Grieving Missed Pandemic Milestones

Like many people, I was really excited to hit the next decade of my life and had big plans for how my new-decade birthday might go. I figured 2020 would be a big year for me personally, and I was looking forward to the milestone birthday being one of many important transitions. I don’t think I need to tell you that the big party didn’t happen. The big vacation I planned didn’t happen.

But it didn’t bother me at the time. Seniors missed graduations and class trips, weddings were postponed or streamed on video. Plenty of other people missed birthdays and holidays and vacations. It felt for a while like we were all in this together, all sacrificing the things we were really looking forward to.

It still didn’t bother me in 2021 because things still felt up in the air. Sometimes events could happen, other times they’d be shut down or postponed yet again. Some people were having parties, but other people were still keeping things small out of caution.

This year has been different. One of my best friends is about two years younger than me and she’s now hitting the decade milestone that I missed in 2020. And she gets to have the party and go on the special vacation. I’m jealous in ways I didn’t expect.

I’ve heard similar from people who had to skip their graduations or have them virtually. They can go and walk this year to make up for it, but they’ve moved on in their lives and it feels weird to go and walk in someone else’s graduation just because you missed yours. But the feelings of sadness and jealousy are still there.

So how do we deal with these feelings? How do I watch my friend have an amazing party and then follow it up with a fun long weekend away? How can I be genuinely happy for her while missing the fact that I wanted those things for my milestone birthday too?

And just like it feels wrong to walk in someone else’s graduation to make up for the loss of mine, it also doesn’t feel right to have that party two years later simply to make up for lost time. All that’s left is for me to bring these thoughts and emotions up with acceptance. I missed my birthday party and the vacation. I didn’t feel sad at the time, but I’m sad now and that’s okay. I’ll have another birthday this year, and that can be good enough. I can plan a new vacation this year, and that can be okay. I’ll never get back all the time in 2020 that I lost to the pandemic and all the restrictions, but I need to accept that as a fact in order to move on.

Acceptance doesn’t mean I ignore my sadness or my jealous thoughts. My sadness is real and an important part of me. I can accept what happened and accept my sadness. The jealousy is different. I can tell from sitting with it that it comes from a place of feeling like things were unfair and I deserved better. Those emotions are valid, but they’re ultimately unhelpful. Focusing on the sense of unfairness doesn’t help me feel better, it keeps me in a cycle of feeling angry and jealous and focused on what I’m missing.

Does this make sense? My sadness is helpful because it allows me to acknowledge what I lost. My jealousy is unhelpful because it keeps me focused on myself as a victim of circumstance. Moving through this grief, it’s not helpful to allow myself to dwell on the jealousy, but I do need to hold and sit with my sadness so I can feel it fully and journey through it.

Grieving missed milestones and memories from the pandemic looks like sitting with your thoughts and feelings with a posture of acceptance. From there, you can decide which thoughts and feelings are helpful or unhelpful and decide how you want to proceed with intention, acceptance, and self-compassion.

Did you miss a milestone or major event during the pandemic? How did you handle it? Does the method I used sound like it might make sense for you or did you use a completely different way?

Grief at Systems of Injustice

In most grief literature, we frame grief individually- I, or you, have lost something or someone and we have to step forward in life in the wake of that loss. But we also see an undercurrent of a deeper grief, one that reacts to the damage done by injustice and unjust systems as they harm humans both individually and in communities.

This is a pervasive grief. None of us live in perfectly just societies, and if we do not see the injustice in the system it is because we choose not to see it or we are privileged enough that it is invisible to us. We all participate in society, and even as we run into these unjust systems, we recognize that individual action will not do much to change the system itself, we need collective action.

This kind of grief turns readily into anger, both at the system itself for being unjust and at others who are not working to bring justice or may be actively working against justice.

This kind of grief can also turn into apathy, the sense of struggling to move a system that seems unmovable. The sense of being alone in wanting change can wear us down as we do not see others rallying with us in the cause. And a different kind of apathy when these stories of injustice sweep through the culture with a sense of pity, but the energy for change doesn’t last as the next big story comes in.

Choosing a life of activism often feels like grief. It is difficult to remain faithful to a cause when it feels like shouting at the ceiling and pleading to an empty room. And yet we are heartened by stories of other activists who did see lasting structural changes toward justice, often after decades or even a lifetime of work.

Justice is a strong drive at the core of your heart, and grief walks alongside it. You may find it useful to retell your story, even just to yourself, to remember why you believe in justice and why it’s worth continuing to pursue right action through all the struggles. As an activist, you are a modern day prophet, seeing straight through to the heart of the issue and trying to wake up a culture that seems to be asleep.

Your story of justice can be a light when everything around you seems dark. Stories keep us going when we want to stop. Justice is worth pursuing every day, and your choice to sit with the grief of injustice instead of ignoring it will be a beacon to those who come after you.

