Ambiguous Grief and Covid-19
We are in our seventh week of sheltering at home here in New York City. The early, jangling, alarm bell ringing days are over. Something larger and more difficult to name is taking their place.
Each morning when I wake, I check in with myself and more often these days the answer comes back “not too good.” More than I’d like, I wake up feeling numb, disconnected. Early on, I was experiencing shorter two or three day cycles of energy rising and falling. Now I sense a longer internal arc emerging, something very different. Perhaps I can only process so much alarm, political madness, lack of clear medical information, and existential uncertainty before my emotional responses just shut down.
It’s the load we all carry during the Coronavirus pandemic; a potent mix of uncertainty, isolation, fear, and survivors’ guilt, along with the rising wall of ambiguous grief we can’t even name, yet.
In the beginning, the pandemic created a lot of nervous energy. Energy to get things done, to get supplies for the house, to seek information, to sound the alarm about how we had to #FlattenTheCurve. That early nervous energy has dissipated. The refuge we are taking, sheltering at home, is now the challenge we are facing. Like people stumbling into life boats as the ship sinks, we are initially so relieved. And then a week passes. Then a few weeks. Now, we’re people drifting in a lifeboat. The alarming immediacy of the sinking ship is replaced with the deep uncertainty of being adrift.
After many weeks, our family is in a rhythm now. Getting up each day, cleaning, cooking, doing our work. Go to the store or don’t go to the store. Walk a little in the evening on the empty streets. Meanwhile, just blocks away, healthcare workers continue to battle endless waves of coronavirus cases in hospitals that have been stripped down and reorganized for a war. Doctors and nurses are dying. Patients are dying, unable to see partners or family members as the end comes. Tens of thousands of essential workers are working across the city, dancing with death in the empty streets. Communities of color, shouldering a majority of the essential work that keeps the city going, are dying at much higher rates, the direct result of how racism operates in America.
For those of us who can do little to help directly beyond staying home, we make purpose where we can find it. When our children ask for lunch. When the toilets needs cleaning again, or laundry piles up, or work calls, or a broom is there leaning against the wall, it’s a bit of purpose, but the larger picture? The larger picture we don’t want to look directly at. Covid-19 has ripped the thin veneer of civility off American society highlighting the brutal inequality, the savage divisions and sheer disposability of our fellow human beings.
Every aspect of our American social order is broken, reduced to a shell by the cancer of our collective disconnection. Disconnection, and the systemic violence that disconnection always permits. Disconnection based on class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and all the rest. Disconnection driven by our cultures cultish focus on the individual. The “go it alone,” never ask for help, man-up culture of our dominance driven masculinity. We have taken every aspect of our beautiful human diversity and created ugly binary frames designed to divide and conquer us, to isolate us, keep us separated, even in our own neighborhoods, giving rise to our peculiarly American epidemic of isolation.
A major study conducted by Cigna’s in 2018 shows that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. The health impact of this level of loneliness is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, dramatically increasing rates of heart disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimers, and even cancer. Cancer metastasizes faster in lonely people.
The result of our deeply isolating culture being that when Covid-19 arrived, we had none of the collective communal resources we needed to fight it. After nears of ugly political binaries promoting our American cult of individuality, we don’t know how to act collectively for our own survival. In fact, we have contempt for that kind of thing. We are caught in a web of divisive distinctions based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, regional identity and a million more ways of marking and rejecting difference. “They’re not like me. They don’t think like me. They don’t act like me. They don’t believe what I believe, so I can’t have connection with them.”
It’s the sickly sweet syrup of hierarchy and illusory status fed to us at every opportunity from birth, suckled as we are on racism, sexism and all the rest. We have been raised from the crib on the mother of all binaries: that people who are different from us are less, and we’ve bought into it, hook, line and sinker. “So what if they don’t have healthcare. We do. So what if they don’t have housing. We do. People like me are safe. Those other people? They don’t matter.” And the list of differences we mark is so long, and so detailed, that not only does it apply to those outside our gates, it applies to those in our own homes, sitting next to us. We are disconnected from our own spouses, our own parents, our own children.
And then we get to the last piece. We are disconnected from ourselves. Because hidden deep down is the ugly realization that we are different. Different from the brittle isolating stereotypes what we steadfastly present to the world. The false self that seeks forever to not be different, never different. Different from what?
At the heart of the churning, ambiguous grief finally fully being revealed to us in the harsh Covid-19 spotlight, is a voice deep inside us shrieking that something is terribly wrong in these lifeboats of ours. They are not lifeboats at all. They are coffins. They are isolation, and distrust and fear and control. The isolating result of a virulent and predatory social order that feeds us endless divisions along with a steady diet of toxic water and air, healthcare for profit, racist governments, endless war and all the rest. Covid-19 has blown through our illusions of safety. There is no safety in isolation. The drumbeat pursuit of material wealth has become our funeral pyres. It turns out we are all connected, all our brother’s keepers, and they ours. Too late we are learning this. Too late.
The truths illuminated in Covid-19's stark clear light have always been there, seen easily by those who bear the brunt of it all. Perhaps some of us need a proverbial Covid knife to our throats to finally see these truths as well? Men and women dying alone because they are too toxic to be near their own families. The sheer impossibility of a world without the very essential workers we can’t be bothered to demand a decent working wage for. Lifetimes in which embracing anyone different from us is impossible. A world where our hatred and bigotry is a disease that is spreading unseen and killing us.
This is what lies aching at the heart of our ambiguous grief. The vast scale of our willful blindness. The growing awareness of the scope of change that our very survival demands. The epidemic of disconnection we must fight our way past, foisted on us by the bullies and the bigots who designed our racist and sexist predatory capitalist dystopia. “I got mine. You get yours.”
Try as we will, Covid-19 won’t let us turn away from seeing it, now. It seems to me that some are in such a hurry to “open America back up” because all the isolating illusions they have so carefully constructed are a risk of collapsing. They fear we will realize that the normal they would have us get back to is killing us. That business as usual is a blood bath.
So now, we all face a stark decision. Do we dig in and hope beyond hope for normal to return? Do we look at the virus ripping through our families and communities and say, “I’m okay with this body count, just get me back to normal.” Or do we reach across the brittle barriers of race and class and create human community, finally? Do we find the humility to be inclusive, to humbly embrace the rich gift that is human diversity? Do, we demand a human scope and scale to our political institutions? Do we make housing, education, healthcare a human right? Do we evolve? We can finally embrace the full range of what it means to be human. We can step out of isolation and into connection. We can leave our existential loneliness behind. Reject the death cult of status. Live.
But it’s best we decide real soon. Because the lesson of Covid-19 is quite simple. Connect in fully human ways or our time here will run out.
This article is the result of ongoing conversations with Dr. Saliha Bava.