When my dad died, he died in a hospital alone. I saw him the day before. He died overnight after a long struggle following a stroke. But I was not there for him. The same happened with my mother. She died two weeks later all alone and again I was not there for her. Both incidents left me throughout the years with a complex set of guilt feelings. But at least I had the chance prior to them passing away to thank them for all they had done for me and my siblings, hug and kiss them goodbye. Importantly, I had the chance to give them a proper burial and wish them well on their new journey.
The way I manage to overcome grief for the loss of my parents is to remember our good times together when I was a child. My mother knew nothing else but making sacrifices for her children. She would sing for us to send us to sleep or in hard times she would often forgo her own rationed portion of food in order to put more on our plate.
And when I am low, I find comfort in remembering the support given to me by my father. Two such instances in particular come to mind. Just after he had his massive stroke and he was rushed to hospital, I found myself holding him tight, cuddling him and for seven solid hours telling him ‘stories’ that I crafted on the spot in the Ericksonian psychotherapeutic tradition to induce his concentration and relaxation. I wanted to keep his mind alert and focussed as much as possible until the overstretched medical emergency services could finally come to his rescue. He kept staring at me throughout. As he realised, at some stage, that he was losing the battle, he managed to stutter these words: ‘I’m proud…you…Love you’.
The second occasion was when I was hardly eleven years old when I was separated, for educational and other reasons, from my family. Being away from them, I missed them. There were moments of despair when I was alone and longed for my mother’s hug, the security afforded by the presence of my father and the warm closeness I had with my brother and sisters. One Saturday I had such a bad experience. I distanced myself from teachers and friends and withdrew in a state of grief. I felt lost and vulnerable. As I sat there alone sobbing and pondering life without my family, I had a glimpse of a distant silhouette, far in the hazy background, which resembled my father. I put my head down in fear thinking it was just a mirage. Then I heard my father’s distinctive, deep and comforting voice and simultaneously I felt a hand ruffling my hair: ‘It’s OK Andonis…I’m here.’ I looked up in distress. My father was there standing by me. It was not a hallucination. I have carried that precious moment with me throughout my life.
Having the right and the chance to say farewell, give a kiss and a hug and provide a decent funeral to loved ones is not normally the case with people who lose close relatives or friends in a conflict or war. And my family had a big share of that grief too – I should know. The Holocaust is a prime example of that trauma and loss. Recent and ongoing conflicts in the world continue this traumatic experience where people lose their loved ones without sometimes knowing how they died and where they may be. It is the same with missing persons. The Cyprus tragedy of 1974, for example, still lingers on for those families whose missing loved ones are still unaccounted for. These families are disallowed from going through the normal process of grief and see closure.
Pandemics have similar effects. In the age of coronavirus, Covid-19, the trauma experienced falls within that exceptional category of loss and grief where closure is that more difficult to attain. People falling ill of the disease, those who are hospitalised and those who die of it; the families whose members lose their lives and are left feeling lost and numb; and the healthcare workers who fight to keep people alive but lose many of their patients whilst at the same time they themselves are either running the risk of infection or do contract the virus and face the prospect of death, share something similar which unifies their emotions.
Confronted with issues of life and death, they all experience what appears to be a perpetual, never-ending emotional turmoil; they experience an open, continuous grieving process which in most parts denies them the psychological necessity and comfort of closure. For them, it is a lonely and detached experience: no contact, no goodbyes, no hugs, no ceremonial ending with a proper burial for those who die of the virus. And for those who are left behind to mourn their sick or dead they are denied the comfort and support afforded by others in times of need. Funerals are carried out speedily and in the absence of mourners. Personal contact with each other, with family or friends is restricted or absent and the warmth of embraces and touch are all now missing. The bereaved and those who are at the forefront of the ongoing battle against the virus are starved of direct, intimate and comforting support and are left to find solace in their own selves or through virtual reality, telephones and video calls. In such a situation that the virus still determines the rules by which we interact and how we grieve, our passage through stages of loss and bereavement remains in tatters.
