In past years I have written about childhood memories of Memorial Day in small town Wisconsin. I was looking with nostalgia at simpler times where remembrances of those who died in conflict could be used as models of respectful patriotism alongside the start of summer vacation. This is year is different.
This year has seen deaths of people involved in different kinds of conflict not just here in the United States, but all around the world. Disease, social unrest, racism, socio-political conflict, religious intolerance, geographic and climate change, and disappearance of natural resources are all categories of conflict that have resulted in loss of life. And it is time to acknowledge this. And time to acknowledge that we are survivors.
It is important to individually and collectively acknowledge the passing of the millions who have died. Not with numbers alone. Not just with gravesites. Not through postings or gatherings or trees planted in their honor. It is time to acknowledge that we survived and they did not. It is time to validate the loss and explore how to make meaning out of all that has happened in the past year.
Survivorship Has Different Phases
The initial phase of survivorship has to do with experiencing yourself as separated from the other. There are emotional states associated with this phase such as grief, numbness, relief, and disconnection. There are social accommodations such as being a “third wheel”, “odd man (person) out”, or not being invited at all since you are no longer part of a couple, family, group, team, or partnership. There are physical symptoms that frequently appear such as sleep disturbances, increased use of substances, stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue. I am not alone in having gone through this phase more than once in my life and especially in this past year of loss from COVID and racial and political violence. I suspect some of you may have also experienced this.
Establishing a New Routine
The next phase is establishing a new routine without the one who died. For some, this is a welcome relief in that it has specific tasks that can be checked off. This can give you a sense of control. Doing often masks the feelings of inadequacy or doubt that are frequently present after a loss. It may also be very overwhelming, especially if the one who died had been a decision-maker, wage-earner, or leader. If you are the survivor, you may have been left with a sharp learning curve or be especially vulnerable to others who might take advantage of your situation.
How you go about creating a new routine can be daunting. Depending on your duties and obligations, you may not have much time to absorb your loss and grief. Instead, you may need to focus all your energy on doing what is necessary to keep a roof over your head and food on the table.
Survivors frequently use the term “different” to describe how their lives are after the death of a loved one. There is no way to make things the same as they were before, but that does not mean those feelings are not actively sought or, depending on the relationship, avoided. For survivors who had a loving, supportive relationship, there may initially be a keen sense of sadness and grief when remembering the loved one. This eventually is replaced with more comforting and tender emotions and memories. For survivors who had unresolved or bitter relationships, “different” may mean feeling as if they now have a future. Other possible feelings may be guilt or self-doubt about having stayed in a relationship that was not good.
I recognize that I have had unusual experiences with death. My father died a lingering death from cancer the summer I turned 14. I remember visiting him in the hospital and watching him get thinner and thinner. Nobody admitted that he was dying. But I knew that it was not going to be a good outcome. I remember my mother returning home in the wee hours of an August morning. She didn’t need to speak a word. I just knew my father was dead.
In this case, there was relief, as my parents’ marriage had been very conflictual. I initially blamed my father for leaving me behind to manage my mother alone. My reaction to being a survivor was fear which I masked with anger and acting out. Fortunately, I got some therapy and learned healthier skills around managing grief and loss.
These skills were helpful when my husband died many years later. I had an idea of what to expect, and while it differed in details and intensity, I was able to gift myself both time and tolerance as I adjusted to being by myself. It took years.
I am a child of the 60s. I grew up with the high-profile assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. I experienced the collective grief of a nation and the shock and fear that came from riots and protests associated with racial hatred and the War in Vietnam. I participated in memorials for slain leaders and for classmates who did not return from the war.
Because of that exposure to violence, I suspect I have become somewhat numb to the incessant reporting of death by violence that is the bread and butter of daily news. But this past year’s systematic coverage of death by police, riots, and storming of Congress have forced me out of my complacence.
Over 3.5 million people have died from COVID around the world. It is impossible to truly comprehend what that means unless someone you know is among the statistics. I know because I am among the statistics. I had COVID. I know people who were hospitalized and who continue to suffer because of COVID.
There is a collective loss that may not yet be fully recognized from so many fellow humans having died. Even if you were not diagnosed with or didn’t know anyone personally who had COVID or died from it, you are a survivor. And you will be going through the phases of survivorship.
This Memorial Day
I am grateful that I learned different skills to manage what it feels like to be left behind early in my life. I continue to use these strategies in negotiating how I am seen by others in terms of social roles and work roles. I wish I could say I was adept at all of this, but truth be told, I am like that blindfolded person in a dark room wearing mittens.
This Memorial Day I am going to put up my flag. I am going to enjoy childhood memories of my seeing the bunting go up, listening to the speeches about what it means to be an American, and remembering people who gave their lives in the conflicts that have plagued humanity.
And I am also going to remember George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and countless other brown, black and AAPI people who have died in racial and social conflicts around the world. I am going to remember 3.5 million individuals who died from COVID and had people who loved them or were angry with them. Who worked hard or make someone laugh. Who prayed they would be spared or raised their voice in protest. Who snored or sang lullabies. Who held someone’s hand or hugged another.
There is so much for those of us who are survivors to do. It is important to come to terms with the losses that we all share. Loss of trust in our government. Loss of faith in science. Loss of a sense of community who can support each other during these challenging times. These are the tasks that we need to turn to as survivors.