Michele Morris: Grief in the time of corona

The world has changed and we don’t know when this pandemic will end. You’re feeling anxious, depressed and lonely, and don’t know if you’ll get through this. That discomfort you’re feeling is grief.

Eighteen months ago, my 32-year-old son Nicholas died after a sudden illness and I became a member of the fraternity of grieving parents. There’s no word to describe parents who have lost children. I call them survivors.

After Nick died, we closed the door, drew the curtains, turned off the phones, and grieved. We were socially distancing without the attention of the whole world. Friends brought food that we couldn’t eat and, if we tried, it had no taste. I wore the same nightgown, day and night, until my husband suggested I take a shower and get dressed. I clung to a teddy bear I had given Nick when he was a child. I didn’t know what time it was, what day it was, what month it was. I kept track of time by counting the days since Nick’s death.

When death or a catastrophe comes suddenly, it breaks your world into before and after. It destroys your sense of balance and attacks your sense of justice. It makes you fearful and leaves you lonely.

In the days after Nick’s death, I got out of bed and tried to put one foot in front of the other. Some days I felt like I was walking under water, struggling to pick up my foot and move forward. On others, the floodwaters of grief would recede and I would find myself on an island, flattened against a palm tree. I could see my husband and son in the distance on their own islands, socially distant. I missed my friends and family, I was bored and restless, I was anxious, I worried that this upheaval would never end.

But you know those feelings as you get used to life during the time of COVID-19. Our reactions to the pandemic remind me of “On Grief and Grieving,” by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. They map the five stations along the Grief Camino — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I’ve visited them all.

Just as you probably thought the virus would never affect you, I never dreamed that my child would die. The shock that colored my first days as a survivor made me a shadow of my outgoing self. I was afraid to leave the house, answer the door, pick up the phone.

Anger was a new emotion for me, one reserved for my father. I was angry at myself for not preventing Nick’s death. Angry at the rest of the world for carrying on without Nick.

Bargaining took time. You probably thought that if you social distanced for a while, everything would be OK. Now you’re wondering what could have prevented the spread of this coronavirus. I relived Nick’s last days, trying to figure out what could have changed the outcome. But all I was left with was a lingering sadness.

And then, one day, the world was not so blue. I took pleasure in a friend’s new grandson. At weddings, I cried tears of happiness along with tears of sadness. I watched a beautiful desert sunset and knew that the sun would rise the next morning. That was the only certainty. The rest of tomorrow was not knowable.

You won’t get over these turbulent days, but you will get through them. By the time the pandemic ends, you will have changed. Your circle of friends will be smaller and tighter. You’ll have new appreciation for family. You’ll never take things for granted again.

You’ll be overwhelmed by acts of kindness and heroism — women sewing masks for hospital workers, homeowners offering shelter to first responders, neighbors buying groceries for the elderly.

During quiet days of sheltering in place, I’ve had time to reflect on what I’ve learned from my year and a half as a survivor. I’ve been blessed with great joy and have experienced great sorrow. It’s a pendulum swing. To live fully is to love passionately and to grieve deeply. You will get through this. So breathe. Just breathe.

Michele Morris

Michele Morris is a writer based in Park City. A former magazine editor, she’s taught in the Communications Department at the University of Utah.