Grief at a Distance

“I became more comfortable when I stopped talking about grief like it goes away. It’s kind of an endless room with endless windows, and the view outside is just better out of some windows than it is out of others.”

—Hanif Abdurraqib

Sarah Roth //

This week marks the anniversary of my mother’s death, and my family had planned to gather at her gravesite in Florida. For the past year, her plot has remained unmarked: a rectangle of grass with a hint of a pale line at its edges. We had spoken of unveiling the gravestone, attending a service to recognize her Yahrzeit, and coming together for a week of shared feeling and mourning. The past year has been measured with reference to this point, like the sign of a lighthouse marking a horizon thick with fog. Like so many other families in this season of coronavirus, as the date grew closer, our plans became ever more uncertain. Today, on her anniversary, we remain scattered across the country. Some of us are in Florida; others are in Washington or Colorado or Maryland. I write from my apartment in Baltimore, where I have hunkered down for the past months, and where I will remain for the foreseeable future.    

Lately, I see grief everywhere. Today’s update from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security predicts a global count of 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week, and an estimated 4 million cases by next week. Meanwhile, the need for social distancing is changing the ways in which mourning happens. Meri Dreyfuss, a tech worker in San Francisco whose sister died from complications due to coronavirus, decided to postpone a funeral until the fall. “We can’t properly bury our dead because of the situation,” she said. “We can’t mourn together, we can’t share memories together, we can’t get together and hug each other.” Dreyfuss joins many others in making such decisions. As Kirk Johnson of The New York Times writes of funerals in Seattle, postponement and uncertainty are “becoming part of the language of obituaries” even as families grieve in the immediate time after a death. For funeral homes, this has meant a “time of frantic improvisation and adaptation” as families and funeral providers try to “mourn as best as they can.” Mortuary staff, too, are having to adapt. Jeremy Rose, an emergency room doctor in Manhattan, has written that he fears the refrigerator truck will become “our era’s defining symbol.” 

For many, the sudden losses of loved ones are coupled with financial losses, the erosion of social and institutional support, and separation by closed borders. Even without the loss of another person, sweeping and unprecedented unemployment is now accompanied by an inability to feel safe or secure—for oneself, one’s loved ones, or one’s community members. David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving, writes that we are all dealing with “the collective loss of the world we knew.” Alongside this loss, he writes, grief can make a home of the body. It transforms one’s ability to focus, the texture of one’s sleep. It shifts the ebb and flow of anger and anxiety, headaches and fatigue. Whether suffering the loss of a family member or a sense of acute precariousness, it can be helpful to name the feelings that emerge. It can also be helpful to acknowledge that a sense of normalcy may be impossible to find or regain for some time. 

Drawing from his work on mourning, Kessler provides recommendations for those experiencing grief: if possible, giving oneself extra time, reaching out to family and friends, finding support, and checking in with others. For those with mourning rituals now abridged by distances of all kinds, grief and trauma therapist Ajita Robinson suggests finding new ways of improvising rituals:

Whether this means creating a virtual ceremony, reading poems or conducting rites of passage, joining an online support group or even hosting a Netflix Party to simultaneously watch the deceased’s favorite film and discuss in real time via a chatbox, the important thing is to “create a sense of togetherness” that can help the living mourn, honor those who have passed and ensure the bereaved aren’t isolated from systems of support.

Sunny Fitzgerald, The Washington Post, April 24, 2020

The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has written extensively and creatively about the work of ritual in mourning. In a recent (2014) book, The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, Rosaldo reflects on his experience of mourning the loss of his partner, who died unexpectedly after falling from a cliff in a remote region of the Philippines. He carried this experience into his ethnographic reflections on ritual, considering how mourning reverberates beyond the confines of ceremony. “Surely, human beings mourn both in ritual settings and in the informal settings of everyday life,” Rosaldo writes. “The work of grieving, probably universally, occurs both within obligatory ritual acts and in more everyday settings where people find themselves alone or with kin.” 

Curlew Hills Cemetery, Palm Harbor, Florida

My family and I are creating new rituals to remember at a distance. On Friday night, I set my laptop on a stool in the corner of my bedroom. On one screen I pulled up the YouTube of our hometown synagogue. On another screen I pulled up a FaceTime with the faces of my sister and father streaming through from Florida. As we attended the service together, I lit a pair of candles next to the laptop, and I tilted the phone to face the flames. Every so often, my sister would check in. Were we in the same spot, at the same prayer? What about now? There was a “comfort in the process,” as another grief expert has written. Today, we have plans to FaceTime as my sister and father visit the gravesite. They will stand, at a distance, within sight of my mother’s plot, and my heart will stretch across the country. 

The poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowitz writes that there is a “dark luck” in knowing that others share in one’s experience of grief. It may not make loss, precarity, and uncertainty any easier, but it does seem to make grief less lonely.   

Works Cited

Berinato, Scott. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” Harvard Business Review. March 23, 2020. 

Cherry, Kendra. “Understanding Grief in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Very Well Mind. April 13, 2020. 

“COVID-19 Updates.” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. May 11, 2020. 

Davies, Guy and Aicha El Hammar-Castano. “How dying and mourning have changed around the world amid coronavirus pandemic.” ABC News. May 8, 2020. 

Fitzgerald, Sunny. “Saying goodbye: Unable to gather in grief, we must find new ways to mourn.” The Washington Post. April 24, 2020. 

Johnson, Kirk. “Coronavirus Means Funerals Must Wait: ‘We Can’t Properly Bury Our Dead.” The New York Times. March 26, 2020. 

Kay, Sarah and Hanif Abdurraqib. “Poetry RX: Mother’s Day Edition.” The Paris Review. <https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/05/09/poetry-rx-mothers-day-edition/&gt;

O’Keefe Aptowicz, Cristin. How to Love the Empty Air. Write Bloody Publishing, 2018.

Pinsker, Joe. “All the Things We Have to Mourn Now.” The Atlantic. May 1, 2020. 

Rosaldo, Renato. The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief. Duke University Press, 2014. 

Rose, Jeremy. “As an ER doctor, I fear our era’s defining symbol will be the refrigerator truck.” The Washington Post. April 11, 2020. 

Shen, Fern. “Food service workers say Johns Hopkins is breaking a promise to help them.” Baltimore Brew. May 1, 2020. 

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