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We Weren’t Meant to Grieve Alone

We’ve been deprived of the last moments with loved ones and in-person gatherings to mourn together. What can we do to heal?

By Susan Gubar

Swans do it, chimps do it; even elephants and whales do it. They fall in love and then after their beloved dies, they grieve. Human beings differ only to the extent that we have inherited rituals that help us deal with a shattering emotion. But what happens when those rites must be relinquished or reinvented during a plague year?

This question started to haunt me when a member of my cancer support group, Barbara, dropped out of our Zoom meetings. Hospice nurses had been helping her at home and now she was actively dying from ovarian cancer. How could our group continue to connect with her? I left messages with my name and phone number on her answering machine. I sent an email with that information — perhaps her two adult sons would access her account — but received no response.

In the past, I had sat by the bedside of dying group members and later attended religious services or life celebrations. Now, I found myself grieving the sorry fact that I had not been able to say goodbye to Barbara. After news of her death reached us, I grieved that I did not even know how to reach her family to tell them what a compassionate companion she had been.

The experience made me appreciate if not the curative then at least the consoling value of vigils, wakes, burials, funerals and memorials, each in its own way an event staged to help us stay attached and then begin loosening our ties to the ever-receding dead person. While sitting by a deathbed holding a hand, while standing in a cemetery as a coffin or urn is lowered into the earth with a prayer or a poem, while hearing a memory recalled at a funeral, we treasure the person who had been and gain comfort from others who share our sorrow. Most of these ceremonies have been canceled during the past year.

A new book on grief by the psychologist Dorothy P. Holinger is useful in thinking about the impact of the termination of mourning rituals, although it was written before the pandemic. The book, “The Anatomy of Grief,looks at how grief can wreck the brain, the heart and the emotions of the bereaved, a word that signifies those who feel robbed.

“Grief,” Dr. Holinger explains, “is the price we pay for love.” To be bereaved is to be robbed of the loved one and of the world and the self that had existed when they were alive.

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