In grief—in horror and shock and disgust and pain and death and murder and anguish and sadness and fear and being alone—in grief, “overwhelm is the primary starting place.”
Roy Ellis, the bereavement coordinator for the central region of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, says grief is our response to loss and change. Over the phone from his work-from-home kitchen table, surrounded by papers and books, Ellis says the first step in living with that grief is to “normalize the great tsunami wave that has hit that is pain and disbelief.” Normalize the tsunami: Everything you feel, any way you feel it, is normal and real.
With violent deaths like the 22 that Nova Scotians are currently grappling with, our traditional understandings of grief “don’t really work,” says Ellis.
In general, when someone dies, 10 people are seriously affected by the death and loss. But when talking about mass murder, Ellis says, “I don’t think it would be unfair to say that 100 people per victim are seriously affected by the loss and have to grapple what it means for them.”
Grief becomes complex and complicated in a situation like this. The vast effects of mass murder are hard to gauge and calculate. From his back deck in Dartmouth, where he can see some neighbours playing in the garden and a young girl walking her Siamese cat in her backyard, Ellis describes it as a keening anguish—a furious mix of thoughts and emotions.
Ellis was on a call earlier, and a dog barked loud enough to be heard on the phone. The woman he was speaking with got scared. It wasn’t normally scary, but “because she didn't know who the dog was barking at, and she didn't know what was happening, and because of what's happened in the last four days, she was on edge about her safety,” he says.
“That's just not a fear that we had felt two weeks ago in the middle of this COVID crisis,” says Ellis. “We’ve been worried about the postman coming and our shopping trips and door knobs and what's lingering in the air, but all of a sudden, we're thinking about a perpetrator, tires on the gravel, knocks in the night.”
That fear is real. It’s palpable. And it’s a natural response to a harrowing incident in our Nova Scotian world.
T he mixture of fear and torment and a sense of powerlessness, of anxiety and nervousness and “janglyness” and restlessness, and of guilt, guilt we feel as individuals or communities or government, guilt that we weren't able to protect those we love—all of that makes for an alchemical mix called agony.
Nova Scotia is now is agony. The response to change (coronavirus, state of emergency, job loss, cancelled travel plans, heightened police surveillance) and loss (22 killed, 11 deceased residents at Northwood long-term care facility, 182,992 COVID-19 deaths worldwide) is agonizing grief.
We are bereft, says Ellis. “There's not much left for us to do except to tremble in our bedrooms and wonder, what's next?”
But something must be next. To get to the after of grief, says Ellis we must feel it. “Let it grieve you.” And the first part of that is to “make a lot of room for the chaos.”
“Sometimes we as human beings feel that stability is what we always need. But at times like this, stability is really hard to find and ground is hard to find,” says Ellis. An act of courage that awaits us is to sit in the difficulty of right now. To be “with ourselves with great compassion in the midst of the uncertainty.”
And then, we are to strengthen what remains—to seek out comfort. But that often requires ritual and community, which are stifled in this restrictive state of emergency. (Oh, what we’d give to hug and hold those we love.)
Out of the recent violence, there are at least 22 funerals or end of life ceremonies to be planned. Out of the recent global pandemic there are at least 16 more to be planned. Out of the experience of being alive and then dying—there are even more. And due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer Robert Strang says they must be kept to only five attendees and adhere to social distancing measures.
“For the rest of us and for larger extended families,” says Strang, “unfortunately we’re going to have to ask people to remember and to mourn virtually.”
Ellis calls this a “worst-case scenario for community healing.”
“Right now we would be meeting. In groups we'd be making mass shrines, we would be singing, we would be crying, we'd be marching about this, we’d be gathering—and we can't do that now.”
The good news—yes, there’s good news—is that humans were built for grief. “We literally are hardwired to move painful material, especially traumatic overwhelming painful material,” says Ellis.
“The heart...it really is slow to take stuff in, because once it gets into the heart, it has to deal with that. The heart has to…begins to...feel pain and begins to ache and begins to tremble.”
So when news—more bodies, burned houses, what ifs and but whys and fucking COVID—seems constant, at a certain point our brain (and our heart) “stops being able to take information in. It sort of shuts down.”
But grief does not disappear. The body’s somatic (a fancy word that means “of the body”) processes take on the work and leave you with something else. "You name it," says Ellis: unexplained headaches, stomach cramps, migraines and ticks, fits of hyperactivity or hyperarousal.
Taking pain and putting it aside for a while affects people in different ways—but it’s something that “we can do and it's something that we should do,” says Ellis. Just remember that one day we’ll have to return to it—or it will return to us.
Once our grief has been tucked away, then there’s room for routine. For love and for ritual and a bit of relief. And then, once there’s been enough time to establish safety and security and trustworthy relationships, it’s “finding some way to actually release our emotions about this. To acknowledge our anger and our fear. To recognize our avoidant behaviours and our trembling midnight wakings are important and significant and part of our lives.”
Grief’s job, says Ellis, is to wake us up to life. How fragile it is. How much we love it. And if we let it, grief will move us back and forth between hopelessness and hope. Grief swings between despair, darkness, “the shadowy dark places where we feel like there is no future,” and an active, future-oriented restorative mode. It has us thinking hard about our jobs and our communities and who we love and what we want and what we need and how much joy a walk along the beach would bring us.
Ellis likens this back and forth to lifting weights. We strengthen and hold and then release. Strengthen—clench, sweat, cry, swear, scream—and release.
“In that strength, and then that letting go," he says, "that’s how we move through pain.”
We take note of the overwhelm. Make room for the chaos. Strengthen what remains. Pick up some of the pain and put it away for a while. Listen to our midnight wakings. Make space for our fury that COVID has made everything worse. And perhaps, we wake up to life.