Isolation & Grief
By Sheryl McAlister
Grief has been a constant through this global experience we find ourselves in. Watching the nightly news can be overwhelming at times. Images and stories of who and what we have lost. Details of those who have died — alone. Of those in need of comfort but not able to get it when life dealt its most cruel blow.
In the midst of a health crisis that has redefined everything we know and everything we do, there is no making sense of it all. Grief creeps into places where it might never have lived before. Sadness over a college or high school senior who is missing out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Grandparents missing grandchildren who live only a few miles away. Milestone birthdays. Loneliness in people who are having to enjoy their own company for the first time in their lives.
People have lost loved ones and cannot gather with friends and family to celebrate a well-lived life. Those same people unable to process their own grief while in virtual solitude. People are doing the best they can, no doubt. But the grieving process at some point includes a cocoon of friends and family, if you’re fortunate to have that.
When my Dad died 7 years ago, I found myself comforted by the people who showed up – visitors for days on end. Some I knew and some I didn’t. Hundreds of people attended his funeral. Standing room only in the church. We found out later some folks came and left, not ever finding anywhere to park.
When my sister lost her husband earlier this year, she and her young teenagers were surrounded by comforting family and friends, who showed up every day. The support so abundant, it’s not possible to capture in a few words. In the months since, she and her kids are still trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life.
My sister, in her infinite wisdom, said early on that closed schools and relaxed stay at home orders might be a blessing in disguise for her family. For her and them, the blessings have been and continue to be a critical part of their grieving process. Family, friends, faith, food, random acts of kindness. This family has not been forsaken at any point.
The day of my brother-in-law’s service, hundreds of people showed up again. Parking lots had overflowed. Open fields were full of cars. Streets were lined. The Methodist church down the road allowed parking for their Presbyterian neighbors. An hour before the service started, the church was full. Thirty minutes later, overflow attendance had spilled into multiple rooms with closed circuit televisions.
As a kid – no matter your age – you hold onto that kind of support. Probably for the rest of your life.
It was supposed to rain that day in January for Jonathan’s service. It didn’t. And when the crowd gathered at the graveside after leaving the church, we arrived to a perfectly hued rainbow against a clear blue sky. The rainbow seemingly originating from the spot near a Gazebo where people had gathered, and then disappearing over the steeple of the church nearby. Dad is near that same Gazebo, and I felt a wave of relief come over me.
Folks made their way back to the cars as the sun set. The convergence of brilliant orange and blue colors highlighted the evening sky. An Auburn Tiger ‘til the end. One of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, and a second sign that he was okay.
As dusk turned to dark, people lingered. The phrase social distancing not yet part of the vernacular. People were close to each other. They hugged. They made their way, ever so slowly, to their cars. The funeral director tried to hustle everybody off the property with the authority of a bouncer after Last Call.
I remember thinking that she would never be able to force this crowd to do what she wanted us to do — leave. I chuckled as I climbed in the car and took one last look around. In vintage Jonathan fashion, he was closing the place down.
When grief hits hardest, you’re able to hold onto those moments that help make you feel a little better. A little less alone. You hold onto those things that bring you comfort, particularly when a death doesn’t make much sense.
When we come out of this health crisis – and we will – my hope is that we have learned patience with what someone might be going through. That we have reached out to those who might be lonely, even if they don’t happen to be alone in their isolation. That we appreciate that someone else’s struggles might be different from our own. That we don’t judge what someone else might need.
That we simply show up – in whatever way we can.
©Copyright 2020. Sheryl McAlister.
Photograph by Flynn Bowie.