What we lose when we grieve in isolation

In this period of social distancing, many people now find themselves grieving in isolation.
In this period of social distancing, many people now find themselves grieving in isolation.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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The coronavirus pandemic has cast much of the world into a collective state of grief. Our sense of loss covers a wide spectrum: from loss of personal space and freedoms to dashed expectations and visions to loss of our physical or mental health to the loss of loved ones. We may also be experiencing grief from the undeniable gap between the world we would like to have and the world we’ve inherited.

Most cultures have developed traditions around grief to help people contain and move through the intense feelings of loss; and most of these rituals involve community. The collective nature of mourning rituals support and hold the bereaved through the emotional process.

But in this period of social distancing, many people now find themselves grieving in isolation. Some of us live in societies that have abandoned these communal traditions. As a result, our grief might remain unexpressed, get congested, or be postponed. Unprocessed grief can have traumatic impact and can result in anger, rage, violence, depression, and substance abuse. Most bereavement counselors agree that it’s important to grieve consciously and intentionally in order to heal, grow, and move forward.

Tanja Pajevic is the author of The Secret Life of Grief, a memoir that explores grief from all angles, which she wrote after the death of her mother several years ago. I recently interviewed Pajevic to ask her about navigating grief in our current reality.

Julie Flynn Badal: It seems that in the US we consider grief to be very personal. It’s as if we don’t want to intrude on someone’s privacy once we’ve attended the funeral and sent the card. And yet you experienced this real need for community during your grieving process.

This period of social distancing means we have to cope with feelings of grief largely on our own. Can you share some of the personal tools you developed to help you manage your experience of loss and the lack of collective support?

Tanja Pajevic: I learned to schedule specific intervals during the day to physically and literally grieve. And that’s something I find myself doing even now while we’re socially distanced. I’m grieving multiple times a day. These grief intervals allow me to stay buoyant. Afterwards, I can come up and have moments of connection and presence.

JFB: As I read your book, I was so impressed with how much inner work you did to heal after losing your mother. It struck me as an act of bravery to go through this process head on and then share your story.

TP: One of the reasons I wrote that book was because I wanted to learn how to grieve consciously and I couldn’t find a memoir about conscious grief. I felt that we should have a larger narrative to support people who are grieving. So, I decided to chronicle my story.

JFB: What made you feel so strongly that you needed to grieve consciously?

TP: My dad passed away shortly after I graduated from college. It was a complicated loss and I didn’t have the tools to cope. My father and I had had a troubled relationship and the fallout from his death blew apart my twenties.

I was in my early forties when my mother passed away, with two young children, and I was cognizant of the fact that I couldn’t go down that road again. I didn’t have the option of putting my head down and hoping it would go away. I knew deep in my bones that I had to find a better way.

JFB: Your book was both a personal journey and a cultural investigation. What did you discover about your own grief and about traditional mourning rites, and about bereavement support and lack thereof in our culture?

TP: My parents emigrated from the former Yugoslavia before I was born. As a child, we went back and forth, spending summers in the former Yugoslavia. When I was 10, I attended a wedding with my family and the best man was killed in a car accident right after the ceremony. I remember everything shut down. The traditional three-day wedding celebration morphed into full-on mourning rituals. No music, no singing. Mirrors were covered with black cloth. Women wore mourning black and men wore black armbands. The church held a series of religious events at specific intervals to help hold the community and provide markers for communal mourning.

Later, I realized we don’t have many customs around grief anymore here in the United States. But we really do need our feelings to be held and to be seen. No one can fix our grief. But it’s so important for it to be acknowledged and to receive communal support.

JFB: What do you do during that time that you are giving yourself space to grieve? Is it time to sit and have a cup of tea? Or is there a ritual you engage in?

TP: My personal touchstones are dance, writing, and meditation. Those are the three pieces I keep circling back to even now in terms of mental health and physical health. At this time, I feel so much emotion in my body. For me, it’s important to move heavy feelings through my body so they don’t turn into depression or self-criticism. I’m finding that dance helps so much. I also process my grief through writing and use meditation to ground myself afterwards.

JFB: Because of the lockdown, our country and the rest of the world is in a state of postponement. You mentioned your grieving process for your father was delayed because you didn’t have the tools at that point in your life. From your perspective, what do you think happens when we aren’t able to address the loss we’ve experienced?

TP: I think this is what causes intergenerational trauma. There’s a lot of World War II trauma in my family. My grandmother was killed by bomb shrapnel and my mother was set free from a concentration camp the night before her family was to be murdered. One of the reasons I write is to open up space to honor those experiences. I want to give those stories space to be grieved because when they’re not acknowledged, they can lead to so much dysfunction.

Writing allows me to reclaim my family’s narrative as well as my personal power. Writing my memoir gave me the ability to lasso our story. My parents experienced trauma, but they were also resilient. By writing their story, I was able to tap into that wisdom and that resilience, and reclaim that strength as my own.

JFB: In your book, you compared the grieving process to the caterpillar in the cocoon turning to complete mush before transforming into something entirely different. That really resonated for me during this time of quarantine. It’s as if I’m cocooned in the chrysalis of my home where everything is breaking down with the possibility of being rebuilt into something new before we emerge.

TP: Absolutely. When I began writing my memoir, I thought I’d chart how to grieve consciously. What I didn’t realize is that I was actually undergoing a fundamental identity shift. I couldn’t see that as I began the journey.

That’s where so many of us are now. We don’t know when this will end or where we’ll be on the other side or what it will look like. I think we have an opportunity to go within and maybe break down a bit. We can reformulate what’s most important to us in order to move out of this consciously and powerfully.