On grief en masse
Content warning: death, loss, gun violence
I love Christmas — the lights, the desserts, the snow, the feeling in the air, the shared sense of celebration and joy.
This time of year hits differently for everyone, especially those with estranged family or those who are grieving. The sense of loss, sadness, and loneliness is only exacerbated by the feeling that everyone around you has access to joy, to peace, to family. And you envy everyone around you, eager to someday experience or to return to a time of communal happiness.
These last two Christmases haven’t felt quite the same for me. In 2020, I started decorating for Christmas on November 1st. The year had gone so slowly — it had dragged on, really — and I clung to anything that reminded of the passage of time, anything that made me feel like the pain of the pandemic might be over someday.
To experience another pandemic Christmas shattered a hope I didn’t realize I had. An optimism that was functioning as a lifeline. A dream that I didn’t want to wake up from.
And yet, here we are. It is three days after Christmas and covid cases are at an all-time high. I’m debating the efficacy of my cloth masks and ordering at-home rapid tests from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Today, as of only a few hours ago, I am grieving the loss of a family member, yet another obituary amongst a sea of death. She didn’t die of covid, as if that changes anything. Her death doesn’t come with headlines — like that of John Madden or Harry Reid — nor does it deserve any.
My experience feels all my own, devastating in myriad ways, and yet it is the same story that has played out over and over and over again throughout human history. But I have spent the last two years grieving — the 819,000 individuals who died of covid, the time I’ve lost to the pandemic, my sense of comfort and health in public spaces, the person I was before March 2020.
Grief has been a soundtrack on repeat. It has been the steady and relentless beat of a drum. The water that is always on the verge of overtaking me. The paralyzing reminder that I cannot fully fathom the scope of what is going on around me. As an empath, I have checked out as much as I can — enough so that I can wake up every day and still find a reason to live.
To grieve an individual person, in the midst of all this, seemed inevitable. I had been steeling myself for the loss of someone I loved because, for two years, death was just a cough away. Loss was all-encompassing, yet still breathtaking and disarming. Grief felt too familiar, a state of being I had accepted after spending two years living with residual trauma and mass death on a scale I had never witnessed before. And yet, the death of this one human being has been an insurmountable challenge, a complicated loss I was unprepared for. This juxtaposition has caught me off guard. It is the feeling that I am simply mourning yet another drop in the ocean that I am drowning in.
To remember that the pandemic is not only ongoing but at its worst with the spread of two highly contagious variants is to admit that I don’t know what I’m hoping for anymore. That scares me. I don’t know if I will realize when I’m out of the woods — or if I’ll ever leave these woods. How can I have hope if I don’t know what to hope for?
There is too much to grieve and no way to grieve it all. The minute I start to process one thing, it is replaced with another. If I’ve accepted the reality of the pandemic one day, then hours later, it is the arbitrary and pointless gun violence that plagues my home, the beautiful city of Denver. It is a reckoning, all over again, with the scope and the impact of one person’s decision to perpetrate violence. It is the momentary relief I feel that I was not there, that it was not me, that I was there 20 minutes later or 10 blocks away. And it is the almost immediate pain I feel knowing that it was someone else — a friend of a friend, a coworker I haven’t spoken to in years, a connection I lost touch with — who suffered instead. It is the devastating reminder that violence is insidious, that there is a second deadly epidemic to reckon with. And yet I wake up each day, fully aware of the omnipresence of these twin threats, attempting to live my life the best I can.
I am overwhelmed — emotionally, spiritually, and physically — by the things that I cannot control and by the suffering that I bear witness to. And yet in the smallness of my world, I still choose hope when I drink a glass of eggnog and put the star on top of my Christmas tree.