Collective Grief and Comparative Suffering During COVID-19


With the collective grief we’re all feeling right now, I’d like to try and articulate my thoughts. I can’t promise it’ll be massively coherent but hopefully it will bring someone, somewhere a little bit of comfort during these strangest of times. Although I don’t have much experience of death – the only significant person I have ever lost is my beloved grandmother, when I was twelve years old – I am no stranger to grief. At points I’ve thought I might drown underneath the weight of the loss of severing ties with my entire family. Of knowing that even though she is still out there, living and breathing, chances are I will never see my mother ever again.

Perhaps there’s a hierarchy when it comes to grief, who knows? All I do know is that pain is pain when we’re feeling it. When the agony washes over my entire being and I’m trapped within it with no end in sight – it’s akin to being locked inside the type of glass box portrayed in the Netflix series You. (If you haven’t watched it yet, you must). This agony is rearing its head a lot. One day it might be for ten minutes; I’ll do all my usual mental health hacks to quash it and have it under control. Other days I’m in that damn box from morning until night. And you know what? That’s okay. It’s part of this process and absolutely fine to be great one hour and losing our minds the next. In fact, I think it’d be abnormal to be all good all the time.

collective grief

We must allow ourselves to grieve for all we’ve lost

Be it because people we love have died, or we’re terrified they will die. Or the disappointment we feel on behalf of our kids for what they’re missing out on. Relationships that were already rocky and won’t survive the lockdown. Ones that appeared to be made of solid stuff but sadly were not. Money worries for the jobs we are losing. Not to mention the inevitable housing slump which will limit our living options. Opportunities and holidays we’d been looking forward to which vanished overnight. The list is endless and the concerns are real.

Above all else, we have to give ourselves permission to feel sadness for these things. Irrespective of how trivial they might seem in the face of the hospital workers on our generations’ front line. When we deny ourselves these feelings they manifest as anger and resentment. By letting ourselves have our sadness we can make peace with it. Anyone telling me they are “absolutely fine” are promptly being filed in my mental cabinet as “check in on them regularly”. Stoicism has its place but I don’t think there is a person on the planet who is absolutely fine right now.

Displaying empathy and comparative suffering are not the same thing

To quote a verse from a random poem which has stuck in my head for almost three decades:

“Trust might sound like lust but they have nothing in common.”

At times of mass struggle it’s easy to fall into bad habits but they can have disastrous consequences. The best example of this, which I’m seeing a lot on text messages and social media, is comparative suffering. When people tell us they’re feeling low, the worst thing we can do in return is immediately share a story of someone else worse off. I don’t know about you, but hearing that my life is easier than someone else’s never makes me feel better. Just makes me sad for them on top of being sad for myself.

Rather than fall into this trap (which we’ve all been guilty of) tell them how sorry you are to hear about their struggle. Display empathy for their situation and say you’re here if they want to call for a chat. Actually mean it, though! You must be willing to answer that phone should they take you up on your offer. A text exchange which goes like I’ve just described, rather than comparing-the-suffering makes all the difference. It can literally propel me back into that glass box or help lift me out of it.

collective grief

Now more than ever before, we have to be able to lean on our inner circle

I’ve never been great at asking for help. Mostly through fear of rejection and putting myself in a vulnerable position. Since Polly’s diagnosis in 2015 and becoming a home educating family, I have not had a choice. I’d be lying if I said that every call for help has been answered and I will not pretend that it didn’t sting and leave me feeling raw and open when it went that way. But shutting myself away and not accepting anyone’s help would have been shooting myself in the foot.

Being able to depend on our inner circle is everything right now. Brené Brown says that you should be able to write your true nearest and dearest on a one inch squared size of paper. I know that I can talk openly to all the people on my list. I refuse to lie and they don’t want me to. Now is not the time to plaster on fake smiles to make others feel less uncomfortable.

The stone cold truth is that you can’t pretend a shit sandwich is a nice piece of sushi

Or as my dear friend, Lesley, says: surrender and accept. It’s all any of us can do.

Sending love to each and every one of you.

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