On Gratitude and Grief in Times of Covid
Picture how the end of a trumpet looks, like two exponential curves heading away from each other. Covid-19 is causing a shortening of time; a collapse of what was already falling apart, and a shove forwards into something new, the seeds of which have been planted long ago.
If time is horizontal then one curve takes us into collapse, despair and grief, it’s a hole from which we feel we might never emerge, while the other curve takes us somewhere different.
I am not suggesting some kind of simplified ‘high-vibes and full of gratitude’ type space, and yet intrinsic in the collapse of the old is the question: what shall we rebuild? central to death is the question: what kind of life do I want? and part of our fake-news post-truth world has us asking; what is true? or what truth do I want to live from?
When we come face to face with such dire loss we are also made aware of what we do have, and of just how grateful we are for those things.
We are being initiated (at least that’s what I see) into a new stage of humanity. The trumpet end is our portal. How we pass through will influence life on the other side.
And as with the trumpet shape, both sides are relevant and needed. The deep grief and loss alongside a gentle sense of possibility.
Alongside the hilarious memes I’ve also been consuming information about doubling death tolls, conspiracy theories, fake news, dramatically shifting political landscapes, unemployment, economic and social collapse, social solidarity, isolation, vibe-raising meditations, martial law, the new ‘normal’, the importance of gratitude to Covid-19, economic restructuring and let’s not forget the impending global recession.
Where do we start?
What do we do?
Moreover what can I do?
I’m a coach, shit, I should be helping, offering free sessions, making resources, doing SOMETHING that is a useful, supportive, perhaps funny, but definitely an important and active response to this great crisis we find ourselves in.
(Hey, I might even land some new coaching client!)
Yet what has felt most real and immediate is to do nothing.
Ahhh. Just for a moment please stop with me…
Take in a deep breath, let it out nice and slowly.
Repeat two or three times. (or please, definitely ignore my instructions if you feel this is just ANOTHER thing you’re being asked to do! Fuck all that doing. Maybe even stop reading this and come back later if you also really feel a deep need just to stop. Go on, give yourself that, stop. I dare you.)
Ok, Grief and Gratitude, let’s do this.
Like the shape at the end of a trumpet we’re being bought into contact with extremes of life that are usually far beyond our experience. Doctors on the front line are working longer and harder than they ever have and are making life or death decisions on an hourly basis. The ventilators are not saving as many lives as previously thought.
It’s predicted that death rates will double daily for the next week or so (written on 31.03.20). This information is gathered from conversations I’ve had with two doctors I know working on the front line in London hospitals. Let’s call them Jane and Rob. Jane is an anaesthetist and Rob is a respiratory SHO (Senior House Officer). Rob shared with me that:
‘of those that need mechanical ventilation in an induced coma very few are making a full recovery’
How do we process such information?
I received a message from Rob the other day that read:
We have now run out of machines. Half my ward on non invasive ventilators, we’re holding them, keeping them out of ITU but we don’t have anymore and ITU is now full, theatres full. Bigger places like St George’s and Tommies have space so beginning to ship them out there but they will be full very soon, few beds left only now. We’ve got two weeks of it getting worse and London is almost at capacity. Need more machines ASAP. Need that excel centre ASAP but honestly we have no idea who’s gonna staff it. Lots of tough decisions being made. Threshold for ITU rising and rising. People being palliated where normally they’d be for escalation. Lots of hard discussions with family members who are losing their loved ones before their time. Insult to injury is we have to manage public health risk and restrict family visits of dying patients. We are beginning to tire actually and the marathon has only just started. So all in all pretty rough… Will keep turning up on time, in tune and doing the thing as long as we need to but we are willing it to end already yesterday
Immediately the message bought tears to my eyes. The grief of our time became viscerally apparent to me. And the sense of impending doom, that things are going to get worse before they get better.
My heart goes out to the frontline workers. And if you are reading this on or around the 31st March 2020 then I really encourage you to consider who you know who works on the frontline in the NHS. Give them a call, send a message, tell them you love them and that they have the whole nation in support of their monumental effort right now.
This is crucial right now. I’m not in an ‘action suggesting mode’ but this is essential. You might, quite literally, save their lives.
In case you are unaware, and to go a little deeper into the grief story, we are witnessing a silent epidemic of suicide amongst young men and women. Suicide is the highest cause of death aged between 18–40 in the UK is a killer amongst young doctors who are under an incredible amount of stress during regular working conditions.
It’s hard to fathom the depth of suffering, anxiety, grief, despair, hopelessness and loss some of our friends and family might be experiencing right now.
