Connecting in grief
For the first time since my mother’s death in 2016, I was unable to visit her at the cemetery in the days surrounding All Souls’ Day. This wasn’t just because of the closure of cemeteries and memorial parks as mandated by government, but also due to safety concerns about long-distance travel while the nation was expecting downpour from Typhoon “Rolly.” It is a small thing, but the inability to celebrate All Souls’ Day as we normally would — swarming cemeteries during the week, commemorating our dead while holding mini family reunions and catching up with friends — is yet one of many ways that 2020 has forced us to adapt.
In the first place, 2020 has been a poor year for grieving. This is the blow upon the bruise—that for families experiencing loss during the coronavirus pandemic, there has been the double burden of illness caused, exacerbated, or made more difficult by coronavirus and its attending precautions, as well as the pain of grieving under enforced isolation.
Often, families can only watch helplessly through Zoom or Facebook messenger as their loved ones pass away in lonely ICUs, no visitors allowed due to the pandemic. I recall thinking how my mother’s flesh, ashen in death, had been repulsively so unlike the warmth of living skin. How much worse is it for those who have had to see their loved ones through the screens of smartphones, the last images of their loves limited to greenish, blurred images, their last words to their dying, limited to tinny words over poor connections. We have held weekly online memorials for fallen colleagues and mentors, playing sentimental music over PowerPoint presentations shared through Zoom. We rarely now buy flowers to bring to graves; we do, however, have to think about paid subscriptions to teleconferencing platforms.
Because of the unique nature of loss and grieving in 2020, I am given occasion to revisit my grief, publicly born through my column, and my musings in 2016 about what it means to be grieving in the age of social media (“A grief online,” IAMGENM, 6/24/16). I had wondered at the time about what is considered ethical and proper behavior for grieving online, and pondered if there is a dignified way to use the internet while reeling from loss but still connecting to loved ones. In 2020, we have little choice: For many the internet is the only lifeline to family life and to the ill and dying. There is little concern now for dignity. Mostly, those dealing with loss have tried to navigate this whole new frontier of grieving by making online memorials and rituals that resemble their old, pre-pandemic counterparts: online wakes, Zoom tributes for the dead, a live broadcast of interment when applicable.
Yet this has also been a unique time to build communities that support those who are grieving. “Grief networks” have been around for a while, starting as small communities that allow participants to share stories, ask questions, share resources, and post artwork about their experiences with loss. Under lockdown, these groups are more important than ever, allowing users a safe space to talk about a subject that was never much welcomed pre-pandemic, and which continues to be a downer in the suffocating confines of quarantine.
Searching “grief network” on Facebook or Instagram yields results for different demographics: widows and widowers, COVID-19 survivors, bereaved people of color. My own grief network, “Grieferinos,” is for individuals who happen to like true crime podcasts but who are also united by loss. “The griefcase” on Instagram curates artwork, poetry, anecdotes about grief. “The Grief Gang,” a podcast and Instagram account, provides support for members of a “gang” nobody ever wished to be a part of. There is something out there for everyone. None of it is a substitute for real life meet-ups or cemetery visits, but the unconditional positive, nonjudgmental support to be found in these groups is something we might have trouble finding in real life anyway.
Grief is difficult enough, and loss cuts a dividing line into one’s life: There is a before and an after. For those who have had to navigate the “after” during the pandemic, it is difficult, uncomfortable, strange, and characterized by the absence of certain rituals which (we might hope) could bring a semblance of closure. But support communities exist, and for those of us reeling from loss in 2020, they might be our best bet in navigating this gray new world.
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