Last week, my wife and I decided to cancel our vacation plans to visit Europe this summer. This was going to be my first time experiencing Europe, a life long ambition of mine that was on my bucket list. But while deciding to cancel was challenging, it was also the right choice. From long flights, crowded spaces, and plans to be on a river cruise boat with two hundred people, we felt it was in our best interest to protect ourselves by limiting our increased likelihood of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
Since its arrival globally, the coronavirus pandemic has caused economic and financial insecurity for millions of people around the globe while also resulting in a massive loss of life, both of which will continue to impact the lives of individuals even after a vaccine to this virus is found.
However, this virus has also resulted in other uncertainties and disappointments in our daily life. From high school and college seniors who won’t be able to walk during graduation, and the postponement of festivals, weddings, and other celebrations, to the cancellation of vacation plans and other milestones which individuals were looking forward to throughout the year, all of us have one thing in common from this pandemic—we are experiencing grief.
“I am grieving that I’m not going on a vacation with my children to Disney World this year,” a work colleague recently said to me. “But I feel guilty for admitting that out loud because so many people have lost more.”
For those of us who have experienced the cancellation of vacation plans, festivals, or celebrations, there is a sense of disappointment we all are feeling. Yes, I am grieving not being able to disconnect from work to explore a place I always wanted to go. But like many others, I too felt some shame in admitting I was grieving the loss of my vacation plans. After all, as a hospital chaplain, I have watched patients die from this virus and talk with their family members who are grieving they couldn’t be with their loved ones in the final moments of their life.
But while I know what it’s like to be laid off from a job and to lose a loved one close to me, I have not lost my job or a loved one from this pandemic and I pray that it doesn’t happen. And recently I have begun to see that it’s okay for me to admit that I am grieving as no matter what the grief may be, no one should feel shame while also feeling grief.
“All of us are experiencing some type of grief relating to this pandemic, and even though it may be from different levels of severity, it still is a feeling which should be expressed,” my sister Catherine Schilling, a licensed therapist who lives in the pacific northwest, shared with me recently on my podcast.
Five years ago after being laid off from a non-profit fundraising and recruitment position I had held for only two months, I found myself at a bar with all the colleagues who also were let go as part of a mass layoff along with some of the other employees who retained their jobs. Over some drinks and chicken wings, I remember one of my colleagues who retained his position expressing his frustrations that he was now going to be doing his job and on top of that, some of our jobs that were going to be left unfilled. However, halfway through expressing his frustration, my co-worker stopped mid-conversation and his face turned red in embarrassment.
“I guess I shouldn’t be complaining about my job because at least I have one,” he said. “I am sorry, it’s not right for me to be feeling this way.”
However, that is when another laid-off co-worker spoke up and corrected him.
“Don’t apologize for sharing how you feel,” he said. “Yes, you will still have a paycheck, but you are now being overwhelmed by more work and you have every right to feel frustrated by that. And you will also be grieving the absence of us working with you. And you have every right to express being angry and sad about that.
In just a few short months, this pandemic has cost the lives of over 80,000 Americans and resulted in millions of Americans being unemployed. And for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones or who are grieving the loss of their jobs, their grief is indeed real.
But for those who are grieving the postponement of a wedding, the cancellation of their high school or college graduation, or the cancellation of trips or simply grieving not being able to worship with others, have dinner with friends, or sing at the top of their lungs at a concert this summer, they are grieving too. Their loss may not be as severe, but it is still grief to them. And for many who haven’t experienced grief before, that too can be a challenge.
“We need time to move through the pain of loss. We need to step into it, really to get to know it, in order to learn, ” writes the late Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
There will come a time that a vaccine will be found and while it may take a couple of years, life will return to normal. And when I say normal, I mean normal as in being able to walk by another human being and not wonder who’s going to make the first move to give someone else a six-foot distance.
But even after this is gone, this experience will change all of us and the world we live in, as it will become different through this shared experience of grief. And if there is something which can make us a little kinder, gentler, and compassionate towards one another, then maybe it’s understanding that what we all experienced together from this pandemic has been grief. And no matter how big or small it was or if it was expressed through tears, shouts, or pouts, we can see that all of us have a lot more common than we think, and that is the shared experience of being human.