What it’s like to grieve during a pandemic

Artwork by Mikaela Gabrielle de Castro/TomasinoWeb

They say that to reminisce is an innate and unique human trait that, apart from merely remembering, can enable us to reconstruct and relive experiences to better understand. In a world that’s falling apart, we find ourselves scrambling through pieces of ourselves and the people around us, whom we’ve lost to navigate this seemingly endless cycle of languishing, grief, and longing.

Pag oras mo na, oras mo na talaga,” my father would always quip whenever we’d talk about life and our mortality. His time passed at the beginning of the year 2021. It was sudden. Before he died, I remember talking to him about school because grades and the department list of academic achievers were recently released.

Since then, the pandemic’s one-two punch of grief, from letting go parts of myself and all the possibilities that were hampered as well as the people who departed, took a toll on me. He was not the only one I grieved but also the secondary losses, the changes in my lifestyle, ways, and relationships.

Dealing with loss, in this time when death is part of our daily ordinariness, requires constant remembrance. We remember simply because we celebrate life and acknowledge the reality of death.

Navigating the ‘aesthetic distance’

Death in the Sickroom (1893) by Edvard Munch

In one of my creative writing classes in high school, my professor talked about the value of finding the aesthetic distance — the Goldilocks zone for truly understanding, appreciating, and dissecting an emotionally-charged experience, such as heartbreak, termination from a job, or, in my case, the death of a loved one.

She said that finding that sweet spot, one where you’re not at the peak of your emotions and where you’re not totally divorced from the experience itself — in such a way that you don’t care anymore — is essential in processing grief. And so I’m writing this, more than a year after my father’s death: still feeling the raw, uninhibited sadness but distanced in a way that I can somehow collect my thoughts over it.

Months after he passed, I worked as an intern for a digital news site. Was it borne out of my boredom or the necessity of an outlet or a distraction? But one of the rules in the style guide was to avoid using terms such as “passed away,” “departed,” or “joined the Creator.” Instead, we were told to use “died” when writing obituaries. I thought, back then, it was mainly for brevity but it was more than that.

Kathryn Schulz, the author of Lost and Found, expressed her dislike of euphemisms for dying.

She writes, “In the name of tact, it turns away from death’s shocking bluntness; in the name of comfort, it chooses the safe and familiar over the beautiful or evocative… [All] this feels evasive, like a verbal averting of the eyes. But death is so impossible to avoid — that is the basic, bedrock fact of it that trying to talk around it seems misguided.”

As I navigated through the so-called aesthetic distance, I realized that telling things as it is to oneself makes it easier to find some solace. I remember being so frustrated in the first couple of months of his passing simply because I can’t look at the table where my father usually eats his dinner, I already sold off his Lazy Boy chair, I no longer go to Trinoma where we’d usually hang out and shop, among a plethora of other things and little traditions.

Death may not only be the last goodbye but also a start of many griefs: of things that once made me happy, of routines that must now retire.

Grieving, it turns out, is not merely about the journey towards acceptance. It’s the constant act of remembering — a life, not lost, but well-lived. Reconstructing parts and fragments of memories become a central part of going along with pain.

The present is the year of magical thinking

Screengrab from The Center Will Not Hold/Netflix

In this time of absurd situations, we grieved in ways we thought would be straight out of a dystopian sci-fi novel. Restrictions on mass gatherings prevented us from properly mourning, at least in the Filipino socio-cultural sense, our loved ones who died in the middle of the pandemic. Black squares or candles as profile displays have become among the digital expressions of our confrontation of death.

It is indeed an absurd, challenging time. The Year of Magical Thinking author Joan Didion said it best, in attempting to paint the loss of her husband and daughter: “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

It is then only in learning to ride its waves, in all its shapes and sizes, can one truly move forward. With the modified mourning rituals and all other self-compassion practices we do to cope, we learn that grief is a place we don’t know until we reach it.

2020 was the start of the year of Magical Thinking. It continues until now, especially when cases of the deadly COVID-19 have seen a dramatic uptick since the beginning of 2022. More than 50,000 deaths due to the virus as of January, and we continue to reminisce about their lives. We remember, we remember.

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