No man is an island, entire unto itself,
Each is a piece of the continent, and a part of the main
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor
Of thy friend’s or of thine own were
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
Therefore send not to find for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee
(John Donne, No Man Is An Island)
When John Donne wrote this poem in 1621, he could easily have been talking about today, nearly 400 years later. He was expressing his grief at the loss of a friend, but spoke to something we are all experiencing right now: grief is universal. It spans countries, cultures and time. It is one of the emotions we tend to think makes us most human. But why is that?
Generally speaking, grief is a reaction to a loss. Usually we associate it with the death of someone important to us, like a loved one, a friend or even someone famous whom we may have never met. Loss is something that both connects and separates us. It is the removal of something or someone we cherish. At the same time, when we grieve, we tend to grieve alone, despite the fact that we may not be the only person experiencing that loss.
In our current times, loss is all around us. We can’t look at the news, even briefly, without seeing a running death toll, across the world, in the U.S. and here in New York. Many of us have been directly touched by the deaths of loved ones infected with COVID-19. Many others have known someone who has suffered a direct loss. All of us, though, have experienced these losses. The people we’ll never know, who have stepped up to treat, comfort and work with the infected. The people who stock the shelves, ring up the sales and help try to maintain some sense of normality at the grocery store. All of us, who have reluctantly or voluntarily decided to try to slow the spread of the virus, and hopefully save the lives of others we may never meet.
Loss is loss. It isn’t confined to death. Loss of money and jobs in an economy shattered by the pandemic can be grieved. Loss of freedom, both physical in quarantine and psychological in the perceived loss of control over own safety and health, along with a loss of a collective sense of what is normal, are all profound and can all lead to grief.
How can we deal with grief and loss while times remain so uncertain? Here are a few suggestions:
- Remember you are not alone. Social distancing does not have to mean isolation. We have the ability to communicate electronically now, more than any generation ever before. Experiencing loss and grief, as well as fear, allows us to share that grief and fear. That can help to “Flatten the Curve” of grief and the uncertainty we all share.
- We can take John Donne’s words to heart. We can all “Be involved in mankind,” even though not all of us can be on the front lines. Not all of us will be directly harmed or stricken by this virus. But all of us can help those who have. Reaching out, both to comfort and to share grief, is a way to remain connected and to overcome the loss of control this outbreak seems to have imposed on us.
- Remember that grief is a normal part of life. Mourning the loss of a loved one, friend, acquaintance, stranger or the loss of life as we’ve known it, is something that is a regular part of our existence. Many of us have had to do so before, whether it was after the terrorist attacks of 2001, hurricanes or other natural disasters, or, as part of the everyday lives we lead.
- Remember, we’ve grieved before and undoubtedly will grieve again. Each time we have, we probably thought we wouldn’t be able to emerge from the loss, but we have, and usually stronger for it.
- Remember again, in the words of John Donne, that we are all in this together, and “Send not to find for whom the bell tolls.” It tolls for us all.
One way to ensure we come through this as a civilization is to remain civilized. Let’s give each other the room to grieve, and at the same time, see if we can help lessen the grief of others and our own, by sharing the reality of loss and the reality of hope that this will pass. We will return to life. Perhaps not as we’ve always known it, but as we’ll come to know it.
Grief is painful. It’s also a normal, even expected, part of our lives. The better we manage it, the better the world will be once this passes.
Dave Castro-Blanco is the Director of Clinical Training in the PsyD Program in Clinical Psychology at Medaille College. Dr. Castro-Blanco received his B.A. and Ph.D. from St. John’s University, in New York. His Post-Doctoral work was conducted at the New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where he received a four-year NIMH sponsored Fellowship to conduct clinical research in the area of adolescent suicide prevention. Read more…