That silence can result in what Ms. Devine calls “epidemics of unspoken grief”: “Everybody’s got pain they’re carrying around, but they never get to say it. It doesn’t go away if you don’t get to say it. It comes out in epidemics of suicidality and depression, social isolation, loneliness.”
More loneliness, even, than what we’re already experiencing, Ms. Devine says. This is, of course, part of the especial cruelty of this pandemic: how it isolates us at a time when, grieving, afraid, we might crave fellowship. This is when we most need to connect with other people, she says, but how to find true, deep connection when we can’t so much as touch anyone we’re not already living with?
“Right now, what we have are words,” Ms. Devine says. “One of the reasons we avoid conversations about grief is because it tends to make us feel helpless, and nobody likes feeling helpless. When we feel helpless, we tend to do things to make the other person’s pain go away so that we can stop feeling helpless.”
This is why, she says, in the face of pain, people so often give unsolicited advice, or try to dismiss pain by saying it could be worse, or that everything happens for a reason: it lets us skirt feeling helpless. Even in the way I first brought up my own pandemic-related grief, I’d gestured at dismissing it: I was sad, but at least I had a schedule that could, in theory, let me write. What if I didn’t need the “but,” the “at least,” what if I didn’t need to try to brush away what I felt by also explaining why I shouldn’t feel as I did?
It’s also possible to use words to listen, Ms. Devine says. “Grief can’t be fixed, but it can be acknowledged,” and acknowledgment is the best medicine. “It seems like it’s too simple to be helpful, but it’s actually often the only thing that works.” For others, but for ourselves, too. With our own grief, Ms. Devine advises that we take time to check in with ourselves, to slow down to name our pain. Not to fix it, since it likely can’t be fixed, but to notice it.
It’s true that, in the midst of a pandemic, finding this kind of time might be challenging. Annika Sridharan is a clinical psychologist and social worker, and the director of Partnership for Trauma Recovery, a Berkeley clinic that works with asylum seekers, asylees and refugees from 45 countries. She notes that in a situation of insecurity, such as what the world is facing now, it can be difficult to attend to mourning and grief while we’re also afraid and anxious. Things are not as usual now, Dr. Sridharan says, and, “It’s normal and natural to not be able to just go on as usual.”