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Something wasn’t quite right. I went over the list again in my head.
Mask, check. Hand sanitizer, check. Water bottle, snacks, indoor shoes – check, check, check. It was my son’s first day back to school after what I like to call the longest and least rejuvenating March break in history. This should’ve been a happy day, and yet I couldn’t help but feel like I was losing something.
“Mom, I’m a little bit nervous about school,” Sam said to me, his four-year-old voice both slightly amused and embarrassed by this admission.
As an editor at The Globe and a parent, I’ve been knee-deep in news coverage about the return to school. I know jitters are par for the course. But for all of my complicated feelings about this long-awaited step toward normalcy six months into the pandemic, it took a kindergartner to help me figure out what wasn’t quite right that day: I was grieving, for him and for me.
The word grief, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement,” feels at once insufficient and wildly dramatic to describe my current state. I’m alive. My family is healthy. I’m working. And yet, as of this writing, more than 9,000 Canadians have died during this pandemic. Jobs have evaporated. Office life as we knew it is over; the spectre of danger hangs over every stilted social interaction and grocery-store run. And, for me, the worst of it: Behind my son’s Paw Patrol face mask is the worried look of a senior kindergartner who knows he can’t hug his teacher or high-five his best friend. He’s lost something intangible, but vital; we all have.
In March, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” I didn’t read it then. Those heady early days of the pandemic felt defined by one catastrophic event after another; it was too much to contemplate who or what we should be grieving – seniors in long-term care? the end of mask-free life? – and so I grieved none of it, plowing ahead with the disastrous experiment of homeschooling two kids while managing a career and a household in a never-ending blurry loop.
Grief, I once thought, is reserved for those who have felt the sharp pang of a lost mother or father, a job, a home. The fact that I’m inconvenienced by school closures and living with a low hum of anxiety hardly seems to register.
But as grief expert David Kessler explains in the Harvard Business Review, it’s not always catastrophic loss that triggers deep sorrow: “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
It’s clear to me now that Sam’s first-day nerves were borne of my own months-long grieving period. Slowly and without really recognizing it, we’ve been saying goodbye to life as it once was to make space for the scary and unknowable new normal. And so I curse the fact that I can’t see my kids’ smiles behind their mandated masks in the same breath that I recognize my luck in all of this. I can work safely at home, my kids eventually had a summer at outdoor camps and daycare, and so far, my closest circle has managed to escape the worst clutches of the virus that has upended our lives.
Still, I count myself among those who have lost something monumental in these last few months. I felt it at the August funeral of the mother of a long-time friend. We hugged briefly, masked, knowing we were breaking the rules and understanding that it was impossible not to. She was grieving her mother; I was grieving my ability to console her.
I’ve lived long enough to know that grief is a great unknown, that it comes and goes like the weather. And I’ve found solace in what it might offer me.
As Lori Fox wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Grief is a chance to get a hold of that hurting thing, to look at it fully and carefully, to take what’s left of what you’re grieving for and make it into a part of yourself you can take with you. Grief isn’t about expulsion and denial. It’s about consumption and reflection. Things are scary. We are allowed to be anxious and afraid right now. We have lost a world. You’ve got permission to grieve.”
What else we’re thinking about:
Speaking of grief: The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday has led to an outpouring of tributes on social media. Ms. Ginsburg was a hero to many, especially women, for her staunch defence of gender equality and civil liberties. Her 2016 piece, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Advice for Living, will surely be cherished and re-read for generations to come.
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