Getting lost: Grieving my loved one’s death during social distancing

April 13 2020


Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

- Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Freedom

We knew something big was up when my mom didn’t login for our 6pm family Easter dinner via zoom. As we waited for her to “join the meeting” there was a shared, but unspoken knowledge among the faces behind the screen. Upon waking earlier that Sunday morning both my brother and I had felt some kind of ‘shift’ happening in our worlds because without speaking to one another, we each emailed our Aunt and Uncle. Neither of us had ever emailed them before. I felt an urgency to connect that compelled me to my keyboard.

Our Uncle Brian had died.

It would be a few hours later that this embodied knowing would be confirmed by my mom through a late night phone call. My bigger than life uncle had died at home from cancer at 67 years old, tended to by my Aunt and mom (both retired nurses). The call lasted just a few minutes, feelings of grief truncated by the stark awareness between us that there would be no immediate gathering, no in person comfort and comforting, no shared storytelling (not everyone is digitally connected) to ignite favourite memories, no lingering over the plates of food dropped off by neighbors … having no access to these familiar death rituals for our tight knit Italian family (my mom’s side), still seems unfathomable.

It’s nuance to this nightmare of social distancing I didn’t understand until now, now that I am in it.

Sure, of course, yes … there will come a time when we will gather, we will celebrate his life that will be remembered by all who gather as FILLED with laughter, family, pranks, and hard work. And maybe his life doesn’t sound so remarkable, but that’s because if you didn’t know him, it wouldn’t be possible for words to do him justice.

​In a nutshell: he showed up.

He was all the more remarkable because he lost his only daughter Terrielynn to cancer in her 20s, and as a family we still grapple with life after her death. And yet when I was with my Uncle, Aunt and her surviving brother (and wife Barb and their gorgeous children), I was comforted by their laughter, their playfulness, and their dedication to family.

My goodness, he loved being a grandfather.

You saw the greatest, softest, patient and most inspired parts of him watching him as a grandfather. They taught our entire family what life through loss could look like – where pain and longing partnered joy and celebration. My own daughter Maya reminds me of her, and there are moments when I catch her off in the corner of my eye, and I feel Terrielynn here with me again.

Trauma at its very core is about rupture, dislocation and disorientation. There are particulars in how trauma ‘shows up’, and the wounding it can leave in its wake, depending on context (e.g. family violence, car accident, and yes a pandemic). Grieving the loss of a loved one during this pandemic has been outside my comprehension.

As a consequence of social distancing, there were no farewell visits, no collective vigiling, no shared care giving, no shared quiet moments in the night whispering words of comfort, answering requests for water, assistance with a position change. I have felt utterly incompetent in my own ability to be useful to my family. No online resource seems adequate nor able to name what ‘this’ is, this feeling of liminality, of paused grief. I teeter between letting my uncle’s death be realized, and blocking this out …terrified the grief will swallow me whole if I lean in too far to fast.

I have held enough loss to recognize this teetering as an important strategy my brain is enacting to keep me safer.

Why feel it if I can theorize about it? That’s familiar enough.

I’ve made the 5 hour trek home in the presence of loss enough to know what it means to ‘sit grief to the passenger side’ so I can make the car ride home, knowing it will be released in the waiting arms of my mother and father.

But what happens when there is no predicable time frame upon which this grief can be released? What happens when the familiar falls away?

I feel lost in this unknowing – in this in between space, this waiting space, this lonely space of ‘socially-distanced grieving’.

Pre-pandemic times I would question anyone who gave weight to linear frameworks of “stages” and “phases”, because there just aren’t any that can contain the rhizomatic nature of grief. And now even the comfort of the familiar words we extend to one another are no longer appropriate. No "Safe travel as you gather together in memory", or "Give your mom a big hug from me", or or or ...

I cannot wrap this post up neatly, I don't have grasp of the words to describe grieving at a time like this - where your standing 6ft away from a loved one during a curb side drop of comfort items but unable to ask for what you need more, their embrace.

To make it all seem okay was never really my intention in writing this post. Actually, that’s not quite true. The first working title was “Ways to comfort the grieving during this pandemic”, but as I wrote on I thought I have no lesson to offer here other than there’s no lesson.

There is a presence, an invitation witness, and willingness to walk beside me and not pull along. I mean, isn’t that the core of grief accompaniment?

I wondered if in sharing you might find some comfort in knowing should you walk a similar path, that the combination of lostness and isolation found me too. You can reach out to me for shared understandings, to (virtually) sit together in the not knowing of what’s next.

I have written these words out to refer myself back to when feelings of panic arise:

"Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go"

​- Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Freedom

So as I have come to the end of this post, I realize I’ve written most importantly to offer you a glimpse into my Uncle Brian’s life, to pronounce our love for him, to remember, to be witnessed, to express gratitude for around the clock care my aunt provided him, and to thank my mom for being at his side to bring prayer and comfort to his death.

I share to say to my loved ones, I am sorry for our loss. And I am sorry I am here, instead of there, and I can’t wait to be reunited as soon as safe and possible.

The accompanying photo is one of my most favourite memories from the past few years. It was taken at my Aunt and Uncle's home. My uncle just tried to tie up my hammock at the campground where I was staying nearby with my mom. After some heated debate we got it up, and as I lay back, I fell abruptly 4ft to the ground flat on my back.

We laughed hysterically.

I love you immeasurably Uncle Brian.

In grief and love and yes in spite of it all, hope,