Elisabeth Kuber-Ross and David Kessler’s On Grief and Grieving set out the process of grief in five stages. First, there is denial to accept the facts and the reality of the situation. Second, anger sets in that such a situation has been allowed to exist. Third, in order to negotiate our predicament and make things feel better we go through a bargaining process. We exchange (give up) something for something else in the hope that things will get better. Fourth, as the reality kicks in we experience depression which is a natural emotion arising from the recognition of loss, bitterness, fear, uncertainty or insecurity. Finally, once we get used to the facts and the reality of the situation, we begin to recognise and emotionally accept the loss and then proceed to find a way to fill in the resultant vacuum as best as we can. Acceptance is a moment when emotional detachment and objectivity set in and we move forward.
These stages are not linear nor do they happen in an orderly fashion. Grief is personal and therefore different individuals experience grief in different ways and in different degrees. Think of the stages as an ‘average’ in a statistical sense. The average may give a general understanding of what a particular case, issue or problem is but hides the often extreme range of individual readings. Stages of grief are, therefore, a guiding tool which helps us navigate our understanding of what most people in general will experience when faced with trauma and loss.
The universal trauma experienced as a consequence of the coronavirus creates a new dimension of loss and grief. In a recent interview, David Kessler has pointed out that in the present pandemic, other than personal grief there is also a collective grief for the loss of life; the loss of what we have known as ‘normal’; the loss of millions of jobs; the exacerbation of poverty; the loss of interpersonal connections; the loss of freedom and so on. In addition, there is also grief about our insecurity for the future, of how we will survive and how we may get back to something called normalcy.
‘There’s denial,’ he says, ‘which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.’
In figuring how to proceed we want to believe that the present crisis will pass and when it passes something new and better may come out of it. In our darkest hours we search therefore for the meaning of existence. Kessler is helpful here too. In his most recent work, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, he may not, in my view, add a sixth stage of grief, but he certainly promotes the stage of acceptance by elaborating on what acceptance means. He succeeds in injecting meaning into the ways individuals accept the loss and move on by making meaningful choices of how to come out of the crisis, how to survive and how to engage in something new and different to make life meaningful.
In being instructed to comply with a strict routine of personal hygiene, washing hands, wearing masks, exercising social distancing, remaining under lockdowns and homebound, staying away from family and friends, dealing with infection and death etc. may all feel alien and overwhelming. Through that, we express our fears, doubts and uncertainty, trauma, loss and grief and as we do we feel the pain but it also makes us want to move on in the belief that we can handle the crisis. So, Kessler says, it is OK to feel anger, to be frightened, sad, bewildered, lost and desperate in finding a compass to guide us to new beginnings. It is normal.
Although we manage, by and large, to successfully negotiate the stages of loss and grief, accept and move on, something stays in us to keep reminding us of the distressing past. We carry the memory of loss in all endeavours because that is the way we remain sane and safe by keeping a link with the past to make sense of the present and form sketches of the future. We cope with that memory by finding good things to remember or we even create humour or find laughter out of a painful past. We build on those positives and find fulfillment by attaching meaning in what we presently are and what we want to be in future. However, as studies of survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust and their descendants, rape, war and violence, persecution, torture, oppression and detention, terminal illness and disability amongst many others also show, the essence of the trauma and its painful reminders is never erased off our memories. In fact, it should not and ought not be erased. It is an essential reminder of troublesome times and our fragility. It acts as a moral compass of behaviour; how we ought to act towards each other; how to prevent such troublesome experiences from happening again and how we can re-build life out of the ruins.
In summary, every individual experiences grief in a personal way but the coronavirus has also created a collective grief that we all share and experience. As such, we need to help each other. In particular, we need to find a way to help those individuals, families and healthcare workers who are affected most and who find themselves locked in a truly conflicting situation full of mixed emotions and a perpetual process of never-ending grief. We must not leave them alone or push them or shower them with moral clichés such as when the going gets tough the tough get going. Kessler’s advice on this is simple enough but equally powerful: “There is no greater gift you can give someone in grief than to ask them about their loved one, and then truly listen.”
Andonis Vassiliades is an emeritus professor