I was walking with a friend at the weekend. We talked about vaccines, lockdown, and how our strange Christmas had been. I asked him what he misses right now – what is it he’s looking forward to most as we emerge from the eye of the storm? He started off in the obvious places – sitting in a café with another person, or on a date; cinema; and then, as my friend is a musician, the yearning to return to rehearsals and concerts together.
He batted the question back to me, and I mulled over my own personal losses: Alongside restaurants, cinemas, theatres and meeting new people, I desperately miss seeing therapy clients in a room rather than many hours on Zoom; and as a land-locked Londoner with a great love for the sea, I so badly want to be allowed back outside the city limits and on the huge beaches of the north sea coast.
These are all losses. Hopefully they are not permanent, and I will be back paddling in the freezing sea before too long, as my friend will be back playing among fellow musicians. As the vaccine roll-out begins, there is a painful sense of an end within grasp, yet currently just beyond our reach – the far side of a canyon. If all goes well, spring or early summer will be the first time that any of these things become at all plausible again. By that time we will have been without some of the experiences we most cherish for a year.
Acknowledging our Losses
In London, a full lockdown akin to what we went through last March has been enacted, and the vaccination programme is just gearing up. Anxiety and sadness are running high as we reach month 10 of our pandemic cycle. We have all lost more, once again. The feeling right now is one of loss upon loss, the exhaustion of uncertainty as to when this will end, and perhaps a barely-conscious, irrational but very real fear that it might not end – that some things will be gone for good.
And while some of our losses are probably temporary, some are here to stay. There is a loss of innocence in our knowledge that this has happened, and can happen again. That the world can move under our feet. That we are not as safe and in control of the world as we often kid ourselves.
Even where we can tell ourselves that the losses are temporary, that many things will return, that does not detract from the fact that any and all of these losses, in this moment, are absolutely real. And that experience provokes many of the same emotional responses as after someone dies: The complex emotional tempests of grief and mourning.
The Work of Mourning
Many of us have been through the grief of losing a loved one. It is widely known and accepted that mourning is a personal and idiosyncratic process. It is unpredictable, with days of feeling better before the rug is pulled from beneath us and we are again drowning in waves of anger, fear and unutterable sadness. It is a vital facet of grieving that we get to know these emotional responses, accept and acknowledge them, and give them time and space in our lives.
Some people have lost loved ones to Covid. Many of us count ourselves lucky to not be going through that, but may not realise the extent to which the maelstrom of feelings – or the flatness of exhaustion and depression – may be expressions of loss in themselves. These feelings are cries from deep within us of the profound emotional impacts of trauma and loss and they must be honoured.
All human cultures have public rituals of mourning, and for good reason; for our losses to be processed we need them to be validated by others, to be shared. Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst who has written on loss and its links to depression. For him, public mourning is necessary if we are to work through our losses and not repress them and find ourselves stuck: ‘After a traumatic loss, we need to receive the message that something terrible has happened…there is a vital human need to designate events symbolically.’
In this period of on-going uncertainty we all face very real practical challenges – how to arrange home-schooling around work? How to take care of someone who has the virus? How to live well alone, after many months of isolation? – on top of mounting exhaustion and a sense of being worn down by the pandemic. Mourning is work, as any therapist will tell you – so how do we face yet another task?
The Vital Work of Compassion
I find it helpful to turn the thought around. The grief is occurring, and being expressed anyway, somehow. Perhaps in flashes of anger at the stranger who comes too close in the supermarket, or a partner or flatmate acting selfishly. Or maybe in the on-going exhaustion you can’t shake, a low-level anxiety, a lack of motivation, a need for sleep and mindless TV. There are myriad bodily ways that our losses pulse through us, some of them not obvious at all.
This task is not a case of seeking out feelings that should be there, or doing work you’re not already. Perhaps it is more about tuning into what your emotions, responses or body are saying to you, and gently acknowledging that. Bring kindness to yourself. Remind yourself that while you may not have lost a person directly, you have lost things in this pandemic. What are they? What has the impact been of those losses? And what do you need to do to honour the feelings that evokes?
Just being with those feelings or bodily sensations for a bit, when you can – hard though it can be – can stop you getting blocked. If you can talk to someone trusted about what’s going on for you, then all the better. It may not feel as good as the quick-hit manic responses of a new exercise regimen or crafty hobby during the first lockdown. But in the long-term, it will probably help you stay close to yourself and your needs through one of the hardest times many of us can remember.