May 05, 2020

A Line of Disappearances: Grief and Helplessness During Shelter in Place

By Alistair Shanks

We are living in a time of disappearances. For the most part, we have been stripped of our distractions, our busyness, our schedules, and plans as we shelter in place. We are being forced to reorder our activities, our needs, our lives.

We are in a state of continual waiting,  a perpetual state of uncertainty. Like a dream, we are at the mercy of an alien, inimical force, invisible and unpredictable. The world has come to a standstill. Construction sites are silent, cranes still, businesses dark, the streets empty.

We are grieving the loss of normalcy, a sense of safety and order; everything has been upended. Nothing is normal. Leaving home feels risky, a trip to the grocery store dangerous. People have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods. People are dying alone in isolated units surrounded not by family and loved ones but by medical teams clad in protective gear.

While also grieving the loss of a sense of connection to others — friends, families, our broader social networks, work colleagues — new opportunities arise to connect in different ways, to offer small kindnesses. There are the friendly smiles and knowing nods as I pass masked people on the street, the greetings of strangers who would normally go by unnoticed. A woman offers a bottle of hand sanitizer to a homeless man outside a Safeway. Many people recognize that we are in this together, that we are all struggling to adjust to this new normal.

Our separation has only made more obvious our dependence on one another, our interconnection. We breathe the same air, share the same sidewalks and streets, depend on invisible supply chains to provide our food, our medications, our consumer goods. We are interdependent in every way, a fact that is easily lost in the daily tumult of overbooked lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, the cycles of life go on unperturbed. It is still spring and trees and flowers continue to bloom, only to disappear in their own time. The days become longer. In the absence of human activity, nature offers signs of reasserting itself: wild boar on the streets of Barcelona, mountain goats taking over a town in Wales, whales in Mediterranean shipping lanes, baby turtles in Brazil surviving in higher numbers due to deserted beaches.

And there is the fear, the vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, for once unable to distance ourselves from the world’s tragedies. It is no longer just an image of suffering on our TV screen. It is here and we are not in control, our lives moving in an arc out to the horizon, a line of disappearances. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I often point out to our volunteers that a lot of what we do as we sit with those suffering near the end of life is to also sit with our own sense of helplessness. We are simply witnesses to the pain and struggles of our fellow human beings. Our volunteers learn to be with discomfort, with uncertainty, helplessness, the unknown. In many cases, it is all we can do and it is no small thing. I have seen the impact of a single steady, mindful presence transform a room.

What can we do with our helplessness? In this time of upheaval, we have been shorn of our assumptions, our certainties. In our helplessness the only sane, rational response, as ever, is love. Maybe our task is, as the poet David Whyte writes, “To love and to witness love in the face of possible loss, and to find the mystery of love’s promise in the shadow of that loss.”

We all need self-care in times like this. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers are trained to practice self-compassion, to acknowledge doubts and difficulties, and hold them with tenderness and care. As Jack Kornfield has said, “In this moment we can sit quietly, take a deep breath, and acknowledge our fear and apprehension, our uncertainty and helplessness…and hold all these feelings with a compassionate heart.”

We can embrace our interdependence. We can turn to the person next to us and ask, “What is your experience? What is it like for you? How are you doing?”

And listen.
Listen deeply.

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