Encountering Grief, From Afar
The Difficulties of Coping with Grief While at University
For the vast majority of us, March 2020 brought many new, unfamiliar and unsettling experiences including lockdowns, social distancing, sickness and testing. In a strange way, coronavirus almost felt like a uniting force, and all that comforted me at times was the idea that the entire world was going through this together. No matter the fear, unknowns, effort to flatten the curve or grocery-store hoarding session, we were all joined in our determination, adaptation and panic. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has by no means created a positive 2 years, and its strongest influence has perhaps been its far and wide facilitation of an introduction to an old friend of mine, Grief.
Losing a loved one is difficult enough under ‘normal’ circumstances, but being at university, or away from family, friends and home while enduring a loss during a pandemic is a unique challenge, if that word could ever do justice to what I’m describing. Switching your mind and body into a zone where you accept that one moment, a loved one was here and the next, they are simply and soberingly not, is indescribable. Yet, death has no calendar, no schedule, no consideration for the circumstances of others, and so, it does not wait for what might be a ‘better’ time for the rest of us who are being chewed, swallowed, and spat back out by life.
In August 2020, after a long battle with a very aggressive cancer, one of my best friends passed away in Oakland, California as I entered Scotland, 5031 miles away. I was preparing to set up a bank account, move into DRA and start a new chapter, and hers was ending before her 19th year even began. There’s no one quite like Grief. Even when you know he’s coming and think you have prepared yourself, Grief hits like a hundred bullets from around a corner. A couple of weeks ago, he visited again. As my sister and I watched, to be with her in spirit over facetime, the second of my 18-year-old cats was put to sleep after many years of chronic illness, and the loss of her sister, that eventually took over her body. To not be with this family member, who had been in my life since I was 2, was heartbreaking. Heartbreak doesn’t even do it justice because for me, grief begins in the spaces between my organs, not filling it up, but eating away at the emptiness. It's a plummeting feeling, magnified by distance.
Just as it's difficult to say something original about love, describing the effects grief has in a fresh way seems almost impossible with the extensive euphemisms and cliches surrounding it. Not to mention, I don't know how we can characterize Grief simply. All I can muster is that it’s a longing to love, an urge to speak words unspoken, complete embraces uncompleted, share smiles left unshared, and a lasting reminder of time’s finite nature. Greeting Grief at university means no one knows the lost one here, there is nowhere to remind you of them, it’s harder to spend time outside and resist denial.
Yet, life must go on, and pretending the loss has not occurred or trying to continue on as normal only compounds the melancholy. Walking has helped me, given me time and space to reflect and accept. Baking has proven a welcome relief and equally, a hobby to put my mind to improving. Fueling my body with nutritious, hearty meals and talking to friends and family, reflecting and reminiscing about the loss but most importantly, the lives of those who have been lost, have all been tools I have armed myself with during this time. I’ve found that, eventually, remembering out loud all the amazing moments I and others’ had with those no longer with us has the greatest healing power. Emotional time travel really is essential in realizing that it’s how those people and pets lived, not how they died, that matters most in the end.
Grief and I have been friends for 8 years now. 2015 began with the end of my great grandmother’s life, halfway across the world, on a separate continent. In March 2016, both my maternal grandparents passed away, 4 days apart followed a few months later by the loss of my 5 year old dog. In August 2020, locations flipped, and the news of my friend’s passing reached my phone. My 16 year old cat died in my arms when I was 18, in 2020, shortly after the pandemic’s inception. Being far away from a loved one when they die can make the loss more difficult to believe, realize, accept and manage. After my friend died, it took almost two months before I woke up from a dream about her, at first hopeful and smiling before quickly breaking down in tears, repeating to myself out loud “she’s gone.” I hadn’t come to terms with it before then. If you’re anything like me, you might also do a lot of your processing internally. I have never been one to talk to my family about my day in great detail during the car ride home, confide to a friend the state of my mental health, or seek out therapy to unleash the mess of emotions within, no matter how helpful I know these could be. After her parents died, my mom observed how strange and unfair it felt that when she went outside, drove by others in their cars, rolled her shopping cart around crowded grocery aisles and walked our dog in community parks, no one else knew what had happened to her, what she was enduring, that her mom and dad were no longer in her life. I thought the eloquence of that was beautiful. Grief looks different on everyone.
I asked my sister how loss has affected her while she’s been abroad, at university. She told me she feels guilty because when far away from the loss that has happened, we might not think about it as much as we would in the environment you knew the loved one in or the area you associated them with. For me, the main feeling is powerlessness. Being at university while losing those I love has only magnified the knowledge that I cannot bring them back; faded memories can not be retrieved in their entirety, and the sounds of certain voices over the phone are in the past. My sister noted that the brain is designed to help us carry on, it’s always working to forget about it. I completely understand what she means, but personally, I have come to find that this might be the distinction between the often interchangeably referenced pain and grief. Unlike physical pain, which the human brain is wired to blurr, dull over time and ultimately forget the specifics of, grief is built to last. With the right support and resources, of course life can become a new normal and coping does become easier, but I am still able to recall each grief in vivid detail, much more so than hurt from an injury, because grief is not an event that comes and goes quickly. Rather, grief is a process and a part of life. Once Grief comes, he’s here to stay, forever, forming a new part of our identities and changing us, fundamentally, as part of our foundation fractures.
By that token, grief reminds me of the incredible capacity we all have to love and love multiple, equally. Just as I loved my great grandma, my grandparents, my dog, cats and friend differently according to the special, deeply-rooted and influential relationships I had with each of them, respectively, I have grieved each person and pet who is gone in a different way. However, no loss felt bigger, harder to cope with, or more significant than any other. My heart felt full in their presences, our respective conversations warming my stomach and radiating through my body, and our embraces exploding a smile across my face. And, with the news or witnessing of each passing, my heart shattered, a sinking began behind my belly button and that grin became impossible, for a while.
I have found, though, that grief can make us more appreciative of what happens around us and bring home the idea that we are all dying every day and therefore have to live our own lives with intention and with so much love. Like the saying goes, “you'll forget what people did, you forget the things they said, but you'll never forget the way they made you feel.” Often used in a negative context to encourage people to treat others better, this actually resonates with me in times of grief. I do not necessarily remember the specifics of conversations or what people achieved in their lives, but I will always be consumed by that familiar warmth when I think about how much I love the important ones in my life and how they make me feel, no matter if they’re no longer here, or right by my side. My heart goes out to anyone grieving right now, in what can be a lonely, dark time.
In loving memory of all those lost these past 2 years.
Illustration: Marios Diakourtis