Flashback

I’m working at a large law firm in Atlanta. Close to a thousand lawyers worldwide, nice enough people, entirely focused on business.

Billing well north of $300 an hour each, we faced Serious Problems on behalf of our clients and we were expected to design Creative, Strategic Solutions for a very Serious Fee.

I took a pause one day from my Serious Work to get a cup of coffee. Rounding the corner into the break room, shaped like a galley kitchen with no easy mode of escape once you’re in it, I saw a secretary crying.

Her back toward me, I could see her shoulders shaking and could tell that she’d put her fist in her mouth to muffle the sounds of her sobs. No weeping here: Ruthie was in serious pain.

“Ruthie? Can I help?”

Ruthie turned, her eye make-up smeared, horrified at having been discovered. Although the lawyers were nice enough people, an unspoken rule prohibited engaging with staff for anything beyond pleasantries and Serious Business. But I’d already established that I didn’t fit that mold, and she relaxed when she saw me.

“I’m sorry, I’m — it’s — my cat died.” More sobs.

“Oh, Ruthie, I’m so sorry. I love my animals too, I know how painful that is.”

Ruthie grabbed a napkin and wiped her eyes. “No, I don’t know why I’m so upset. I mean… She was just a cat.”

* * * * *

We don’t do grief well in our society. We deny it, hurry it along, minimize it, hide it.

When my dad died after living for more than seven years with dementia, I craved to go back to earlier days when there was a protocol for grief that I fantasize made it simpler. Not easier, but maybe more clear, more socially acceptable.

In Victorian times, mourning was prescribed for a certain period of time, depending on one’s relationship with the person who had died. Mourning could go on longer, but it wasn’t allowed to be shorter. Black clothing signaled your status as a mourner. Outward signs of grief were acknowledged and respected.

I’m sure there’s a downside to that, since any lightness of spirit would have been judged harshly and yet they’re part of healing. And far from supporting someone like Ruthie, Victorians likely wouldn’t have set time aside to mourn a pet, since human life was uncertain and human death so common.

But the recognition of grief, recognition that it takes time to heal? That would be a comfort.

* * * * *

In these pandemic days, I have the sense that we’re all feeling grief on some level.

A nationwide death toll of 500,000 people is almost impossible to understand. It’s painful enough to grieve one person; grieving 500,000 even in the abstract is impossible. But take it to the personal. How many of us are grieving one or more of those 500,000 deaths?

Even if we’re fortunate enough not to know personally anyone who’s died from Covid, there’s plenty more to grieve.

Having to think about safety before we choose to go somewhere or to engage with another person.

Having enough food in the pantry. Enough money in the bank.

The loss of working in an office, even being employed, school, networking, shopping. Vacations and celebrations cancelled or delayed. Visits with friends and family postponed, perhaps forever. Smiles and laughter obscured by masks.

The loss of the way it used to be.

The security of believing we know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

We have lost so much. Some things we can name and identify clearly, others that we can only sense. Things that, in our society, we’re not really allowed to grieve.

It’s just an acquaintance.

It’s just a cat.

It’s just a vacation.

It’s ok. We’re fine. No death in the family? Carry on.

* * * * *

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that life can be far shorter than we ever realized. Even when it isn’t cut short by death, it can contract in the blink of an eye.

Whether required by government health mandates or our own tolerance for risk, we can be forced to remain at home with a few intimates or perhaps none at all — or, worse, with someone we don’t want to be with and yet have no meaningful option. Away from work, school, faith community, friends, coffeeshops, even leisurely trips to the grocery store or drug store.

We know now that life can shrink in ways most of us never imagined.

But here’s what I know: life can also expand. Even in quarantine, some of us found rest and refreshment. Some found new interests. Some found new love. Some could finally hear the birds again. Some for heard them for the first time.

We have had space, maybe too much space, in our daily schedules. Space that let us see what and who we actually missed.

As Spring 2021 dawns, there’s hope that we can start seeing other people again. Going out in the world — carefully, still masked, vaccinated.

But we can’t do that, or at least we shouldn’t do that, in a way that ignores or denies the grief of these times and the grief of whatever we experienced before in our individual lives.

As we begin to unfurl into public life again, let’s bring our joy and our grief. Maybe we won’t wear outward signs of mourning, but we can ask “How are you?”  We can wait for the answer, make it truly ok for that answer to hold light and dark. We can normalize by acknowledging our own sadness even as Spring begins to flower.

We changed the world with a lockdown on our daily lives.

Let’s change the world again by opening up to everything we feel, even grief.