My short spells of tears have increased in the past week. About the same time that the cherry blossoms flowered, and the faint scent of jasmine arrived in our quiet Melbourne streets. Our annual reminder that Spring is not far away. Only this year, the anticipation of Spring doesn’t usher in the same sense of renewal. My tears come spontaneously and unexpectedly—and with such intensity I sometimes think I might split in two.
A few days ago, my two young boys reflected that what they miss most is going to the swimming pool. To glide weightlessly, float freely and splash without a kid worry in the world. I cried for my kids.
We’ve just cancelled our ten-year wedding anniversary dinner for the second time this year. I hope our favourite Melbourne laneway restaurant makes it through to the other side. I cried for our date night, and for my Melbourne.
My mum considered, through a sigh, that she and my dad haven’t been to a café for a good latte since March. One of their modest but warming pleasures in life and in retirement. I cried for my parents.
I’ve been an observer of some really big losses this year. A remote witness to stories of genuine melancholy.
I am a volunteer with the Australian Red Cross. I spent last New Year’s Eve in a bushfire relief centre in east Gippsland, watching Mallacoota turn black, then crimson, then black again on TV. We provided psychological first aid to those escaping the terror of our summer’s fires. Some had lost their homes, their farms, their schools. Others saw the new year in fearing but not knowing for sure what losses lay behind. These were tears of big loss. At least then, I could embrace strangers and let their tears tumble onto my shoulder.
I am a humanitarian worker and researcher. In February, I visited Gaza, part of the occupied Palestinian territories. I was privileged to spend several weeks listening to the stories of Gazan people who have borne immense sorrow and pain. The storytellers often cried. The depth of loss in places like Gaza, enduring seemingly endless armed conflict and living with the scars of decades of restrictions on freedom and movement, is almost beyond comprehension.
I am a health worker on a palliative care ward. Every encounter involves being a bystander to big losses, made ever so much bigger by COVID-19. A young man with Motor Neurone Disease whose life is already a series of defeats—of losing muscle strength, the ability to walk, to care for oneself, to eat or talk. This man tells via telehealth his worry that not having his physiotherapist come to provide massage and exercises during the pandemic is hastening his decline. An older man dying of leukaemia who is reunited with his wife in an aged care facility for the very last time, just in case COVID-19 puts her facility into complete lockdown to keep its residents safe. A bittersweet moment in normal times, with a sting considerably crueller in current circumstances.
My good friend in Australia recently farewelled his father in Holland via a zoom funeral. A couple of months later, he watched on zoom as his mother died. Another zoom funeral. COVID-19 magnifies the depth of suffering from such big losses.
The reminders of how much worse others have it, in normal times and especially in this pandemic, are omnipresent. Who am I to cry? I try to brush off my tears at the little losses—but that’s getting tougher.
In April, May, June, heck even most of July, we had an appreciation that this would soon end. ‘Teddy bears and rainbows are a reminder happier days are ahead’ read a headline in March. Some of us baked. A lot. Slow-cooking, sourdough. I added Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi and a whole bunch more to those I follow on Instagram. We had weekly family zooms and weekend zoom wine parties with friends. Our 6-year-old learnt to ride his bike. Our 9-year-old conquered his home learning with zeal and tenacity. We bought a backyard fire pit to bring the bush campsite to us. We all mastered chess.
And then came Lockdown 2.0, no going back to school after the Winter holidays, mandatory mask-wearing, and Stage 4 restrictions. No more family fresh air walks to get milkshakes and natter with some sense of normalcy as a family, away from the home life that is now a most bizarre mishmash of work, school and play. In a little over four months, we’ve had to give-up our hugs and handshakes, our freedoms to visit family and friends in their homes, and then to gather in outdoor spaces. Now, we’ve had to forfeit that most important of human interactions capable of illuminating our moods in an instant—the simple gesture of a smile. My fuchsia-coloured lipsticks, a smidgeon of which would be all that was needed to lift the spirits, lie without purpose in the drawer.
