Sliding doors…to all the grievers out there

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I know a bit about how you might be feeling right now. That’s because I’m a griever too. Many people are. We just don’t talk about it as much as we should. As a psychologist, I believe talking about adversity and being transparent about our feelings is hugely important to maintain good mental health. This current situation with covid-19 is incredibly challenging for everyone. We grievers just have another added and often invisible layer to contend with. I imagine, for many of you, the coronavirus will have increased your isolation and separated you from supports you might have only just begun to engage with. Or perhaps these supports have been your crux since you experienced the loss of a loved one some time ago. Either way, lack of human connection is probably not what you need right now.

What I know to be true about my grief is that I carry it with me always. Some days it feels really heavy. Other days, I am distracted by the almost constant activity of my life. Time is irrelevant when it comes to grief. Whether your loved one’s death was last week, last year or a decade ago, like lots of life events that you must now live through without your loved one, a global pandemic will undoubtedly trigger your grief reaction.

My husband died in 2018. Widowed at 35, I now know trauma personally as well as professionally. I’ve battled with it and emerged out the other side relatively intact. But it has changed me. It is rapidly approaching the two-year anniversary since his death and I miss and think of him every day. He was a type 1 diabetic and since covid-19 hit, I’ve wondered if he was still alive, how our situation would be different? If you have ever seen ‘Sliding Doors’ with Gwyneth Paltrow, you’ll know that two alternate life stories are spliced together in the narrative. This splicing of my own life narrative now happens in my brain regularly. For example, I’ve considered how he would currently be in the high-risk category and having to self-isolate. I know he would have hated it. I wonder, would he have caught the virus and died? Then I remember he is dead already and none of this thinking matters.

As well as all the thinking, more mundane things lead to unexpected expressions of grief. The other day a shelf in our living-room had been pulled on accidentally and had come away from its wall fixings. I’ve no idea how to fix it. That was his job. It prompted tears as I rationalised out loud “It’s only a shelf…I do know it’s only a shelf”. But it was a shelf he had made, hung and been proud of. More tears. In that moment, I was both sad for my loss and grateful for the immediacy of my grief. I find that it can be a comfort sometimes.

The other aspect of this situation for us grievers, is that we know what life is like after the worst imaginable events have actually happened to us. I believe our prior experiences make us more susceptible to worry and fear in a situation like we currently face. This worry is likely to be particularly pronounced if our grief is still raw or the death recent. Our minds can run away with fear if we let it. Could our partner, mum, dad, sibling or child be affected? How would we cope after what we have already been through? And then there is always the issue of our own mortality. You know that surreal feeling just after your person has died; when we can’t sleep for hours and when we do, we wake with the crushing knowledge of the death all over again each morning. In the last couple of weeks, I wake with the knowledge of the pandemic front and centre. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I believe this is a normal reaction to an unprecedented situation.

Like me, I’m sure many of you might be imagining what it would be like to be living this reality with the person who you’ve lost by your side. To be able to ask their opinion about the decisions you are faced with regarding work, school or home-life would be of some comfort. To have them present, as a buffer to your worries and fears. We can imagine what they might have thought or said to us, but never know with any real certainty. So, we make the decisions. Some of us can integrate new people, partners and supports into the process of making these decisions and then hope for the best.

Life as a griever is challenging. So here is my message to you. Seek support wherever and from whoever you can get it. Do it digitally. Pick up the telephone. Skype. Zoom. Just make sure you connect with someone. Let yourself cry and rage when the occasion calls for it. Have compassion for your difficult moments and congratulate yourself in your triumphs. Nobody expected to be living through a global pandemic in 2020 and there’s no guide book to lead the way. Remember what you have coped with before. Know that you are coping now. And, whichever way you choose to do it, it’s enough.

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