Your grief isn't lesser because others suffer more

Mourning a normal life when we have it good

I took a train to Italy today. I meant to take the bus to St Pancras before sunrise but ended up in an Uber 20 minutes late. Of course. I grabbed a passable latte at the Caffé Nero in the Eurostar waiting room, then almost spilled it trying to balance my suitcase on the moving walkway up to the platform. Who designed these so steep? I met a few friends on the train; we’re heading to the same festival. I loved watching my country from the train window, the greens and greys in the North turning to blues and browns in the South, the pretty villages, even the cookie-cutter towns, the kids waving from a garden or a trail. Sure beats flying. A change in Paris, overnight in Milan. Tomorrow, Florence and finally, Perugia.

I didn’t, of course. That’s March 31st in my other life. We all have one, a life where we’ve kept our plans and made some more. Graduates have walked across stages, brides and grooms wedded, grandparents met newborns. In that life, I’ve packed trips to Italy, Scotland, Germany and Hawaii in a single spring. In that life, I treat myself to something special every day this week and remind all who’ll hear it that my birthday’s next Monday. (Look what I just did.) In that life, you’ve never heard of Zoom. In that life, the ones we lost or will lose live.

Covid-19 is a massive points failure; all our lives went down a track we never intended. We grieve those normal lives, those before-lives. Even if your experience of this pandemic is as comfortable as you dared hope, you may rage. I know I rage. (And deny, and idealize, and crash: my friend Nick Blackburn, a psychotherapist, wrote a wonderful article about all the stages of trauma one goes through.) 

In the first week of lockdown, it was a popular activity in France to poke fun at Parisians who’d fled to the countryside. Poor little rich people with their summer homes! How dared they try to make their quarantine more bearable? If healthcare workers could work three-day shifts with nary a mask, certainly they could manage their kids in a two-bedroom. If only it worked that way. If for every square meter I gave up, an N95 mask materialized, I’d live in a cupboard for the next three months. 

In a recent podcast, emotions researcher Brené Brown explains how fear and scarcity triggers comparison: Who’s got it better, who’s got it worse? Applied to our current predicament, it becomes a game of comparative suffering. We rank the world’s pain and deny ourselves the right to feel our own unless we’re at the top of the ladder of suffering. “I can’t complain” about being stuck in my house because some don’t have a home. “I can’t complain” about working from home when others are furloughed. “I can’t complain” about being terrified of getting sick when others are actually sick. But when did a sprained ankle hurt less because of someone else’s broken leg? 

If you’re attempting to work from home and wondering what you ever liked about your children or partner, your pain is real. If you’re isolating alone and very near talking to your plant, your pain is real. If you were going to go to the prom with your forever crush and it got canceled, if you were making big life moves and now you’re stuck and bouncing off the walls, if all that’s being asked of you is to sit on the couch and you find that hard, all that is real. If you’re mourning life on the other track… well I’m right there with you.

Keeping perspective on the range of human experiences of this pandemic is important. Acknowledging others’ suffering is good; donating time and money to alleviate it is better. But that does not invalidate your own. Remember: always put on your own oxygen mask* before helping others. 

In other news

This is a before-life thing I never got to announce: happy to report I’ve joined my first board as a trustee of the new Public Interest News Foundation. We aim to support small and independent news publishers in the UK innovating in journalism, serving communities and telling the stories that matter. We’ve never needed reliable information more, but it’s a hecatomb out there. If you can, and even though many have taken down their paywalls for virus coverage, consider supporting your local news sites and newspapers. They have very urgent cash needs. I’ll share more on that soon.

Until we can take a train again…

*This is a metaphor, silly. Actual masks should go to frontline workers. Don’t hoard.