In The Midst of Life

In The Midst of Life

Michael and Tom - Grief during COVID

We hadn’t seen each other in over five months, since COVID-19 required us to distance physically. It was by the far the longest stretch we have gone in our time as the deepest of friends and colleagues. We’ve written extensively about our friendship together and the intimacy, authenticity, and vulnerability we have always personified. Our relationship has evolved, as all relationships have had to do during five months of 2020, due to the pandemic and the ensuing distancing that has had to occur as a result. Prior to the pandemic, we had never gone more than a week without being together face to face, and only then when one of us was on vacation with our families. We have missed ending our work days with a fist pump, high five, or bro hug. Now we had to adapt to maintaining our friendship via social media channels, talking, texting, private Facebook messaging, Facetime, and many, many Zoom meetings each day.

But social media, despite the gift it has been to so many around the world and to us, also doesn’t fully satisfy our need for connection like face-to-face connections can and do.

We texted each other the night before we were to see one another in person for the first in months, to let each other know how much we were looking forward to spending the day together. It was going to be so much better than staring at each other through a computer screen. Though the occasion of our meeting was less than ideal — co-officiating a funeral service for a long-time friend and supporter of Someone To Tell It To — we were more than ready to put an end to the “consecutive days without seeing each other” streak since the coronavirus first reared its unsightly face in early March. In addition to saying how much we looked forward to seeing one another, we also needed to clarify which one of us would be wearing the very fine navy blue suit each of us was given by the groom of the wedding we were graciously invited to be the best men of three years ago. The friendship we had fostered with the groom who has experienced his own immense losses in life due to cancer, broken relationships, financial burdens, and so much more, in one of which we are incredibly proud. Even though the two of us are deeply connected in so many ways, more than most male relationships, something we earnestly try to model for others each day, we try not to wear the same outfit to the same events. The last text of the night was also about ordering take-out together so we could finally enjoy lunch together after five months and reconnect on a more personal level prior to the funeral service. We wanted to celebrate in a special way, something we hadn’t been able to do in such a long time.

When I (Tom) arrived at Michael’s house on the day of the service and Michael greeted me, we wondered if we could stretch the limits of the physical distancing boundaries by giving each other a warm embrace. Fully masked, we decided we could and needed to. The day was a beautiful one, in the mid-80’s and with low humidity, something central Pennsylvania has been unaccustomed to all summer. We decided to sit outside as we enjoyed the food and time in person together.

Our conversations, as is always the case, quickly shifted from matters of politics, sports, the weather, and other surface-level types of issues, to much deeper matters of the heart. We spoke of the often hidden, unspoken matters that don’t get discussed and addressed nearly as much as they should. One of our spiritual heroes, if anyone who reads our writings knows, is the late Fred Rogers. He had a favorite quote, framed and hung on a wall in his office,
“What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” from Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.

“It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls,” Fred Rogers said, expounding on the idea in a speech. “It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff. …What is essential about you that is invisible to the eyes?”

With those words in mind, we discussed the grief over what has occurred to so many of us the past five months, losses that may continue long long into the future. We talked about what it’s been like to live with a child with profound special needs (Michael) and his lack of understanding about the meaning of the virus and the subsequent disruption it has caused to his family’s daily schedule. We talked about the stress of virtually schooling four kids (Tom) and the lack of patience that we can sometimes have. We talked about what it’s been like to live with a mental illness and the triggers that covid has heightened, triggers like an unknown, insecure future, as well as the claustrophobia and cabin fever of not being able to leave our homes freely and nonsensically. Perhaps most poignantly of all, we talked about our next book and about grief and about how much the world is grieving currently. We talked about all of the losses people are going through, about some losses which have been emerging, such as the loss of loved ones during COVID-19, and others, such as racism and injustice, the effects of which have caused immense grief for centuries and lifetimes.

Later that day, the family of the woman who had died expressed to us, “She may have died due to the loneliness she was experiencing as a result of the virus; none of us could visit her as she was accustomed to. She needed visitors. Her family was her lifeline, and when we weren’t able to be her lifeline, she declined quickly.”

Their statement wasn’t new to us. We have heard from many folks the past few months who have stated that the numbers of deaths due to the virus, (which is currently approaching 200,000), is far greater because of those who are older, are living with disabilities, and who are marginalized and vulnerable. They haven’t had visitors or much human connection and contact at all.

We heard from another woman, who hasn’t been able to see her husband, who is currently living with end-stage Alzheimer’s disease, “I feel as if I’m watching him die through a window.”

We heard from a widow, whose husband died in the midst of the virus, when he too couldn’t have visitors, “He died of a broken heart.”

We heard it from a son who hadn’t seen his mother in a nursing home for over five months, what turned out to be the last 5 months of her life on this earth, “I went to visit my mother the other day and I arrived ten minutes too late, she had already died.”

He asked us if we would officiate her small graveside service to celebrate her life, what turned out to be the third funeral service in three weeks, all directly and indirectly COVID related.

People have asked us, “Has your work changed much since the start of the pandemic?” The answer for us has been both “yes” and “no.” Yes, we have moved all of our in-person training and listening work to virtual platforms. Yes, we have had speaking engagements and travel plans cancelled; the biggest one being the keynote speech we were scheduled to make at the annual International Listening Association Convention, in March. Yes, each of our team meetings and board meetings is virtual. But no, our work hasn’t changed much because the need for people to be heard is now more pressing than ever before. The grief people are experiencing needs to come out of the shadows. The invisible stuff needs to be expressed.

When we presided that day over our friend’s funeral service, we read these words: In the midst of life … we are in death.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the “Order for the Burial of the Dead” cites this: While the body is being made ready to be placed in the grave, there shall be said or sung, by those standing by, the anthem from which this quotation is taken.

It is a reminder that loss and pain and grief are always present in our lives. It is an acknowledgment of the reality of that which we are losing. It is not simply the lives of those we love, but also so many other gifts that make life rich and meaningful – health, dignity, freedom, work, ability, relationships. The list goes on.

It is a reminder not to take these gifts for granted – the people, the joys, the abilities. It is a reminder to celebrate that which is good, that which brings smiles to our faces and love to our hearts. It is a reminder to live our lives with gratitude and appreciation.

It is a reminder to savor these gifts and to not take them for granted. To make the most of them and to see them as sacred – worth nurturing, protecting, and prioritizing.

It is a reminder to embrace our gifts and the transient nature of them, and to embrace, as well, that every one of us in this life and world experience loss. And in remembering, to have grace and patience and compassion for one another as we grieve what all these losses bring to our lives.

None of us is alone in experiencing loss. We hope, and we pray, that when all of us can recognize this fact of life, perhaps all of us can show more empathy and be more loving with one another as we all try to make our way through each passage in our lives.

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