A while back I asked my sister if she was exhibiting any weird behaviors that could be associated with the pandemic. She gave it some fair thought and said not really. Like many folks here,* she’s a leader in a healthcare system and has been going non-stop for months on end to get new processes in place. She was too busy for weird behaviors.
I brought it up because I was exhibiting some myself. Given that it’s a pandemic, I expected I would express of some of my normal stress responses, which I was and which for me means drinking a glass of wine more nights out of the week than not (as opposed to just on the weekend), fulfilling more of my Amazon desires and being more liberal around the dessert. But gradually I became aware of other behaviors — subtle and unfamiliar ones — which I began to suspect were strange pandemic stress expressions.
Like my response to flowers. Usually I start grieving the passing of summer from the arrival of the first spring daffodil. But this time around, that mournful awareness of the fleeting gift of flowers went missing. It’s like I’m willing to let it all go. Of course I’m enjoying all the lavish blooming going on out there but fine, move along as you must so we can move along.
And then there is an underlying nervousness about launching into anything. Absolutely anything. Cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen? A twitchy nervousness comes over me like, I don’t know about this. Seems kind of dangerous.
Becoming aware of this flower reaction and fear-of-launching thing opened the door to realizing that I feel unusual. Subtly so, but still unusual. I just don’t feel entirely myself, which is what another employee who has young kids at home wrote to tell me. Everything feels monumental. It’s like she’s mopping her brow after completing the most minor of tasks. And then there is the healthcare provider who responded to a recent Wellness Wednesday where I said we’re all feeling like caged animals now that summer is here. She said she’d love being an animal in the protection of a cage since from where she stands she feels like an antelope being hunted down. Summer or not, all she wants to do is be safe at home, which is most certainly not like her.
It’s disorienting to act in ways that are unrecognizable to yourself and feel things you never expected to feel. I never expected to feel such a strange elation when both exit doors in the grocery store opened back up. I apparently never understood how much I treasure getting to choose which door I roll my groceries out. And I never expected to grieve over not being able to see the bottom half of people’s faces.
But how do you grieve a blocked exit? Not seeing someone’s mouth? It feels like an ambiguous sort of grief, a take-off on the “ambiguous loss” family therapist and theorist Dr. Pauline Boss identified back in the 1970’s. Ambiguous loss is loss without closure — like how you lose someone little-by-little to dementia, or when someone is presumed dead but a body is never found, or when someone immigrates to another country and loses their homeland and their mother tongue. Ambiguous loss is also like all the events last spring that got re-scheduled for summer and then re-scheduled again for the fall. It’s like how school may or may not open in the fall or may open but in some ambiguous sort of fashion.
Ambiguous grief, then, would be grieving things that don’t feel like stuff you grieve about. Stuff that feels, in fact, unworthy of grief. But the problem is if we don’t let ourselves grieve these things because we can’t call it grief, then it makes it pretty hard to find our way through the pile-up of emotion we will most certainly accumulate as we go through a second and third and maybe more seasons of this pandemic. Our emotions will have their own changing seasons. In fact, in my weekly Sunday night phone chat with my sister this past weekend, she told me that the weird behaviors have finally caught up with her now that things have settled down administratively in her world a bit. For one, a strange lassitude has come over her and all she wants to do is be at home though when she is home, she’s finding it hard to mobilize. You would have to know her to understand how very strange this is.
All of this emotion is a lot to sort out and keep on top of as we roll through the various stages of this crisis. It’s like the pandemic is one more big system integration project we’re rolling out here at work. But, like any big job that needs to be organized, labeling helps. Naming it “grief,” or “fear,” or “anger,” or “despair” cuts down on the confusion. And naming it also has a way of defusing the intensity, making it tolerable enough to enter into the feeling so we can start moving through it. As much as we try and try again to build a way around the pain, there is no emotional bypass to Wellville.
In the midst of what we’re in, it seems pretty clear that in the months ahead we will all have plenty of opportunity to practice our labeling skills. I know for a fact I will never come up short on material. Just after my standing Sunday night phone call with my sister, yet another unusual behavior came out. Earlier in the day I’d made a loaf of bread full of raisins and seeds and cornmeal and grainy things which I left on the counter to cool. On my way to bed I stopped off at the kitchen to bag it up. Which I did, right after ripping off a big and unexpected hunk of it.
“This is a strange kind of grief,” I said while walking up the stairs eating my huge hunk.
I wasn’t loving what I was doing, but in naming it I also wasn’t confused. I felt calm, not likely to be derailed by the whole episode.
And then a few steps up it hit me, another label.
“But man, is this good bread.”
This story was originally published in Wellness Wednesday, a weekly column I write for the healthcare organization I run an employee wellness program for.