Community Trauma: Navigating a Pandemic
Article #4: Grieving what was; Working toward what could be
J. Thomas Munley, LPC, CTP-C
Trauma Coordinator, ACE’s Master Trainer
Mid-Michigan Trauma Collaborative
J. Thomas Munley
Once Again, We Meet
You and I…grief
I thought I lost you
I thought I rid myself of you
It knows no color, gender, age or income.
It comes to everyone, sometime, somewhere
In this lifetime.
It comes softly in the night
Or hard, like a hammer
It means loss
We had something
Something valuable and wonderful
And we don’t …now
And we miss it…we miss them
It changes; it reinvents itself
It sneaks up on you; then leaves
Grief hides in places you thought were sealed
It finds a home. It pulls up a chair
It gets softer with time
But it does not go away
We find our lives have just grown up around it
We find a way to cope, to manage, to thrive
And then to live again
All the while knowing, we won’t be the same
We can’t. It has changed us
I remember when my mother passed away at the age of 69 of lung cancer, after just retiring from running our family business of dry cleaners. Her last two years where filled with painful surgeries and devastating chemo and radiation. She became a shell of herself and it was excruciating to watch her decline. By the end, I think we all just wanted the pain to stop for her and for us. It felt kind of selfish and at the same time it felt humane to want peace for my mom and our family. The whole process of watching a loved one die becomes all consuming even when trying to live some kind of a normal life knowing that at any moment the call will come that says, “Come quickly. This is the end”. Even the idea of trying to live a normal life while a dying loved one is looking death in face has its own set of feelings from guilt and shame to final resolve. These times can be dizzying and confusing to say the least.
As we keep moving to the epicenter of the Covid-19 Pandemic, there is a collective and individual grieving process we are going through whether we know it and acknowledge it or not. For many of us, we are grieving what was and is no longer, like the simple freedom to move about without fear we will pick up the virus and then if we do, will we be able to survive it. There is also grief regarding what was supposed to be like; a special birthday party canceled, the promise of a new job, watching our retirement tank, and knowing so many people are suffering and we can do little to stop it. I could go on and on as each of us has something that has been lost and part of that may simply be some innocence of what we thought life was supposed to be for us.
I remember after 9/11 trying to wrap my head around the fact that people so evil plotted for years to fly jets into buildings and the hatred that must have propelled the terrorists. It was unimaginable to me that people could be so hateful, callous, plotting and evil. If I had much innocence or naiveté left in me, it was sucked out and thrown on the ground that day. I have a friend who used to tell me I was too trusting of people. A lot of that trust died that day on 9/11 and I grieve that.
I also grieve for the trauma our children are facing in the throes of this pandemic. It is not yet known what living through this time will do to our children as they grow into the future, but we may have a whole generation that will most likely need a lot of help in the years to come. On my walk down my street yesterday, the kids from a neighbor’s house had written in chalk on the road; “Go away Covid” and “Stay away from us”. It is hard to fathom that 7 and 8-year-olds are already so affected they are manifesting symptoms of trauma already.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, best known for her stages of grief has had a great influence on how people understand the grieving process. To recall, her stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Kubler-Ross has taken the messy, confusing concept of grief and simplified it for general understanding. The problem with the concept is that grief does not flow in a nice orderly and sequential fashion, like stages. Grief is so individualized that some of these stages may not even be experienced by some while others may experience them all but in a jumbled order. Toward the end of her career, Kubler-Ross wrote that she regretted that her work had been misunderstood.
Instead of stages or tasks (William Worder describes 4 tasks of morning our losses), I believe grief is more of a “Life Challenge”. Grief remains with us and shifts and mutates. As one author wrote: “Grief does not go away. Our lives just grow up around it”. That has been more the reality for me than stages or tasks. I realize in reflection on my many losses, that I cohabitate with grief. It comes and goes; ebbs and flows. It sneaks up at unwanted times and leaves me reeling for a while. Grief is also a great but brutal teacher. We learn that life does not offer guarantees and most things are not permanent. The tighter we grasp, the more we will suffer.
So, what’s the good news in all of this? Where is the healing? Some suggestions:
- Grief is like trauma: If we don’t talk about it, process it and get it out, grief can crush us with the weight of carrying it in silence without an outlet for release.
- The stronger we have loved, the harder we will grieve. Knowing that we are in pain is a sign we have loved dearly and cared deeply; we can practice gratitude for what we had, the people who have touched our lives and the fact that we may be better people because of that love.
- We are taught that if we are good and upright people, life will be fair to us. However, the death of a loved one, loss of innocence, termination of a job leaves us feeling confused, sad and angry. One of my ‘big boy’ lessons I didn’t really want to know; LIFE IS NOT FAIR! Sometimes life sucks! It goes with being human.
- We can also remember what has not changed and the many things we can be grateful for. Gratitude goes a long way in healing as we focus not so much on the past but on the here and now and the possibilities to come.
- This can also be a time to reinvent ourselves in the wake of loss. Who do we want to be on the other side of this pandemic? We will not put the genie back in bottle. Our world will not be the same and we will have opportunities to decide the direction our lives will take.
- One last thought: look at the character, the gifts and wonderful traits of those we have lost and make a conscious decision to make some of those gifts part of our own lives, like, integrity, honestly, compassion and laughter.
Remember, we humans are resilient!