“Grief, loss, regret are not the end of the story. They are the middle of the story. Memory does not look backward, it looks forward.” — Anne Michaels, 2020
We’re in the middle of a story, alright. One that seems like the film Groundhog Day. The pandemic rages on, and too many of our fellow citizens are going about their lives like nothing’s any different.
And it’s causing a good deal of grief.
If you want a sense of the ultimate grief, take a look at the image above. Jacques-Louis David depicts a scene out of The Iliad and ancient Greek mythology.
Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus and the queen of Thebes. She had 12 or 14 children (depending on which story you read) and showed her hubris by chiding Leto for only having two children.
Well, when you’re a daughter of Titans and your two children are the gods Apollo and Artemis, and (get this) you’re the goddess of motherhood — things are about to get messy really quickly.
In this case, Leto sent her children to teach Niobe a lesson: Apollo killed all of her sons and Artemis killed all of her daughters. Niobe refused to eat for nine days, and her children went unburied during that time.
Finally, the gods buried them on the tenth day, and Niobe was turned into stone, perpetually weeping. She is supposedly represented by the nearby Weeping Rock on Mt. Sipylus in Turkey, which looks like the face of a woman and features a natural spring.
A Modern Tragedy
If 2021 were part of a Greek tragedy, it would seem that we have taunted the gods.
Having spent the previous year and a half struggling against a raging pandemic, you’d think we would have the basics figured out by now. And yet, we have people still refusing to wear masks and refusing to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, there’s a palpable sense of frustration, exhaustion, and grief.
We’re on a never-ending hamster wheel of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as we cycle from denial to anger to bargaining to depression and finally to acceptance. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In the spring of 2020, we were all forced into a situation in which we had to mourn for the loss of the normal: we abandoned our offices, we stopped commuting, family events had to be postponed or canceled, and even funerals were put on hold or limited to parties of no more than ten.
In the essay “Mortal Soul, Moral Soul,” Anne Michaels wondered about this collective grief that we’re now facing:
“What does it mean when one’s most private, most profound experience, the cataclysm that shapes one’s life, is also the most intimate experience of thousands of others? What place can be found for our private grief when set against the losses of entire nations?”
There are those who have suffered the loss of friends and family members to this pandemic. In one degree or another, we’ve all lost something.
As a parent, it’s been difficult to watch our teens deal with the new reality. Having to socially distance or wear masks—particularly at a time in their social development when doing or wearing anything different makes them pariahs on the level of Hester Prynne—is causing them frustration about the theft of their adolescence.
When we try to convey our understanding and share their frustration, they don’t believe we can truly understand it, because we didn’t have to live through a pandemic in our own childhoods.
While this is true, I found that when I became a father, I was bestowed with so many complex layers of emotions I didn’t realize I had before. And as my children grow, I feel them even more deeply.
I tear up more while watching movies, TV shows, or even commercials sometimes. I feel a flutter in my chest when I peek into my kids’ bedrooms to see them sleeping. I’m torn by angst when I see them hurting.
Which brings me back to the complaint: can I truly understand the flood of emotions this pandemic is making my high school senior feel?
From a practical perspective, no. But my empathy reading is off the charts. I suppose the question is: can we experience grief via empathy?
“Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved.” — Iris Murdoch
For an answer to that, I turn to the medical field. Consider the healthcare workers dealing with Covid patients. They’re beyond burned out. This is an ongoing acute situation with no end in sight. They’re losing patients and having to hold difficult conversations with family members—conversations that are devasting and impossibly frustrating.
It’s not too different from what oncologists have to deal with:
“Oncologists are exposed to suffering, loss, and death, which can potentially lead to grief reactions. Although grief over patients may be a natural consequence of the close and longstanding oncologist-patient relationship, the empathy that oncologists feel toward their patients may put them at risk for compassion fatigue.”1
Grief isn’t just for healthcare workers during the pandemic. You’ve likely witnessed it in retail workers, fast food employees, and in the well-documented poorly-behaved citizens who create viral scenes in some of these establishments.
The pandemic has unleashed not only a virus among the workforce, but aspects of grief as well Whether through depression, loneliness, anxiety, stress, or survivor guilt, it's more likely than not that members of your team may be dealing with grief.
We often see grief expressed as anger. We’re all on edge and are being pushed even further as the variant of the virus spreads.
What To Do for a Grieving Colleague
There is no question that grief is real, and has physical as well as mental impacts. You may be able to pick up on this from your team. Indeed, if you’re doing regular video calls, you should be attuned to their demeanor, picking up on the nonverbal cues as best you can.
You don’t need to be their therapist, but you do need to be there for them: Simply asking them, “Hey, how are you holding up?” is enough to let them know that you’re sensitive to the current situation. Acknowledge it and allow them to have their feelings.
We all have different personal situations and we each need to deal with our unique grief in our own way; not everyone processes things at the same pace or in the same manner.
If you feel like this is beyond your ability to handle it, let them know what resources are available to them, or offer to help them track down what they need.
If we come together in times of grief, we’ll find that it unites us and brings us closer. Having a shared experience—particularly one that is typically private—might seem awkward at first, but it's a gift. A wonderful unifier.
Sharing grief and showing support for each other when we’re down builds trust. It takes vulnerability on the part of those who are suffering, and empathy on the part of those who want to help. Think of those who reached out to you when you were at a low point, and how that made you feel.
What was once intimate is now a shared experience, and what was pain and grief becomes joy and trust. What you might call “good” grief. And that’s not the end, either.
We’re still in the middle of the story.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
On Tuesday, December 21 at 11:30 am ET, I hosted a Twitter Spaces chat with Peg Conway, author of The Art of Reassembly: A Memoir of Early Mother Loss and Aftergrief.
It was a very different conversation; you can find out how to listen here:
“Between empathy and grief: The mediating effect of compassion fatigue among oncologists,” Psycho-Oncology, Vol. 28, No. 12, 2019