is grieving the loss of the life he was accustomed to. Most days he laments that this has been the “worst day ever”, and it’s true for him. Even though we are safe at home and have what we need to get by over the next months my child has lost much of what defined his childhood and I must be there now to help him navigate that grief and loss.

The fact of the matter is that we are all grieving in some way. Some will be grieving the actual loss of loved ones to this pandemic, others will be grieving a variety of complex losses that profoundly affect our lives, relationships, jobs, sense of security, and sense of ourselves. The most fundamental thing at this point is to acknowledge that grief and give it space. It’s easy to dismiss my child’s grief as ungrateful whining (after all he’s fed and safe and still healthy and has two parents and a sister playing with him all day) but in truth he is experiencing the most severe destruction of his life that he has ever had to face. As adults it may be that we’ve experienced and moved through other major challenges and traumas in our lives, but not many alive today have experienced a pandemic and we are all tasked with moving through the ever shifting landscapes of our emotions in relation to this catastrophe.

Grief is a legitimate and productive response to this crisis. While there has been a well meaning focus in public rhetoric on gratitude and finding silver linings, know that grief has its place and its purpose. I have been finding great comfort in the writing of Ross Gay who has published a wonderful book of short essays called The Book of Delights. Gay understands that delight and joy are fundamentally connected to sorrow and the finite nature of human lives. Joy is a byproduct of the fact that everything we know will one day be gone, including ourselves. In the chapter entitled “Joy is Such a Human Madness” Gay suggests:

that the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow meet. Might, even, join.
And what if the wilderness—perhaps the densest wild in there—thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers—is our sorrow? It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know…lives with some profound personal sorrow. Is this sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?

(Book of Delights ebook page 50 of 273)

What if this is true for us today? What if the work of grief is the most important work we can be doing right now (not housework, not homeschooling, not endlessly scrolling through the news). What if our job is to do something unprecedented by joining our sorrow to the sorrows of all of human kind who are now suffering together though something nearly unimaginable. What might that look like? What unusual materials can we gather in order to build innovative bridges that connect us and our sorrows together.

I try an experiment. At night my son is lamenting the state of his life. He is angry and disappointed, sad and worried. I could tell him to focus on the good things he has but I don’t. I get under the blankets with him and say that I’m angry and disappointed too. I let my own sorrow lie beside his with a spray of glow in the dark stars hovering over us. We are cocooned together in grief and love and I think there is something like joy in that. The joy comes from the intensity of connection between myself and another human life. We are grieving, but we are not alone.

So while I find that the virus unleashed on the world has caused me to falter, this time I am not upended by motherhood. Instead motherhood becomes the place from which I can stabilize myself. I know so much already about the interplay between grief and joy. I know what it means to lose myself completely and rebuild myself from scratch. These are things I can give to my children as we navigate this crisis together. I can be midwife to their grief, and to mine, and as we let the edges of our sorrow touch we strengthen the bonds between us. This is what it means to be a family. I think that this is what I have been preparing for all along.