A couple of years ago, I read Station Eleven, a heart-wrenching, beautiful novel by Emily St. John Mandel, in which 99% of the world population gets wiped out by a flu (a waaaay worse flu than COVID-19, but probably don’t read this book right now). The plot centers around a Shakespearean troupe that forms out of the rubble, and tours around like a band of gypsies entertaining people living in enclaves and newly developing settlements. Each survivor bears their own tale of loss and their past life, rarely spoken of and never again to be the same. For most of the book, the characters are searching for two members of the orchestra, a couple in love, who had stopped along the way to have a baby and then become displaced from the group. Near the end, they are found in a far-off place, reunited with their band. This is the line that really got me: “There was music that night.” There was such beautiful relief in that moment. What was severed had been repaired. The lost were found. The band was back together. All of the pain, all of the loss, all of the heartache had been erased with that one line.
I remember wanting to feel this resolution so badly in my own story of loss. But my band would never be reunited.
With a cathartic exhale, I closed the book, Station Eleven, and set it down on the coffee table next to my empty wine glass. I sat back on the couch, hugged my knees into my chest and looked up at the ceiling as tears trickled down from the corners my eyes. Kevin looked up from his phone.
How could I explain this? “This book…” I paused, shaking my head. “This story…” I trailed off. “It’s really the closest I have felt to being understood.” I chose words carefully, knowing my emotions were high coupled with the buzz of wine.
“I just want there to be music again,” my voice cracked, as I relayed the plot to Kevin. I knew he wouldn’t understand. I hadn’t let him into any of my grief. I had barely let myself into my grief.
“What do you mean?” He furrowed his brow and set his phone down.
“Well, it’s a book about an apocalypse,” I clarified, picking up the book again. “A story about people who have lost all of their people.”
He looked back at me, nonplussed, waiting for the punchline.
“Kevin. All of my people are DEAD. Dead! Gone.” I waved the book wildly for emphasis. “They are not coming back!” I said, volume rising, trying to maintain composure. “I have lost my people. I had to watch them die!” I slouched back onto the couch and slapped the book back down on the table.
“Yeah, I know, Nic. I know,” he said feebly.
“But you don’t! You don’t know. That’s the problem. We are so different.” I had set the playing field, and he didn’t know the rules. “We have this life together, but we experience things so differently. You still have all of your people. I don’t have my people. We are different”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” he seemed to be struggling to console me.
“But it is, Kevin. It just is.”
Sitting next to him on our couch, the distance I felt from my husband had never felt so expansive.
One of the most difficult things about my experience of grief is feeling so alone. Alone in life because my family of origin has died, but also alone in my emotions, alone in understanding, alone in feeling misunderstood. I suppose the difference between my situation and the Station Eleven apocalypse is that in the book, everyone had survived the same trauma. And they knew it. The survivors had all lost most of the people they loved. The playing field was level. At 28 years old, no one else I knew had lost even one parent, much less both and a sister to boot. Mostly, it seemed easier to just pretend the trauma hadn’t happened than to try to explain it to someone who didn’t know how to respond. My wounds were invisible (for a while anyway), and I didn’t want to be a downer. The rest of the world still had their music.
And now, in the late winter of 2020, I find myself in the midst of a global pandemic, feeling more understood and more at ease in the world than ever before. Even when I think of missing my family, or even the fear of something happening to the family I have now, I feel it differently. I don’t feel like I am alone in the fear of being without something. We are all, right now, experiencing such great fear of the unknown. Which, really, at its heart, is what grief is: “How will my life go on in this different world?”
Yesterday, I blew up at my neighbor for asking me very politely if I could trim back a shrub that was blocking her view. The conversation got so heated that she turned and walked away without resolution. This neighbor is a dear friend, and this has never happened before. We have had plenty of disagreements, but they have always been civil and ended in mutual respect. This argument was not about the shrub, it was about the lack of control that both of us are feeling. We are both operating at a heightened emotional level. When that happens, things come out sideways. Less than an hour passed before we recognized this and apologized profusely to one another, hugging (against government orders) and crying and recognizing that we were under unusual stress and the shrub suddenly became unimportant.
This is what happens when a whole community experiences trauma together. We have a mutual understanding of the circumstances. We have the same baseline. And shared trauma often results in a strengthening of relationships in the end, because we help each other through.
When I was in my deepest pit of grief, I would lash out (mostly at my husband, because he was obligated to still hang out with me afterwards), because I was feeling such deep fear and uncertainly that no one else around me was feeling. Over time, I started to develop a keen awareness of that look in someone’s eye that they were having a different experience of life than was happening on the surface, that feeling that life is happening as normal for everyone else but you. Your life, as you know it, has stopped, but no one else can see that.
The punchline is this: grief is easier when shared. I am the first to admit that sharing grief can be so hard. Understanding the grief of another is impossible. But the most profound moments of healing I have felt in this traumatic journey of loss have been when someone came along side me and simply said, “I see you”. The grace in that moment allows space for grief to exist in real time.
So, in this really confusing, unsettling time, be glad that we can share this burden with one another. None of us are facing this alone. But we all have our different trigger points. For me, it was my precious shrubs. For you, it might be your family who is far away from you or wondering how you will pay your next round of bills. Whatever that grief is, make space for it and make grace for it in your heart. For you and for your neighbors. And by all means, keep making music.