The Equalizing Power of Grief

Grief therapy is fundamentally different from other kinds of therapy for a few reasons, a primary reason being that both the therapist and the client have had their own experiences with grief and loss. In other therapies, the client may have a problem that the therapist has never experienced, so the therapist is operating purely clinically with no personal interjection.

This different way of doing therapy can feel odd to those who are more comfortable in a therapeutic experience that is more one-sided and hierarchical with the therapist being the expert on treatment and the client bringing the issue to be treated. With grief, we are all in the same boat. Not that your therapist will give great detail about their own story- therapy should always center on you as the client- but there is a different sense of community, a feeling like right now it is you going through this grief, but we have both been there and we will both be there again at many points in our lives.

And so, grief therapy is a process grounded in a horizontal relationship of equality rather than a vertical relationship of hierarchy and expertise. We are truly traveling together on the journey of grief. This is a collaborative process of digging into the meaning and purpose of life in the face of our mortality and limits.

Helping Children Grieve

Even very young children are aware of loss and have their own process of grieving based on their understanding. Because children look to their caregivers to learn how to process their losses, caregivers can inadvertently shut down a child’s ability to grieve when they assume the child does not know or is not reacting to the loss.

Children’s television and literature cover common topics of loss like changing schools, moving away from a friend, and losing a pet. With these kinds of losses, caregivers can leverage the child’s understanding of how their favorite characters went through their loss.

The most common temptation for caregivers is to help move the child through the process. Resist the urge to tell the child how much nicer it will be at the new school or that they will make more friends soon. Help the child learn how to be sad in appropriate ways, express their anger at the situation, and find ways to honor their loss.

The topic of death, particularly parent or sibling death, is not common in children’s media. Unless you purposefully seek out these books, you are not likely to find them at your local library or bookstore. Grandparent death is a more common topic, but again not always available on the shelves.

A key difference with parent or sibling death is that you as the caregiver are likely processing your own grief through the process. It’s very different from helping a child deal with their emotions through changing schools since you as the caregiver are not also changing schools.

Children need to know that it’s okay to express their grief with you, and they often want to know that the loss matters to you too. Younger children often want to tell the story of their loss over and over, and this can be an opportunity for you to craft a story together of what you have lost and how you are grieving together.

Dementia Caregiving- Loss Before Death

A diagnosis of dementia in a parent can feel like the beginning of the end. Many caregivers describe the day of diagnosis as the day that they truly lost their parent. It’s an isolating feeling, being with your parent while actively missing who they were.

The changes can highlight these losses. Caregivers are often struck by the sheer difference between their memories of their parent and the current reality. It is incredibly painful to watch a kind, loving person turn nasty during their sundowners and become vicious in their verbal attacks. It is differently painful to watch a strong, independent person become hesitant and withdrawn in their confusion.

The change in role can be difficult to navigate as a parent becomes dependent on their children for caregiving and decision making, and the caregiving child becomes tied down by their parent’s increasing dependence often after many years of living apart.

The issue of caregiving can break families apart as siblings either try to pass the buck to avoid the responsibility or each clamor to put their opinions in the ring and get the care decisions to go their way. As a caregiver, you may feel swamped by hearing from others what you “should” be doing from people who are not willing to lift a finger or send money to help.

All the while, you as the caregiver are navigating the day to day realities of providing care to someone with dementia. It’s not just an opinion to you, it’s your life and reality, and it can feel insulting for someone who isn’t in your situation to think they know better than you what you need to do.

At the same time, you are not just a caregiver. You are a person worth time off, breaks from caregiving, and your own separate life from your parent. There is such a pervasive myth that caregivers should be quietly dedicated to solely providing gentle care to a parent who calmly accepts our aid with gratitude. The reality is so different as you know.

Caregiving can last for years, and too many caregivers come to the end of their parent’s life resentful, burned out, lonely, and isolated. If the totality of your life has been given over to caregiving, you may reach the end of your time at a high risk for suicide.

It is vitally important that as a caregiver you stay connected to your community whether that means staying employed, keeping up with your needs, maintaining your hobbies, and nurturing your relationships. You are important in so many ways, not only for what you are doing for your parent, but in terms of your own intrinsic worth.

Dementia derails the entire family, but mostly the caregiving person. You are essentially losing your parent as you see the person they were giving way to the progression of the disease. You are at risk of losing yourself as well, as you are asked to do more and more for your parent. Family disagreement over the care process fuels the sense that things are breaking apart.

Caregiver support is so necessary. As a caregiver, it is important that you prioritize yourself through the process. Therapy is one possibility for support, and there are also so many groups available for you to get to meet with peers going through the same thing.

