Pandemic Traumatic Grief

To a certain degree there is trauma in every loss, whether it is the unexpectedness of it, the suffering of it, the impact of it, the violence of it or the massiveness of it. Every loss has an element of trauma to it.

It is the magnitude of the event that makes it traumatic.

As a three year old, I woke in the middle of the night due to a loud noise and ran into my parent’s room for solace. Instead, I found my father lying tangled in the bedsheets on the floor. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. To me he was sleeping on the floor, so I tried my three year old best to wake him up. Shaking him and calling his name and telling him to wake up. When that didn’t work, I ran into my grandmother’s room, woke her up and told her ‘something’s wrong with Daddy’.

Traumatic grief.

What made it worst is that no one ever talked with me about it. I didn’t speak for three days and did not say the words ‘good bye’ again, that I remember. I suppose their thought was that I was three and was too young to remember. Yet, at fifty-five I still remember it as clearly today as I did that night.

Traumatic grief.

The common experience of devastating natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, earth quakes and tsunamis is that what was absolutely known one moment is absolutely gone in the next. The landscape of our lives, our homes and our city skylines are completely destroyed and eliminated – physically and emotionally.

Traumatic grief.

September 11, 2001 when the first plane struck the twin towers in New York City, New York, USA, there was grief…”How could this awful accident happen?” Before we could even process that grief, the second plane hit and the question turned to a statement, “This was on purpose.” As the following two planes were identified as part of the plan, the new revelation brought more grief.

Traumatic grief.

With the realization that there would be more recovery than rescue, our trauma compounded. With the information that insurance companies did not cover ‘terrorist attacks’, our trauma compounded. With each last voicemail messages shared, our trauma compounded.

Traumatic grief.

Today a biological siege is upon us.

We are at the mercy of an enemy we cannot see, but who’s damage is leaving bodies in bags and crushing spirits. We panic at the subtlest of symptoms because information is nebulous at best, ever changing at worst. The emotional, mental, financial and social landscape of our lives has changed almost overnight.

Unlike weather related natural disasters we have no visual evidence of destruction available on the news to help us move from the initial denial stage of grief. While in denial, we can’t possibly make the right decisions to ‘stay safe, stay home’, because we are still reaching back for the life that so swiftly disappeared. It is almost as if we see the old life before us and we struggle to realize we are looking at a memory.

Others who are not in denial, those who are in an anger stage, see these choices as irresponsible and stupid. They will blame those in denial for the ongoing worsening of the situation. The anger stage causes increased bullying, trolling and arguing. This compounds trauma.

We find ourselves bargaining ‘too little, too late’ into our new reality. We stay home from work, but make needless trips out into the community. We stop hugging and shaking hands, but hold parties in the park. Still in the throws of denial we attempt to create a reality that is less dissimilar from our ‘before’ reality, than what currently is. This often looks to others like we just refuse to follow the rules. And it might be true, but this is grief and everyone follows grief in their own way, in their own time. You can’t mandate people to move through grief faster than they can.

As the new reality is absorbed and the magnitude of the trauma is processed, depression sets in. Add in the social distancing and isolation requirements of quarantine with stay at home mandates, the traumatic depression is compounded.

Our normal remedies for such things are not available with social distancing, isolation and quarantine in place. So the damage/danger rises. The trauma compounds.

In addition, we have the financial upheaval this creates individually, locally and globally. The trauma compounds.

Our healthcare professionals are being asked to perform super humanly. They are not staying at home, staying safe, because they can’t. We need them on the front lines and they have stepped up. They sacrifice their needs for the needs of the whole which is more than the system does for them.

When this is over these heroes, who gave their all, will not have the opportunity to recuperate, because healthcare needs are always present. There won’t be the opportunity to sit on the couch watching netflix or play board games with their children. In fact, many will develop PTSD. The trauma compounds.

What does acceptance look like in a scenario like this?

It looks like neighbors having dance parties in driveways, virtual celebrations of life for loved ones, individuals making hundreds of respirator masks for healthcare professionals, teachers teaching online, neighbors checking in on neighbors. It looks like people moving from busy to being. It looks like calm within the chaos.

It looks like creating a new reality that holds more reverence for life and relationships. It looks like a society that takes care of the whole not the few. It looks like healers stepping forth as a new kind of hero.

It also brings with it a new acceptance of our mortality, the need to plan for it and discuss it more openly. Our death, while we do not need to hasten it, we cannot deny its inevitability. The discussions about advanced care decisions and end of life ceremony and disposition preferences have been taboo for far too long. Now, we are faced with what the end of life community has begged you to understand.

Not only is the date of our death unknown, unimaginable and unpredictable, but so too are the circumstances of our death. We may or may not have forewarning, and any forewarning will likely be only weeks, days or mere hours in advance. And if you are not listening close enough you may not even hear the forewarning when issued.

Every day has a birth and a death written in it’s sunrise and sunset. Every day you too carry your birth and death with every inhale and exhale. It is a luxury to think your next breath is a given. It is a luxury to think your tomorrow is a given.

This is part of what compounds our traumatic grief during this time. Because left and right we are now forced to face mortality as the death toll is announced. The truth is though that we are a society almost desensitized in our traumatic grief. Soaring murder rates, increased poverty, mass shootings, terrorism, war and violence against women and people of color has all contributed to our collective trauma. So, once again, our trauma is compounded.

Our experience with death is changed right now. We don’t even have the basic right to have someone at our hospital bedside, much less the choice to have a funeral or memorial with all loved ones in attendance.

This is not the time necessarily for discussing whether or not you’d prefer lavender or peppermint essential oil diffused in your bedroom in your last days. It is, however, the perfect time to seriously discuss where your quality of life line lies. What aggressive measures you would or would not want taken should it come to that.

It is the time to make sure your legal documents are in order, your passwords are accessible to a trusted person and someone knows something about your wishes regarding your final resting place.

It is also the time to do some emotional estate planning. Write letters to loved ones to be read at a later date, at your celebration of life service, or by a loved one at a wedding or milestone birthday. Create photo albums, scrap books or slideshows. Document who is who on the backs of every photo. Allocate special items to special loved ones. Secure arrangements for the care of your beloved pets upon your death. Make a collection of poems, bible passages or other writings that bring you comfort.

Just doing these things will empower you, helping to move you through your traumatic grief and nurture acceptance.

The world as we knew it is over, that’s true; that in and of itself is a traumatic loss. Within us lies the capability to create a new world, though.

Let’s make sure we create a better one. #traumatotranscendent

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