David B Seaburn Ph.D., L.M.F.T.

Going Out Not Knowing

Thinking About Loss in the Time of COVID: The Hole Left Behind

Resilience and loss in the time of COVID.

Posted Apr 07, 2020

COVID-19 has unleashed an extraordinary amount of loss for people around the world. Loss of every kind. Loss of loved ones, loss of connection, loss of jobs, loss of routines, loss of certainty, loss of meaning.

This has made me think of the many losses that have helped define my life, including, most recently, the loss of my mother. I share my own reflections on loss, hoping they may have some meaning for those who read this.

My first personal loss happened when I was 8 years old. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us, passed away. I remember going to the funeral parlor and standing against the wall opposite the coffin. I gathered the courage to walk over to my grandmother and at first thought, she looked like she was asleep. But after a few more seconds, I thought, “This is not sleep. She is never going to move again.”

During the next 10 years, I experienced 10 more losses. Some were what might be called, in phase deaths, like great-uncles and great-aunts. Others were not. Uncles in their fifties dying of heart attacks, a cousin killed in an automobile accident, my brother’s best friend dead at 16.

It took many years for me to understand how these experiences had shaped me. I know it contributed to my decision to enter the ministry, where the most frequent ritual I conducted for my older adult congregation was funerals. Later, when I left parish ministry and became a marriage and family therapist, I worked for most of my career in a primary care clinic with patients who faced a combination of emotional and physical health problems. On a few occasions, I was asked to conduct their funerals.

In time, I understood that illness and death were not interruptions to life, but were integral parts of life. No family is immune. Be that as it may, the universal nature of loss does not mean that it is any less tragic, any less jarring.

When someone dies, we are faced with a kind of darkness that is often overwhelming. We suffer emotionally and physically. We ask “Why?” We feel our loved one near us; we may even see them, so intense is our desire for them to return. It takes weeks and months to find our way back to something that approximates normal living. Even then, it is not the same. Nor should it be. The loss of a loved one should change us, stay with us, make us appreciate the fragile beauty of each passing day, of each relationship, of each breath.

When I was serving a parish, now 40-odd years ago, the daughter of a close friend died. She had been riding her bike and was hit by a car. She was only 11. A beautiful, vibrant child. She lingered on the edge of life for many days until her parents faced the decision to remove life supports. We waited until she died. Her physician came to us and said her “spirit was free.”

A year later, I asked my friend how he was coping with the loss of his daughter. He told me he had a hole inside that he felt certain would never go away. I was saddened to hear this. He added, though, that he wanted to keep that hole and learn how to live with it, to live in spite of it. His wisdom stayed with me.

Over 30 years later, I wrote a novel about a woman who suffered the tragic loss of her husband and son. There is a point in the story, almost a year after the tragedy, when a close friend tries to comfort her. I couldn’t help but remember my friend’s wisdom. The character, Bobby, has just witnessed a buck leaping over a car that was about to hit it. It makes him think of his friend, Kate:

Bobby swallowed hard. He looked at Kate. "Kate, once upon a time I had a little brother who was three years old. His name was Mark and I was his hero. We were driving to a picnic on a sunny day and some guy coming from the other direction swerved about three feet, just three feet, and hit us head on. My mom, my dad, and I, we all made it. But Mark didn't." Bobby wiped the perspiration from his upper lip.

"Sitting there in my truck after the deer had made it to safety, I thought about that accident so long ago. And I realized that while I got to go on living, I was left with a great big hole inside. And that hole bled and hurt and ached for years, and I couldn't figure out how to get rid of it. And people told me that it would go away, that time heals these things, but they were wrong. Time didn't close it up. I mean, it just wouldn't go away no matter how much I wanted it to." Bobby took a deep breath. "And after a while, because you've lived with it so long, it's like you say to yourself, 'You know, that hole isn't going away; in fact, maybe it shouldn't; because if it did, you'd stop remembering your brother'—and you don't want that to happen. And then you think, 'Life doesn't go away either, and you want to keep living, you know, because sometime you might be in the right place at the right time to see a buck jump over a car—or, even better, you might see yourself jump over that hole, even if it's one time out of a hundred. And you think, 'That just might be enough to keep me going.'"

Bobby wiped tears on his sleeve.

"Kate, I hope you don't take this wrong, but I think you have a hole inside you. And I'd like to tell you that's it's going to go away, but it isn't. You can't love someone and lose them and not have a hole for the rest of your life. But, you know what, you can learn how to jump over that hole; you can learn how to jump over that hole when you need to; you don't always have to fall in. It may take ninety-nine tries before you can do it, but once you do it, you'll be all right—not all better, but all right."

David B. Seaburn is the author of Chimney Bluffs, excerpted above. His most recent novel is Gavin Goode.