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Social Distancing: What You’re Feeling Is Grief

Perspective on existential whiplash and the new social landscape.

Human beings don’t like change. We thrive on structure, ritual, and routine. When we are confronted with change, we struggle, but it’s not the change that’s the challenge. It’s the loss, and with that loss comes grief. While we are living in the Age of Anxiety and may be standing on the precipice of the Next Great Depression, we are, more poignantly, in the midst of the Great Grieving.

Stolen Moments

COVID-19 and the coronavirus have stolen our lives as we know them. Our entire reality has experienced an almost incomprehensible shift that goes against our very instincts as social animals and creatures of community. Despite warnings to the contrary, we are fighting it—witnessed by the scores of us who flaunt the very constraints that may very well keep us, quite literally, alive.

We can’t get our hands around the idea that we need to isolate—never mind our minds. The rules of social reality have changed, at least for the moment, and they are now bumping up against our most primal instincts. We are social animals. We gather for protection. Now, to protect ourselves, we must separate.

Existential Whiplash

With separation comes loss, and with loss comes grief. That indefinable sense of angst? That cloying claustrophobia gripping your heart in the small of the night? That amorphous anxiety haunting your days? Grief. You have lost something. Only you know what "that" is for you, but it is gone, and you’re grieving it.

We have lost—or, more properly, been forced to give up in the face of the growing pandemic—our lives as we know them. We have been forced to change so much, so quickly, we are experiencing a sort of existential whiplash. For many of us, 9/11 was a similar experience. It was a personal reckoning, forcing us to re-evaluate our lives, our values, what we held dear and what we suddenly recognized as the trappings of ego and hubris. Our current situation is 9/11—on a slow burn.

The Solace of Hope

Here’s the thing: Grief brings introspection and, by association, reinvention. With reinvention comes hope. We are not lost—but found. We may be in the midst of the Great Grieving, yet that grieving may well be the harbinger of a greater awakening—The Great Awakening. Therein lies the hope, for each of us as individuals and, with a modicum of grace, society a whole.

That hope, at least in the moment, is mired in uncertainty, and with that uncertainty comes grief. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we don’t know what to do. Rather than responding, we react, digging into—and by association, feeding—our fear, anxiety, and attendant grief. That’s why you can’t find toilet paper. If you’d like to unpack that particular set of circumstances, it’s likely a dissertation moment. Freud, for one, would have a field day with it, to be certain.

An Uncertain Future

With grief also comes uncertainty. In the midst of our changing landscape, what will the future hold? What will life look like for us going forward—as individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, and, a society? One of the reasons we thrive on structure, routine, and ritual is because it gives us a sense of control—even in a world where, in our more lucid moments, we recognize we can’t control much of anything.

This uncertainty brings with it a lack of safety, and with that lack of safety comes anticipatory anxiety, as well as anticipatory grief. We are not only concerned about what will happen, but again, what we will lose and may have, at least in our minds, already lost—connection, community, home, position, status, money, and more importantly, the sense of place all of those things inform.

No Point of Reference

Even more poignant is the fact that this uncertainty—along with its attendant fears, anxieties, and abject grief—is something we can’t see. There is no gap in the skyline, no flattened trailer park, no Cajun Navy, no car wreck, no heart monitor, and no prosthetic limb. There is nothing tangible to get our hands and minds around—and it’s why our neighbors are still taking their kids to the park.

We may rage against them, but without a tangible touchstone of tragedy as a point of reference, those same neighbors are simply seceding to their normal—structure, ritual, and routine. They are fighting the very thing that may, quite literally, save their lives because our most primal imperative in a time of fear is to congregate.

To personalize it, my Dad—a second-generation immigrant and Golden Gloves boxer who grew up in the Great Depression, served in WW II, saw his own ration of trial and tragedy, and nonetheless, retired Professor Emeritus from a prestigious university—used to say, "Are you dead? Bleeding? On fire? Walk it off." Truth be told that mantra made me one tough motherf*cker, as I too have weathered many storms in my short time on this planet, only to watch the sunrise yet again—every time.

That mantra, however, has also given me a blind spot—if I’m good, we’re all good—and that blind spot is emblematic of where we’re falling down. We’re not all good. In fact, we’re in some pretty heavy weather. To get through this storm we must—must—commit to becoming comfortable with our discomfort. Our grief is not a burden—it is a tool. It is our means for moving forward through tragedy and change—and finding ourselves on the other side.

Our grief is also a lens through which we can view our new reality. Falling back on our normal, while comforting, isn’t going to cut it because that is the path of fear. Embracing change and recognizing this is not simply a moment in time, but the dawn of a new era, will not only heal us but energize our evolution as individuals, neighbors and neighborhoods, communities and society, as a whole.

Yes, you are grieving, but in good measure. Embrace it, use it, and evolve, baby.

© 2020 Michael J. Formica