A Strange Grief: Processing Pain in the time of Coronavirus

“Holy Even in Pain” © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com

When I was in the hospital after giving birth to my second child, I got an unexpected Facetime call from my mother.

She and my dad were at our house, watching our older daughter, while my husband and I were in the hospital for labor, delivery, and recovery.

Before we had left, I told my mom that it was probably best if our daughter didn’t call us at the hospital, because it might be too hard for her. But we had no idea that my labor would take a total of 43 hours, or that I would end up getting an unexpected c-section, having to spend a little extra time in the hospital to recover.

When they called me, I saw my sweet 2 year old’s face on the screen, while hearing my mom say in the background, “Remember what I said? Remember what you promised? I said you could talk to your mommy but you can’t cry. You can’t cry!”

Seeing my little 2 year old’s face, with sad, drooping eyes and a trembling lip, trying to fight back tears, was a face that I will never forget. It sent me, in all my postpartum hormonal high, into a weeping state, as I tried to tell my daughter, “No, no! It’s okay, sweetie. It’s okay to cry. I miss you too. And it’s hard. But I love you. And it’s okay to cry. Mommy is crying too!”

And I was. Crying all the tears.

— — — —

I’ve been replaying that moment in my head a lot these days. In this time of overwhelming grief, loss upon loss, sadness upon sadness, I have reflected on the ways that the voices I heard as an Asian American regarding grief and emotions were:

“Don’t cry.”

“You’re okay. You’re fine. Stop crying.”

“Why are you crying?”

It was as if for my immigrant parents, crying was a luxury that could not be afforded in the endless grind of trying to survive. There was too much to do. Always another thing to “get to.” There was no space to name feelings, to welcome grief, or allow tears. There was no language to access emotion, so it was stuffed away in a closet, and never dealt with. An avoidance of pain and tears is part of my conditioning.

Our natural impulses around unprocessed grief have been exacerbated in a time of pandemic. Right now, many of our normal rituals of grief are off limits. Through the restrictions of covid, we are not able to gather, to hug one another, to cry together, to just hold each other and weep. It’s challenging to have large, public memorials or gatherings. We don’t experience the visceral nature of communal grief, the feeling of being in a room where you heal wailing and sniffles and stifled sobs. Or the feeling of crying into somebody’s shoulder, unapologetically, leaving snot and tear stains as sacred offerings.

So we numb ourselves. We scroll to the next story. We consume the next tasty (or trashy) food, binge the next Netflix show. We move to the next thing on our to-do list. We go to sleep and wake up to another day.

Yet the truth is, so many of us need to welcome tears, to process our pain. We need rituals of grief in these times. Because there’s just so much. So goddamn much.

So much death to mourn- the deaths of all those who died from covid, the deaths of Black siblings due to both police and vigilante violence, the deaths of so many cultural icons and heroes.

So many transitions to process- all the ways that being “Human” and our “normal” is shifting — how we go to church, have friendships, date, send kids to school, get married, have “vacations,” celebrate birthdays and holidays.

So much evil and injustice to grieve- the sins of white supremacy, the harmfulness of individualism, the love of violence and retribution, the consequences of environmental devastation, the idolatry of flag and country, blatant political deception and corruption, the ongoing exploitation and vulnerability of those on the margins.

It’s so much.

Reflection from @Blackliturgies (IG)

So how do we in these times, welcome the tears? Embrace the grief? How do we make space to hold one another, and have rituals of grief, even if they look different from what we’re used to?

For me, there’s been a few things that have been helpful in this time, and I hope they might be helpful for you as well:

1) Breathing and stretching. It sounds so simple, but making space to simply STOP and take deep breaths sometimes helps me to notice what I’m actually feeling in my body, opening up more attention to my emotional state as well. It forces me to notice how my body is holding the grief, whether that’s in tension or soreness or stress.

I’ve begun doing “10 at 10”- ten minutes of stretching at 10pm, before bed. And that moment to slow down, put screens away, and be honest about my state has been helpful.

2) Using tactile and sensory tools for grief: In a time when so much is disembodied, when we connect with others through screens and images, take time to engage your senses. Light candles for those you have lost and take time to notice the flame, smell the scents. Tear some cloth and listen to the tearing sound, feel the pull of the tear, as you name things you are grieving or lamenting. Find something that you can break, in a safe place and manner, and break it as a sign of grief. Put salt into water as you name things you are mourning. Find ways to incorporate your senses and your body in tactile practices, to be more embodied in your grief.

3) Create a small altar in your home. As losses occur or transitions happen, add small items to an altar that mark some of these important events and losses. Time is so nebulous as we shelter-in-place, so take time to add small symbols — photos, writings, symbolic objects, candles, flowers, etc.- connected to people you’re grieving, things you are experiencing, or transitions you are undergoing.

Sacred spot for Breonna Taylor on her birthday- IG: @sacred_spots_at_home

4) Watch videos that make you cry. Or laugh. This sounds silly, but because so much of our grief feels inaccessible these days, we may have trouble accessing it on our own and may need to experience the words, the stories, the emotions of somebody else to be able to access our own. If you’ve experienced personal loss, know that it’s okay and helpful sometimes to look at old photos, read old notes, watch old videos, and to remember.

5) Grieve in community. There are ways to do this creatively (and as safely as possible) in this time. I was very moved by this outdoor, socially distant grief circle for Cameron Simmons last week, and believe that more of us need spaces like this.

If you can’t physically gather, find ways to gather with others virtually, to name what you’re grieving. Use liturgies or prayers that help give you access to the deeper pain that might typically be unspoken. Perform tactile rituals together- lighting candles, taking communion, etc. Share poetry, art, songs, stories that are meaningful and honor those you are grieving.

6) Get Outside. Nature is healing and teaches us so much, about the cycles of life, the resiliency of Creation, the interconnectedness of us all. It may be easy to become numb or desensitized when we are inside and in front of screens all day, so make space to feel your feelings and process all you are encountering in an outdoor space. Go on a nature walk in which you name what you’re grieving on the first leg, and name what you’re hoping for on the return leg. Or walk with somebody else and tell stories about people you are honoring or remembering.

My refuge- “Big Trees Trail” at Joaquin Miller Park (Oakland, CA)

Though it might be challenging in these times, make space for the grief. And as we allow ourselves to let tears flow, sit in sadness, scream expletives and break things and punch pillows, we recognize the ways that things are not okay right now.

And it’s okay to not be okay.

What practices are helping you to grieve in these times?

Co-Pastor @bethelcommunitysl | Director of Advocacy @fphayward | pastor, activist, writer | married to @eubanksme | co-author of @lentenlament | she/her

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