Without a big election to overturn the rampant evil of our time, without a vaccine to help me hope for the end of this lockdown, without any resolution to all of the deaths and economic suffering from COVID, and the trauma of all of the losses for my kids, I have been feeling a pent-up sense of sorrow, despair, dashed faith, and anger at the people causing all of it. Ambiguous grief as a concept helps me realize that the feeling I'm having is grief.
Yesterday I called one of my best friends, Betsy Rosenbaum (who happens to write a brilliant blog when she has time and inspiration), and she shared the first of my cries with me. She was the first person to help me think of my feelings as grief. I was explaining to her that I felt an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and anguish, and that I was desperate for a friend to hold my heart for me. I explained to her that I worry that I would never see my parents again. I worry that my daughter would be traumatized by this. I worry that I may lose my job. I worry that so many people will suffer so badly. I worry that the country is devolving into an authoritarian state. I worry that the election won't work. I worry that martial law is happening in Portland. I worry about the myriad forms of violence, suffering, and even death that this president has put in motion. I'm so angry, so worried, so sad. Many of us are, I know, but I hadn't really grasped how intensely I was feeling these things. (When it all began, I wrote about "A Million Tiny Heartbreaks," but this feeling has only gotten worse.)
But if what we're feeling is grief, as Boss and Betsy reminded me, there are strategies we can use to cope, and I guess I have to start using them. Here are the ones that make the most sense to me. I don't do them as much as I should. But I know they help when I do.
1. Connect authentically with loved ones. Even though zoom and Skype aren't the same as being with people in person, COVID offers an opportunity to remember that our wellbeing relies on human connection. We aren't individual islands, as capitalism and the American Dream would have us believe. We are ecological and social beings. Get to know your neighbors. Get to know your non-human neighbors. Let those you love know it, and tell them why. Under COVID, this is the hardest one; it's ironic! We are beset with a condition that makes us suffer and disallows us from using the tool we most need to navigate suffering-- relationships. Don't let this defeat you. Relationships are all around us anyway. With fierceness, build them. Birds, parents, children, molecules, bacteria, comets-- all of it.
2. Create rituals. Our habits may be becoming very boring. I know that I feel really bored by my life right now. There's no purpose, no Thing to Look Forward To, no mission. My kids and I just languish languidly through the days, trying desperately to find value in anything, and mostly getting jazzed by a new movie or recipe. When I wake up, I try to think of how the day will bring many boring things, and I try to ritualize them-- dishes, laundry, the sun coming out, meals, my daily shower. I try to make these rituals feel really meaningful by being grateful that I have the privilege of having them at all. I imbue them with a redolence of sacredness, despite their mundaneness. I do this by noticing them and being grateful for them. That's all it takes to make something a ritual. "Here is this thing I get to do. It may feel mundane, but I'm so lucky to feel that way about it. In fact, making this meal is an act of faith, an act of love, an act of weaving people together, an act of honor for the people who made it possible...." Injecting sacredness into my mundane life feels good.
3. Focus on what you can control. I really, really, really hate our president. I am so resentful. I am so worried. I am so FREAKED OUT. How can this person exist? How can so many people love him? How can he be the person in charge of our country in the middle of COVID? Rabbit-hole warning.
I can control my garden. I can control my body. I can control my kids' filter on their world. I can control my friends' and family's feelings of connection and support. I can control the feeling of hope and support in the people in my circle. One day at a time. Some days are worse than others. Some days I languish in sorrow. I wish I could cry more. But when I'm in those states, I turn to the people directly around me and realize I have a HUGE impact on them, starting with my kids and partner. Starting with myself.
4. Understand how chemicals work in your brain to create emotions. Remember oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine? Oh right! FUCK YEAH!!!! I LOVE THOSE FUCKERS! Eat good food, love on animals and people, exercise. It's really that simple. (No, it's not, but if you focus on these things, it will help launch you into other amazing things).
5. Answer some "grounding questions" for yourself. My grounding questions vary, and I don't answer them every day, but on occasion, it really helps me on a really bad day to write some answers down, just to anchor myself. A few examples of grounding questions are:
- what is one thing I can do today to give me pleasure?
- what boring thing may happen today (e.g. the sun coming out) can I imbue with sacredness?
- who is one person I can reach out to today?
- what is one thing I can do today to honor those who have helped me?
- what would it take to find peace in the midst of what is going on?
- what do I do in my day that does not serve my wellbeing?
- what can I do to move my body?
- what can I do to invite or create beauty or humor in my day?
Recently, I felt really low. I realized I needed to write a few grounding questions out. I focused on the sun coming out-- I decided I would mark it by stopping whatever I was doing and just recognize it.
I knew that I would have to make dinner for my family. I decided I would make a ritual out of it and try to appreciate all the labor and nature that went into the meal.
These are examples of that Robin Wall Kimmerer calls in her book Braiding Sweetgrass "practical reverence." It's a practice, and I'm feeling the need for it ever more in this time.
Similarly, Annie Dillard has written,
“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”
Sometimes, I feel Dillard's quote is too much pressure-- really, you want me to find existential value in standing in line at the DMV? At other times, like in COVID, I find this to be a guiding light, breaking things down to the basics. When all things are up for grabs, when all that is solid melts into air, when the ground we stand on is shaky, when everything is falling apart-- who are we, and what do our lives mean? The only answer to that is in how we spend our days. Each day is our life in miniature. Some wasted time, some debauchery, waaaaay too much wine, some illumination, some connection, some awe. Some of this we have control over. If you knew that how you spent your day was the meaning of your life, what would you do?
5. Spread it. Good vibrations are contagious. There is science that proves this, but I'm just going to leave it at this: in spite of all of the shit going on, your love, compassion, and skillful actions will make others want to do the same. The planet, social justice, your family, and the future of democracy all require you to imagine the radical awesomeness that this rupturous moment is creating. If there ever was a moment to rise to the occasion rather than shrivel into despair, this is it. We see it in the George Floyd protest streets, we see it in AOC's speech about Rep. Yoho's assault, we see it in our teachers, we see it in our kids. Some days, we can just wallow. But on the others, our ability to cultivate optimism is not just a matter of self-preservation; it is a matter of societal viability. After you've had a good cry with your best friend, take your vulnerability and faith in progress on the road; we are here to hold your heart.