When the pandemic hit the United States last March, most of us didn’t realize what we were stepping into.
We just needed, we told ourselves, to get through a few difficult weeks, or at most, months, of living in this bardo, this in-between, this unwelcome pause between worlds.
Seven months later, we find ourselves still here. But with perhaps even more uncertainty, more fog, more liminality. There is, we might realize with a sinking feeling, no clear end to the pandemic in sight. No signposts for when we might return to life as we knew it pre-COVID.
Perhaps we even chastise ourselves for not being more adaptive. Shouldn’t we, we might think, be coping better by now? Shouldn’t we have flexed to meet this new normal?
The answer, in my mind, is a firm no.
Living in this murky space, sandwiched somewhere between the “before-times” and whatever our post-pandemic life might look like? It’s hard.
It reminds me so much of grief.
Grief takes time, and it’s super messy.
In the early weeks after my brother died, I remember thinking, If I can just get through the first year, I’ll be okay. Getting through a year seemed like a Herculean task, but my grief, surely, would soften after surviving each season without him.
And in many ways, it did. But I woke up the morning after the first anniversary of his death, and I felt no different, no relief. I still felt the same ache in my sternum, still experienced the same awful free-fall from dreamtime into a waking world in which my brother would never again exist. I still missed him, still felt his absence like a lost limb.
Grief takes longer than we’d like it to take—and so does acceptance. It certainly takes more than the three days of bereavement leave many employees are offered when a loved one dies. And though we may weave our way through the varying stages of grief, it’s not linear. We might have good moments or even days, while other days knock the wind out of us, leaving us sobbing and empty-hearted. Much of the time, we feel like we are flailing.
Part of grief is the urgent wish to go back, to rewind, to return to the gentle embrace of life before our loss. To the mundane complaints we now realize are silly or spoiled. We might bargain.
After my brother died, I sat on my parents’ porch and tallied up everything and everyone I’d trade if I could just have my brother back. The list was long.
Sometimes we rage. We fight against reality. In our dreams, our minds conjure them back. Waking up becomes a small death. We wish we could linger in the unconscious, our loved one returned to us, instead of awakening to the living nightmare of their absence.
In western culture, and particularly in the United States, we don’t like processes that are messy and take time. We’ve been trained for productivity, for checklists, for quick fixes.
In grief and other times of intense upheaval, there are no quick fixes. There is just getting through this moment, and the next, and the next.
Naming what we’ve lost can help.
When my brother died, I lost so much. I lost the co-keeper of my childhood. My rival and friend. Future nieces and nephews. The version of my parents that existed before my brother died.
I spilled these losses out in letters to my brother—in a journal, in emails with others who were grieving.
Grief can feel so enormous yet so abstract. Naming our losses can help us acknowledge and define the enormity of our pain.
Before the pandemic, I had hours and hours when my kids were in school and I could write. I miss those stretching spools of time. I miss having a house full of kids darting around and giggling, and I miss not feeling my shoulders tense as I remind them, “Please put your masks on if you’re going to be inside.” I miss the innocence of not believing our lives could be disrupted so profoundly, so globally. I miss the ambient clatter of coffee shops. I miss wandering through my local library, the heady smell of books, each an invitation to a distant world. I miss hugs and standing close to friends.
When we name what we are grieving, when we allow ourselves the space to cry about it, to spill it to our journals, to roar about what we have lost, when we text a friend that we are going crazy from either the vast loneliness or the house full of people who never leave, or from the creeping sense of unease about the future of our nation, we are honoring this in-between. We are making space to gaze at our lost life, to hold a funeral for it, to say, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Instead of asking, “How are you?” try asking this instead.
When someone I love is grieving, it feels ridiculous to ask, “How are you?” We’re so conditioned to respond with a reflexive ”fine” or “good.” Instead, when I’m talking to someone going through something intense, I’ll often pose questions like, “How are you feeling today?” Or, “What is the hardest part for you right now?”
When we make space for others to spill their unpleasant truths, we also make space for our own. We help pave the bumpy, spiraling path toward acceptance.
I offer a prayer for this murky season of grief, for this unsteady in-between:
May I make space to rage, to cry, to name what I’ve lost, to hold a funeral for my old life. May I create as much space as I need to hold all these feelings.
May I veer away from habits that harm me—whether it’s scrolling news until we feel nauseous, drinking too much, or overeating. May I find vices that are less harmful, more gentle. May I read too much. Take too many bubble baths. Go for too-long walks in the woods.
May I summon and extend an unending supply grace—for myself, for others. May I remember we are all stretched thin and terse. We are all afraid. We all hover in this awkward space between worlds. None of us knows what will come next—we never do. So may we soften and flex.
May we come to find, in this in-between, an opening, a softening, the smallest shiver of acceptance.