Grieving Body Changes

Whether from aging, medical treatment, or an accident, our bodies change. Like other forms of grief, the story we tell ourselves about how and why these changes happened is the source of our peace or distress.

Body changes are often our most public changes. When we start a new habit or learn a new language, others can’t tell just by looking. But the people around us take notice when chemotherapy leads to hair loss, an accident takes an arm, or aging makes us need glasses at work.

Medical treatments can cause some of the most extreme body changes. Treatments may cause us to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, we may lose a limb or an eye, we may lose our reproductive capability. Even when these treatments were medically necessary and we understand logically that this was the best path, we still grieve these losses.

Aging-related changes can be difficult to accept, particularly in cultures that value youth and appearance over age and wisdom. Even though we all know that we will age every year, some people fight hard against the reality of growing older.

Accidents are the most likely to result in complicated grief for the simple reason that they are not something we might choose (like medical treatment) or reasonably foresee (like aging). And accidents often have someone to blame, whether that’s yourself or someone else.

Blaming narratives lead us down a path of grief that is likely to keep us stuck in a vicious cycle of negativity. Blame helps us hold onto anger at the person or situation that caused our grief and keeps us away from taking productive action toward the present and future.

Grief that keeps us stuck in the past can be resolved through work around changing your story of what happened and why. Even when someone is clearly at fault, your narrative needs to incorporate the facts in a way that acknowledges what happened while still allowing you to accept your present reality so that you can continue to create your life moving forward. We need to balance our natural desire to know the reason for our suffering with the fact that there are some things we need to accept that we will never fully know.

As you notice the changes in your body, try to also notice the thoughts you have surrounding the changes. Notice if you are worried what others might think, if you are missing your ability to do a particular activity, or if you tend to blame someone in particular for your loss. This noticing allows you to begin to be aware of the narrative your mind has already created about the situation. These narratives are instinctively formed from your past experiences and your emotions. Notice with compassion and non-judgment, but also notice where your automatic narrative might be creating additional problems for you.

Once you’re aware of your narrative, you can work to shift it in a way that leads you to peace and mental freedom. Your reality is the same, but your thoughts and perspective can move from a focus on the past and what you lost toward acceptance of your current situation and a hopeful future.

Understanding Loss is Losing Trust in the World

We all have automatic assumptions about the way life works, how things should be. In general, we tend to see the world as generally fair. If you work hard, good things will happen. If you are kind to people, people will be kind to you. Mean people will get what’s coming to them. 

So when something big happens, and it feels fundamentally unfair, we start to question our automatic assumptions about how life works. We as humans like having a connected story about how and why things happen around us. We like stories that make sense and connect the dots. So when a lifelong addict dies of an overdose, we feel sadness and empathy but the story generally fits. And when someone dies of old age after a full life surrounded by family, we may miss them but we see death as a natural conclusion. 

But it’s more difficult to wrap our minds around the story when a child dies, or an otherwise healthy person gets a cancer diagnosis, or a spouse decides to leave a relationship that felt like it was going well. We have to confront the reality that there is no factual basis for our assumption that life will be good or fair or fit our stories of how things should go. 

How do we make sense of the world when we realize the fundamental unfairness? What kind of story can we tell ourselves about life when something truly awful happens? Can we find meaning and purpose in a world where children die, good people lose everything, and kind people get cancer? The fact is, we will have to find a way to understand the awful, unfair things that happen in life so that we can keep going and not lose our way. 

The two extremes here are either to bury our heads in the sand and insist that things will work out despite all evidence to the contrary, or to maintain a stark awareness of how unfair life is and stay in a state of despair that we will ever be able to progress in the face of deep injustice. Of course, we want to find a middle way. We need to know that life is not fair, that goodness does not protect us from bad things. But we also need to know that there is hope, that our choices toward goodness still count for something, that it’s worth trying and striving in the face of an unfair world. 

As someone going through loss, you will naturally find yourself wanting to construct a story of grief. Your mind wants to understand what happened and why. Sometimes, these answers are given to us- if you have a genetic predisposition to Huntington’s Disease, it doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy your lifestyle is. It doesn’t matter if you volunteer with at-risk children or give generously to charities, you have a certain likelihood of inheriting the disease based on your parents’ disease status. Sometimes, the answers don’t come easily- why children get bone cancer, why the car crash happened at that moment, who is at fault for a workplace accident. 

Walking the middle path means retelling these stories in a way that accounts for the fundamental unfairness of life. Yes, your disease might be genetic, but it was a chance that you were born to those particular parents. Yes, sometimes children get cancer and other serious illnesses, and sometimes they die after only a short life. Our story of how life works has to be able to make sense of these things without assigning blame or coming up with a secret agenda working against us. We have to learn how to see tragedy as something that happens to good and bad people alike without them deserving it.