Grief in the Midst of a Pandemic

I’ve been rolling with it, I really have. I’ve been staying in the moment, I’ve been releasing expectations of perfection and productivity and found joy in simple things. I’ve made my kids get outside every day (when I’m home) even if the weather is crappy. My dog has had all of the walks. We’ve cooked at home. We’ve napped. I have toilet paper without having really hoarded.

I’ve been a little sad that Braden likely won’t finish his last year of elementary school in the building where he’s spent the last 7 years attending class and making friends and learning so much about himself and life. I’m disappointed that he won’t get to do the 6th grade graduation rituals he’s watched all of the other 6th grade classes before him do, and that he won’t get to play his last season of soccer as a Hyde Park Eagle after a 6 year run of Eagle’s soccer. I’m bummed that we didn’t get to go on the Spring Break trip I spent so much time planning, and that we may not get to go on the cruise in June that my mom has so been looking forward to, because she wants us all together to celebrate my parents‘ 50th wedding anniversary. I’ve had an “it could be worse” and “we just have to do what we have to do” attitude about the whole pandemic thing. There’s still a lot to be be grateful for, and I kind of love having my kids at home. I’m enjoying the slower pace, the meals together at home, the spring weather, and the freedom to let go of the sense that “I should be somewhere doing something.” Nope. I’ve been where I need to be. At home, or at work. That’s it.

As part of the medical community, I certainly am aware of all of the anxiety that is attacking us. As an American, I’m aware of the fear and uncertainty that plague us all. But somehow, I’ve carried this sense that the worst, most profound struggle I’ll ever have has already happened, that this current challenge is very serious and will have long-lasting and far-reaching repercussions, but that nothing will shake me as deeply as my baby losses have. It just won’t. It can’t.

I’ve already had to grapple with the fact that nothing will ever be the same again. I’ve already confronted my own mortality and the fact that death is a normal part of life. I already know that despite faith and prayer and love and resources and pure intentions, horrible things can and will break through my perceived bubble of control and wreak havoc in my life. Bad things will happen to good people, for no good reason at all. Grief is real and normal and part of everyday life, and so are joy and love and new beginnings. All of those things can and do coexist. I’ve had to grapple with the idea of a “new normal,” I’ve hated it, fought it, and come to accept that it is. On a very deep level. So all of this madness and chaos really hasn’t rattled me. It will come, bad things will happen, some of us won’t survive, we will come out on the other side changed, and hopefully we will have gained a deeper awareness of what it truly valuable and worth clinging to in life.

I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of our current reality, or dismiss the profound grief and anxiety that many may be feeling, and the tragic loss of life that others are experiencing. And I know that the loss of the life of someone dear to me may happen again. But I’m not terrified of it. I know I’ll grieve it deeply if it happens. Until then I’m focusing on the tasks at hand: caring for my children, friends, family, patients. I know others are experiencing deep grief, and I am available to walk with them. But I myself have felt grounded and stable.

Until today.

Today I decided that I needed to take flowers to Gavin and Heath. I haven’t visited in a while, because I’ve needed to stay focused on those important tasks at hand, and I needed to remain functional, and I could not allow the deep grief I can still sometimes feel over their losses to consume me. I know they are always with me, and that they are everywhere I go. I feel their whispers to me when I see a feather, when I hear their windchimes. I see their life force in the blooming flowers and small creatures outside my door. I know I’m caring for them by caring for their brothers and for my tiny patients. But this week, I’ve wanted to express my love for them through the ritual of buying and preparing flowers for their graves, of driving to Spring Grove along the route I’ve driven so many times. I’ve needed to kneel at their graveside and place flowers, bursting with color and vibrant life, at their feet, to celebrate them and declare that they are loved, remembered, still vital.

And then I heard that Spring Grove, like so many places, may be closed to all but essential visitors; in this case, workers and funeral goers. And I thought, if that’s true, that’s ok. My boys aren’t going anywhere. They will be there when this is over, and I can still sense the calming peace of connectedness that I feel when I’m in that place just my picturing it in my mind. They aren’t really there anyway, they’ve made their final journey home and are waiting for me. Our separation has already been so long but it’s just a slice of the separation that still lies ahead, and I know in the end I will be with them. So, it’s ok, I told myself. This is temporary.

I went ahead with the ritual of buying and preparing and driving. The colorful hydrangeas, gerbera dasies, and tall stalks of purple flox rode proudly along with me as I pulled up to the gatehouse. And there I was stopped, and there I hit my breaking point. I was told that indeed, only essential visitors (those attending funerals) could enter. Suddenly I felt the separation, was aware of the reality of this and so many other separations happening in our world today, and how incredibly hard that truly is. Tears instantly burst forth as I tried to say, “ I was hoping to take flowers to my sons’ gra…” and couldn’t finish. Once again, I couldn’t reach them. And neither can so many other people, be with the ones they love. For a moment I was acutely aware of so many ways that people may be experiencing separation at this time. It’s so heavy.

The kind man at the gate immediately took both pity on and action to help me. I saw him summon the helpers and watched the well-rehearsed actions of truly caring and well-intentioned people unfold. I’ve been the helper many times, I know the feeling of recognizing someone in need and knowing it’s time to do the thing that they need you to do in order to offer the support that they need. Someone asked me to pull over, someone ran inside for a special tag, someone came to my window to explain why they were limiting visitors and that I could visit today and that someone would follow me into the cemetery, not to spy on me, but because they are closely monitoring visitors. He asked me about my sons. He offered condolences like the professional he is. I was grateful for their kindness. I could not stop crying. I thanked them. They smiled and generously offered encouragement.

Driving to the infant section I passed a funeral procession and was struck with the memory of fresh grief soon after a loss. I realized that my own grief is not as fresh, but that I am still changed by it daily.

I parked. I called a friend and cried. I walked to their graves, alone, knowing no one else was present besides the man in the maintenance vehicle that had followed me and parked respectfully several dozen yards away. The tiny yellow flowers that have always bloomed on their graves were there, and I was comforted by their presence and reminded of the three previous Springtimes that I’d spent visiting this spot. The first year, when everything was so fresh, the yellow flowers were a surprising reminder of the fact that love still blooms after death. Their faithful return visit each spring is a reassuring message of the unending nature of that love.

I knelt, feeling guilty that my babies were allowed a visitor and would have flowers while all of the other babies remained alone. I looked over the graves and realized that each was graced with the promise of enduring love, whether they’d been brought flowers or not. I said a blessing over all of them and told my boys that the flowers were for sharing. I told them I missed them, and how very loved they are, and how grateful I was to be able to visit them. I bent my head and felt just how much love had been poured into this sacred place, by so many families. I felt it strengthen me.

On my way out the gatekeeper told me I could call and set a weekly appointment to visit. I apologized, thanked them, wished them a pleasant day in the sunshine. And drove off, back to the rest of my life. As I pulled into my driveway, I noticed a black and orange butterfly directly in front of my car. The first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed long enough for me to take a picture and then flew off. I could not fictionalize that timing to be any more perfect than it actually was.

There is great change, great loss, painful separation, even much death. Yet love endures. It always does.

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