Living With Cancer

We Weren’t Meant to Grieve Alone

We’ve been deprived of the last moments with loved ones and in-person gatherings to mourn together. What can we do to heal?

Credit...Rachel Levit Ruiz

Swans do it, chimps do it; even elephants and whales do it. They fall in love and then after their beloved dies, they grieve. Human beings differ only to the extent that we have inherited rituals that help us deal with a shattering emotion. But what happens when those rites must be relinquished or reinvented during a plague year?

This question started to haunt me when a member of my cancer support group, Barbara, dropped out of our Zoom meetings. Hospice nurses had been helping her at home and now she was actively dying from ovarian cancer. How could our group continue to connect with her? I left messages with my name and phone number on her answering machine. I sent an email with that information — perhaps her two adult sons would access her account — but received no response.

In the past, I had sat by the bedside of dying group members and later attended religious services or life celebrations. Now, I found myself grieving the sorry fact that I had not been able to say goodbye to Barbara. After news of her death reached us, I grieved that I did not even know how to reach her family to tell them what a compassionate companion she had been.

The experience made me appreciate if not the curative then at least the consoling value of vigils, wakes, burials, funerals and memorials, each in its own way an event staged to help us stay attached and then begin loosening our ties to the ever-receding dead person. While sitting by a deathbed holding a hand, while standing in a cemetery as a coffin or urn is lowered into the earth with a prayer or a poem, while hearing a memory recalled at a funeral, we treasure the person who had been and gain comfort from others who share our sorrow. Most of these ceremonies have been canceled during the past year.

A new book on grief by the psychologist Dorothy P. Holinger is useful in thinking about the impact of the termination of mourning rituals, although it was written before the pandemic. The book, “The Anatomy of Grief,looks at how grief can wreck the brain, the heart and the emotions of the bereaved, a word that signifies those who feel robbed.

“Grief,” Dr. Holinger explains, “is the price we pay for love.” To be bereaved is to be robbed of the loved one and of the world and the self that had existed when they were alive.

Dr. Holinger’s book made me consider how normal or resilient grief differs from pandemic grief. The distinction reminded me of the bifurcation Sigmund Freud made between mourning — a healthy coming to terms with loss — and melancholia — a dysfunctional passage mired in misery. For in pestilent times, as Shakespeare put it, “grief lies all within.”

At any stage of history, to be sure, grief can destroy the world of survivors who cannot eat, sleep, think clearly, or go about their daily business. Grief can also obliterate identity. Who are we when we are no longer our parent’s child, our child’s parent, our sibling’s brother or sister, our partner’s partner, our friend’s friend? During a lockdown that isolates us by forbidding physical proximity, grief finds no outlet. We are deprived of the last moments in which we can see, touch, hear or speak to the beloved as well as subsequent days and months when we can cry, laugh, hug and reminisce with friends and family.

Dr. Holinger provides a taxonomy of different types of grief — some 17 varieties in all — many of which plunge the mourner into lingering preoccupation with the lost loved one. To use some of her terms about troubled forms of grieving, in a pandemic grief that cannot be made manifest may be “anticipatory” (death is expected), “disenfranchised” (mourners may not be acknowledged), “postponed” (sorrow remains unexpressed) and “forgotten” (loss goes unacknowledged).

When Judy Woodruff, the anchor of the PBS “NewsHour,” pauses each Friday night to memorialize five people killed by Covid-19, she acknowledges that she uses these individuals as representatives of a much larger population. In doing so, she encourages us to entertain the unimaginable fact that more than 500,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, leaving innumerable widowed, orphaned and heartbroken survivors.

Those who mourn people who died during the pandemic but not from it are also affected. Like many survivors, the members of my cancer support group devised a way to communicate our grief over Barbara’s death. Each of us wrote a letter to her family that we collected and gave to Barbara’s oncologist, who forwarded the packet to her sons.

A few weeks later, I confronted a more fraught death. My former husband, a very dear friend, died unexpectedly, probably from a heart attack. It was a shock to his intimates but especially to our two daughters, neither of whom lives where he did. With travel an impossibility, how could we honor his memory? How could we find solace in each other? How could we bury his remains or sort through his things or close down his apartment?

These challenges have taught me how feeble and how effective electronic solutions can be. In an attempt to join together, the girls organized a series of Zoom shivas, the weeklong condolence calls in which many Jewish mourners engage. But our online meetings felt desiccated without an influx of visitors bringing food, drinks, flowers and a steady supply of embraces, kisses, jokes and tears. Yet a month or so later, the photographs, music and storytelling at a Zoom memorial arranged by the girls did console us as well as many of their father’s far-flung relatives and friends.

Still, there is nothing virtual about death. Perhaps families like ours can gather together on future anniversaries of the death, what in Yiddish is called the yahrzeit.

If, as after other national catastrophes, public memorials are erected to commemorate the suffering inflicted by the pandemic, they will need to honor the dead as well as all the mourners bereft of their bereavement.