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Grieving when you don’t know what you’ve lost
Steph Stepan isn’t ready to move on just yet
Steph Stepan isn’t ready to move on just yet
Now seems like as good a time as any to freshen up on your Elisabeth Kübler Ross. Except for one detail: it’s difficult to go through the process of grieving when you don’t yet know what you’ve lost. It’s too soon to tell and, although I don’t like to say it, we may well lose more. Still, I wonder whether if I need clarity because, whether I like it or not, I’ve grieving. I know you are too. I’ve also never been one to wait around, so I thought I’d begin to wade through it. Come with me, if you want.
My grief is not dissimilar to the feeling of a partner leaving unexpectedly. No note, no couples counselling. The world just broke up with me and didn’t say a thing. There’s another kind of shock, too. The kind you’d feel if a police officer turned up at your door one morning to tell you a loved one had been killed in a car accident. This must be what’s causing the earthquake feeling in my mind. You know, the one that splits every event from here on into two neat categories: before this happened, and after.
I can’t yet name or see what I’ve lost, but I can feel the shape of it. It’s the imprint of the way things used to be, coupled with the less-than feeling of how things are now. Like the pursed-lip smile I get from a woman on my morning walk. Her labradoodle has been clipped save for his head so he looks like he just had a perm. I smile, wide and open, at him instead. She seems more comfortable with this. I’m not. This is not a ‘good morning’ I’m okay with.
The body, I find, doesn’t need clarity when it comes to loss. It goes about grieving regardless and in its own time. Last week I could barely eat a thing. Many of my friends have reported the same. We’ve all lost our appetites like a grieving widow who won’t eat unless she’s coaxed into it. Other days I feel like I might throw up. The events of 2020 are too big to hold in my mind at one time, and I suspect that my body has caught onto this too. Lucky I’m not eating much, I guess.
Maybe we need an entirely new approach to grieving. How else can we make sense of a loss that’s this paradoxical? I didn’t want to go on trying to be Miss Productivity 2020. I wanted this, didn’t I? An ending of sorts, I mean. And yet my sadness tells me that something I hadn’t wanted to lose is gone too. When I try to reach in to what that might be, I glance upon freedom. I think of the way I drove from Germany to Portugal last year with a friend. We typed the name of a Portuguese town into Google Maps and just started driving. If we wanted to stop or needed time apart, the choice was ours. Maybe we’ve also lost a sense of ease, like parting with the carefree time of childhood all over again. Now, I’m not sure if I can read a book on a park bench, and I take a step back from a friend I’m talking to on the street when I see the police. Deep down, the devastation feels tied to the sense that my freedom and nonchalance about everyday life are irretrievable. When we feel free in the future, it will have a different flavour to it.
Like any recent loss, I’m not ready to move on yet. We seem to have skipped the grieving stage and attempted to move onto rebuilding already. Stop it, I want to say to every author of an OpEd who tries to tell me what 2021 will look like. What’s the rush? And how could you possibly know? It’s like someone telling us to move on after a partner has passed away. It’s too soon to find our next love. We will, and in our own time, but first let’s linger a little in all the things we loved about what we had.
There won’t be a wake, but we can still pay our respects. It’s the human way. We mark endings and honour what once was, often in a joyous way. I’m trying to mark this time in small private ways (strange how I say it as though the private time is my choice). Right now, I’m working on an illustration that’s an ode to park life. I can’t help it. I want something that helps me remember what it feels like to be outside and together. Something that has the opposite effect of a sign telling me it’s not safe to go on the local playground.
There’s another nice side effect of commemorating the past, too. When we can hone in on what we truly miss about life as it once was, we can start to think about what deserves to be in our future. Maybe the things that devastate us most, that right now can only be sensed but will eventually appear, can be our compass. We will find new ways to show our love, new ways to gather and new ways to feel alive. Eventually, it will feel less like an ending and more like a beginning.