As we all know, at the moment, the world is not working the way we are used to it working. The rules are changing. Our schedules are disrupted, our priorities are being turned upside down, and our day to day conversations have taken a whole new direction.
A lot of this brings to mind when my youngest son, Oliver, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma. It was the end of August in 2010 and we went to DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids (Michigan) to see why his appetite was low and iron levels could not be brought up. We left around a week later with our entire world turned upside down. During the nearly three years of treatment, we become semi-medical experts and well versed in keeping germs at bay, especially after his bone marrow transplant wiped out his immune system.
While we had friends and family to support us, it was still a lonely battle. Oliver was our son so it was our lives that changed directly while others felt indirect changes (e.g. coworkers who covered for me). But the world went on like normal. There is a beautiful poem by Krista Lukas called The Day I Die in which she talks about how life will continue to happen on the day she dies. People will walk their dogs, kids will be in school or out of school, and she’ll leave things undone. It might be a Tuesday or Saturday. This momentous day is not momentous for everyone and will not change the life of most people.
When my son died, it impacted a number of people since many followed his story. Plus, the story of an innocent and charming six-year-old dying is something that sticks with you. But for most people, life understandably went on. The world did not pause. He died during the week of our huge Tulip Time Festival and the festival and three parades still happened.
Not this year. For the first time ever, they’ve canceled Tulip Time. Schools are not in session and they are supposed to be. I have not been in my office for nearly two weeks, instead talking to people through video chats and phone calls. My wife and I watch the news together as the number of cases and deaths in the world, the United States, and in Michigan, continue to mount. We still walk our dogs, but we cross the street when we see someone coming. We speak with neighbors from a safe distance and harass our college-aged son to take all of this seriously.
The rules have changed. Suddenly, more people than ever are experiencing grief as a loved one dies. And the rules for grief are changing as funerals are postponed or are quiet, private affairs. When my son died people surrounded us, hugged us at the funeral, said the rosary with us even if they were not Catholic, and brought us dinners. How would we have handled that grief if no one was allowed to come, if we had to sit isolated in our home as the world retreated to safety?
So, along with learning a new way of living, now many people have to find a new way of grieving. For those you know who are experiencing grief from the recent loss of a loved one, reach out any way you can. A handwritten note shows you took the time to think about them. If you know them well, ask about at least touching base with a video chat. Put a sign in their yard telling them they are loved. Pray for them and let them know you are offering up prayers. Promise, and keep the promise, to see them in person as soon as it is safe for everyone. Don’t count on other family members to provide all the support for many of them are grieving as well.
Grief is lonely and with the change in the rules of life, it can be lonelier than ever for so many people. Not just those who lose a loved one to COVID-19, but anyone who loses a loved one during this time. The rules of life may be changing, but our need to be loved and embraced by others is not.