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Getting Grief

I was driving to meet friends for dinner in early August. My route took me along Highland Avenue where, at the stop sign on Highland Street, I enjoyed the multi-tiered cityscape extending from Rose Hill Cemetery up to North Mc Bride Street hill on toward the rooflines of St. Joseph’s Hospital and to the sky. I thought of taking a photo but moved on. Then something happened. As I drove toward downtown on North Willow Street, panic seized me. My mind suggested I was driving toward where I usually parked for Taste of Syracuse, the Blues Fest, the Polish Fest, the Irish Fest, and the Italian Fest. I quickly judged myself for thinking about COVID robbing us of our summer fun. I breathed deeply to fight my anxiety. Then, I thought, “Kim is gone.”

Days before, after a long battle, my niece succumbed to cancer. My last phone call to her went unanswered. She’d already gone to sleep. And even though we knew the day would come, when I heard that Kim was receiving hospice care at her parents’ home in Washington State, I felt sick to my stomach for days. I alternately sought to stay connected to friends and family and to stay alone to protect family and friends from my sadness. Grief is unpredictable.

My brother, Tim Harrington, Kim’s uncle, said losing family during this COVID pan-demic was probably like losing family during times of war. Travel is more difficult. Some elders are in quarantine. So, we, who could attend a Mass said in Kim’s name. That ritual provided one clear stepping-stone through the transition that is grief.

I keep using the word “we.”

Sometimes, families, tribes, cultures, and societies don’t acknowledge, and, following that, prohibit others from openly acknowledging feelings of grief that flow from legal, social, and cultural practices and edicts designed to keep things “copacetic.” Copacetic, defined as running well and in good order, is a word I remember hearing when I was
in grammar school and experiencing a huge loss amid much pain and confusion. Brain trauma disconnected me from experience eliminating my capacity to grieve. Not knowing why I’ve felt panic and anxiety my entire life. When my brain started to heal and my memories returned, I felt grief.

My isolation during COVID triggered old grief: if only people had done things differently, if only my brain weren’t damaged, if only everything that occurred back then hadn’t occurred, maybe other things wouldn’t have occurred. “If only” thinking is the “bargaining” stage of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five-stage of grief. The first stage is denial. For me simplistically, it’s the thought that “this can’t be.” Stage two is anger, which is self-explanatory. Then comes bargaining. Then comes depression. Eventually, acceptance is supposed to follow. Acceptance of loss doesn’t mean the grieving is over. Grief over my niece’s passing brings new grief that stirs up new grief over old losses.

If only.

Delayed or unresolved grief, unaddressed grievances, and ungrieved losses affect everything. I’ve read a lot of self-help books, attended support groups, and done lots of therapy. I believe that the only way out of an overwhelming feeling is to move through it one breath at a time. When I watched TV coverage of the World Trade Center collapsing on 9/11, I thought, this can’t be happening. At the 9/11 museum, I watched video footage shot by a tourist of the beautiful sky over Manhattan. Boats cruised the river. Everything was copacetic. Then, from the right corner, a plane entered the skyscape. From the hijackers’ perspective, everything was copacetic.

I thought, this can’t be happening, as I watched, on “60 Minutes,” several seconds of a nearly nine-minute piece of history in which a man named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on a man named George Floyd’s neck, in an activity that Chauvin must have held to be in good order.

I don’t see or want to see Derek Chauvin as a representative symbol of all police officers any more than I believe that George Floyd was a martyred hero. Still, history abounds with disenfranchised, unprocessed grief from war, oppression, and legalized torment. Based on my experience and reading, I believe grief’s anger can well up like lava in a volcano when new situations connect to back to old unresolved grief and grievances. Our bodies store feelings we don’t release.

Debra Merryweather