Our 6-year-old no longer sees the point in doffing his pyjamas and spends five hours a day losing himself in PlayStation games. Our 9-year-old’s teacher, doing her job with care and concern, rings to check on why he has stopped uploading his daily work. It stirs in my consciousness the sensation of a wicked schoolgirl. ‘The morale-boosting markers that were shared across Melbourne during the first lockdown have all but disappeared. Rainbows have peeled off fences, forgotten teddy bears are wedged between Venetian blinds and most of the chalk messages have long washed away,’ Sophie Black reminded us as August rolled around.
‘It’s really settling in now, the losses large and small,’ remarks Krista Tippett in her recent On Being podcast with Pauline Boss, a US family therapist. Boss calls this ambiguous loss, where, as individuals and as a society, we have to navigate our losses with no sense of closure or certainty of an end. And as Boss says, it’s ok to feel sad: ‘We have a worldwide pandemic, and it’s cutting in on everything that we have done before. So even the big losses, the little losses, pile up after a while, and you feel sad.’ That sadness, she says, is grief. And it’s exhausting. This is our new constant—little losses, yet still big grief.
The grief we experience following big life losses is natural and admissible. In such times, we permit ourselves to grieve. Organisations like the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement exist to help people navigate big losses such as death.
As both a humanitarian worker and a palliative care professional, I know that there are also systems in place to support those who deal in big losses. Humanitarian workers bear witness to tremendous loss and help those amidst disaster or conflict to survive, adapt and rebuild. They are encouraged to debrief with colleagues to avoid the work stress, moral anxiety, depression and burnout that comes from observing such suffering. There are initiatives underway in the aid sector to support humanitarian workers to be gentle and kind to themselves by cultivating caring and compassionate aid organisations.
Those trained in palliative care help people cope with big loss, assisting them to dial back their expectations of what that they can achieve as their bodies or minds progressively give up. There are resources available to support palliative care workers to prioritise their own self-care and self-compassion as they relentlessly work among big losses. Self-care is also important for all those health workers suddenly thrust into providing palliative care for those who are suffering or dying from COVID-19 and forced to attend to a historic global suffering they haven’t trained for.
Many of us will be lucky enough not to experience big loss at this time. Some of us will join the ranks of those who do need special tools or trained professionals to support us. Most of us won’t. But right now, the need for comfort, compassion and self-care applies not just to those grieving from, or working around, big loss. It applies to all of us with our growing stack of little losses. The measures may be varied, the justification is not. We are all grieving.
As Pauline Boss says, ‘…the rest of us—because this has gone on so long, I think there are days when you should just let yourself feel sad. And be easy on yourself on those days…I remember, one day, I thought, “I think I should do nothing but watch Netflix, today.”‘
I’m sorry to our teachers, that my kids aren’t participating in home schooling anymore. I know you are working hard. They are too, just to stay afloat, to focus on the things that make them happy.
I’m sorry to my PhD supervisors, that I haven’t kept up my cracking pace of getting things done. I know you had high hopes for me flying through. It’s just a bit of a juggle right now. I might need an extension.
I’m sorry to my workplaces, when I don’t join the fun things like zoom quizzes and trivia. I know you are trying to lift all our spirits. But sometimes, our spirits need to lie flat and we need to be left to feel sad.
I’m sorry to my local choir, that I haven’t joined our online sing-a-longs in a while. Those precious evening hours are reserved for my kids now. It’s the time of day when we stop arguing about the work we haven’t done and too many unhealthy hours spent on screens. It’s when we devote priceless hours cuddling each other to sleep.
I’m sorry to my husband that I don’t stop to chat much anymore unless it’s about homework or housework. I’m sorry to my mum and dad that I don’t call as much as I should. I’m sorry I’ve suspended our family zoom for now. I’m a bit tired.
These feelings truly are settling in, our new companion, our mound of little losses. We will be OK. I’ll be back. But right now, my kids and I are going to spend our Saturday binging on Star Wars. That’s our self-care. And on Sunday morning, I’ll probably sing along with Norah Jones ‘How I weep, How I weep…‘ thinking of life’s wonders. Of Jupiter and Saturn befriending the moon on a still, chilled Melbourne night. And I’ll bawl my eyes out with her for all the swimming lessons, the lattes with mum and dad, the hugs and the smiles lost. Of our uncertainties for the future, and the certainties of jasmine’s sweet scent. And all of that is OK too.