The pandemic has been a testing time for all of us. But for me and my family, our darkest ‘hour’ came in December. We lost two of the most important men in our lives: my almost-step-father died after a long illness in a distant nursing home, unable to see family or friends; a week after I’d given the eulogy at his funeral, my adored 78-year old father died – suddenly and unexpectedly – of a heart attack; ten days after reading his eulogy at another bleak, masked, socially distanced funeral, our puppy died after five days, entirely isolated, in a veterinary hospital.
None of these deaths were from COVID, but COVID played its part. Most poignantly perhaps, COVID intensified the grief – depriving us of the tiny things that help process emotional pain. Like human touch. Such a simple thing – to hold the hand of your loved one before they pass away, to hug friends and relatives at a wake, to hold your sick puppy.
Likewise, the after-party or wake, historically a time for sharing anecdotes and stories, for laughter, hugging and holding – and a vital part of how we order and lay down the memories so necessary to sustain us afterwards. Funerals and wakes have traditionally started the healing process, providing crucial moments of human connection that remind us, not only of the person we’ve lost, but of who we are. Because – in our deepest grieving – we lose a part of ourselves.
Many of you, like my family, will have attended COVID-compliant funerals, quite possibly from a screen, quite possibly alone. Looking out from the pulpit, at a small, socially distanced, masked audience and knowing there could be no hugging, no convivial wake, no whispered exchange of amusing memories, no catching up with distant relatives, gave an edge of ice to both funerals, compounding the bleakness. And so the grief lingered, raw and nagging.
The truth is, whether we’ve lost loved ones or not, we are all in varying stages of grief. Some of us are grieving the year we’ve lost, some are grieving for the loss of crowds, our journey to work, the life we once had, the friends, family, colleagues we’ve not seen, the business or work that has disappeared. Many of us may not be grieving for ourselves but for the losses sustained by those we love. And let’s not underestimate the weight of this particular grief: sometimes the pain of others feels harder to bear than our own. Meanwhile, the grief of those left totally alone, socially isolated after years of partnership, is almost impossible to comprehend. The 16-week waiting list for a phone session with a bereavement counsellor speaks volumes.
And here’s the thing about grief – it creeps into our blood and bones, altering us physiologically. If it lingers too long, it tips into what psychologists call ‘complicated’ grief: chronic depression and anxiety, tough to experience and tough to shift. This too affects us in strange and unexpected ways, both bodily and psychologically.
As my body oscillated between heart-racing fury and brain-numbing exhaustion, I buried myself in busy-ness – organising funerals, obituaries, post mortems, and reading endless studies of heart disease (how could my father have had a fatal heart attack a fortnight after his doctor described his organs as ‘in good shape’?). Later, I dug around looking for studies of grief. I wanted an explanation for the vast boulder that sat – crushingly – on my chest. I wanted to know why I either slept as if drugged (I wasn’t), or lay wide awake all night.
Studies show that grief raises blood pressure, increases inflammation and heightens the risk of blood clots. Our cortisol is raised, our sleep is disrupted, our heart-rate flip flops inexplicably. The flu vaccine is less effective in people who’ve recently lost someone they love. Research shows that bereaved older people (but not younger people) have fewer infection-fighting white blood cells, leaving them more vulnerable to ill health.
And what of our hearts? There’s good reason for the term ‘heart-broken’: in the days following the death of a loved one, the risk of a heart attack increases 21-fold, and six-fold in the subsequent week, with the risk of a heart attack or stroke remaining elevated for several further weeks.
The death of a partner – according to one study – is associated with a wide range of major cardiovascular events in the weeks and months following bereavement, as well as a 41% increase in mortality in the following 6 months.
Why the sudden increase in mortality? It’s not just our hearts and immunity that suffer. Experiencing bereavement can disturb our mitochondria – the engines of our cells – in ways identified in mice and among small studies of people but not yet fully understood.
And the more grief-stricken or depressed we are (the two are different but often overlap), the greater the inflammation in our bodies. And thus we risk falling into that vicious cycle of grief begetting inflammation, and inflammation begetting illness and depression – and on it goes.
But there are things we can do. Of which perhaps the most important is to express our grief, to sit with it, to share it. In a recent study of bereaved spouses, those that tried to suppress their grief (being busy is a classic example of this, as is ‘putting on a brave face’ or ‘staying strong’ for others) had higher levels of inflammation, making them more prone to illness, disease and depression.
We all express our grief in different ways and at different times. But knowing that how we grieve might be detrimental to our ability to survive means we need to pay a little attention to ourselves and to what we’re doing in the depths of our despair.
For me, writing my father’s obituaries (here, here and here if anyone wants examples of how to do it) was profoundly therapeutic, reflecting a few small studies suggesting that writing therapy can be particularly effective when grieving. It doesn’t have to be obituaries. Letters, emails, keeping a journal, are just as valid.
But after that, I decided to stop being so busy, and not to sit at a laptop with my grief, but to walk with it. Not only is walking the safest permitted activity we can do at present, but it’s also the best possible activity for the bereaved – its slow rhythmic pace is perfectly suited to reflection. Wrapped up behind a scarf, buried in a big hood, I could cry if I wanted to. When my heart raced, I could pick up speed and shake off that gripping sense of panic. When exhaustion washed over me, I could slow down. Walking gave me the time and space to make sense of what had happened, and to ponder the existential questions sparked by this sudden excess of loss.
At the same time I found solace in the simplest of things: a robin in my path, the sound of wind in trees, a cluster of snowdrops. And if I wanted to talk to someone, I had my phone. Moreover, walking is an antidote to the detrimental physiological effects of grief – improving our immunity and heart rate variability, lowering our cortisol levels, replacing shallow stricken breathing with deeper calming respiration, oxygenating our mitochondria, and helping us sleep more soundly at night.
And it was here – while walking through damp forests and green fields – that I found those I thought were lost. Those we have loved and lost are, of course, never lost. They live within us, their legacy always so much richer than the vein of memories held in photograph albums. And if they leave us with one other thing it is surely the knowledge that we must live compassionately, however imperfectly.
Their passing away, and our subsequent sadness, reminds us that we must have grief in our lives if we are to fully love. Indeed, the more we love, the greater our grief. And so it must be: the privilege of love brings the battering of pain. But would we have it any other way?
And so I and my family are still here. We have returned to work, to a COVID-normal life. We are coming through – as billions of us will come through this pandemic. Vaccinations have arrived, the bulbs are bursting through the black earth, the birds are seeking out nesting places, my father watches over us in the form of a buzzard who circles above our house (or so I like to think). And the police have busted the puppy farm selling sick puppies bred from stolen dogs. But that’s another story for another day…
Tend to yourself, in grief or otherwise. And tend to your friends, in their grief. The future beckons and, to play our part, we need to be as sound in mind and in body as we can muster. One step at a time…