I care specifically about the mental health of our NHS staff as my Mum was a GP who sadly took her own life in June 1998. And that tragedy happened during ‘normal’ working conditions. I wonder how she would have fared if a global pandemic had occurred while she was still working. Or indeed, if she was still alive today, how she might be finding this current scenario.
And so, grief.
It’s here and it’s deep and real and painful. If you have felt sadness, loss, despair or any of the other refractions of grief in the past few weeks then I honour you and your courage.
Grief can feel like a bottomless pit. A hole into which we will fall and never get out. A dark place best avoided, something to distract ourselves from, a heavy emotion that we’ll bring others down with, an admitting of defeat, a giving up of hope or a weakness best avoided at all costs.
And at times grief has felt exactly like all those things to me. And that’s totally OK, legitimate and an important part of grief. If it’s not real and scary and dark then it isn’t actual grief.
Yet within your conceptual framework of what grief is I’d like to plant a new seed. This golden nugget of a seed is that grief is also a window, it’s an acceptance, and a surrendering into what will naturally overwhelm you at some point anyway, it’s a letting go and being with what is.
Some of the grief I felt in 2019 felt like falling through the bottom of a cave. It was terrifying, like a living death.
And yet when I finally (not by my own choice) was forced to let go and just fall I found myself falling into a void that turned out to be full of acceptance, self-love, stillness, surrender and ‘enough-ness’.
Different, but with a similar emotional signature (as all grief has), I believe we’re experiencing a global moment of falling. And how we tend to this grief will make a difference to the world we create on the other side (if there is an other-side… sorry! couldn’t help myself!!)
If you have room in your awareness now for a small suggestion I have an offering: Emotional Processing.
Emotional Processing is a spiritual or technical word for ‘having a really good cry’. And it works.
David Papa, longtime great friend, mentor, guide and teacher introduced me to a world of teachers who offer emotional processing in some form or another. Through David I learnt the techniques which landed best with me, and then over the years I’ve assimilated them into my own practice while teaching them to the people I work with.
Here is the technique:
blanket, candle, journal, and a quiet private space
1. Decide to process rather than pacify
If / When feeling an emotional charge within your body decide and allow yourself to go into the emotions and process them rather than pacifying them. An emotional charge might feel like butterflies in your stomach, constriction around your heart, nervousness or tingling, or whatever it feels like for you but learning to focus on the physical sensations of your emotions is part of this work.
2. Setup the space
Create a quiet, safe and comfortable space for you to process. It helps if the space is clear, quiet and you can be there in a peaceful way. Light a candle, close the curtains if you want, whatever has you feel special and held. You can go to town here with incense, a designated blanket, sacred art, or an altar etc etc but none of that is necessary.
3. Breathe into your emotions and let them come
Tune into your body. Where do you feel whatever you feel? Breathe into the centre of that feeling. Move your body, rub your tummy, stretch, hold yourself, experiment with kapalabhalti breathing or whatever it takes to shift, expand and loosen the emotional charge you have inside you.
4. Let it out
Usually the charge will start to move, to grow, to change. This is good, keep it growing and moving by focusing on the sensations and breathing into them. You can also visualise the emotion as a ball of light that is spreading and growing. And then, for me at least, as it spreads and arrives into your head feel it behind your eyes and then let it out in tears, laughter or whatever you feel.
5. Be present
As you cry — and really let yourself go there; try screaming into a pillow or punching the bed — be present with yourself. Notice the sense of stillness and peace in the centre of this process. Keep the tears coming, being OK with whatever comes. Love whatever comes. Love yourself that you can witness your emotions this powerfully. Be grateful that you’re doing this practice and shifting these emotions.
6. Lie still
A big like puking, it’s nice to just lie still after a good cry. Be with the new sensitivity you’ve opened in your body. You’ve just done some important and significant work, stay with that sense, feel into your boy, there may be more there, or you may be able to come back later.
Notice which thoughts and feelings you are having right now. What was it that was underneath, or on the other side, or through your grief or sadness? What thoughts or images arrive? Who do you think of? Sometimes lovely simple revelations or insights happen during this process. Make a quick note in your journal and come back to them later so you don’t go too much into your head at this stage.
8. Give thanks and close
Take a moment to be grateful to yourself for the important work you’ve just done. As you would with a wounded, or healing, child; hold yourself, love yourself, give thanks for your courage and bravery. As you close the space by blowing out the candle (adding in whatever else you want) remind yourself that you can always return to this practice.
That you have now established a safe place to process your emotions and that this is a skill that will serve you for life.