On Gratitude and Grief in the time of Covid-19

By Chris Hardy
Chris Hardy

In this essay I share about why I feel both grief and gratitude are important to our current experience of Covid-19. Around the middle of the article I share a process for letting our grief come to the surface and for processing uncomfortable emotions. Enjoy.

In the midst of such uncertainty I love that the British sense of humour is still, well, the British sense of humour. Some of the memes shared are just hilarious.

This one encapsulates much of what I’ve been thinking:

Britain WTF

In this essay I want to explore with you the polarity and relevance of grief and gratitude. As our crisis deepens we are feeling a broad spectrum of emotion, combined with (mis-)information overload and isolation, and you’ve got a fairly challenging experience.

My intention is to bring some peace and calm into your life through offering an exploration into grief and gratitude as two fundamental, important and useful elements to your ongoing experience.

How we come together, support each other, and work through this unfolding challenge will set the tone for what comes afterwards.

Picture how the end of a trumpet looks, like two exponential curves heading away from each other. Covid-19 is causing a shortening of time; a collapse of what was already falling apart, and a shove forwards into something new, the seeds of which have been planted long ago.

If time is horizontal then one curve takes us into collapse, despair and grief, it’s a hole from which we feel we might never emerge, while the other curve takes us somewhere different.

I am not suggesting some kind of simplified ‘high-vibes and full of gratitude’ type space, and yet intrinsic in the collapse of the old is the question: what shall we rebuild? central to death is the question: what kind of life do I want? and part of our fake-news post-truth world has us asking; what is true? or what truth do I want to live from?

When we come face to face with such dire loss we are also made aware of what we do have, and of just how grateful we are for those things.

We are being initiated (at least that’s what I see) into a new stage of humanity. The trumpet end is our portal. How we pass through will influence life on the other side.

And as with the trumpet shape, both sides are relevant and needed. The deep grief and loss alongside a gentle sense of possibility.

Alongside the hilarious memes I’ve also been consuming information about doubling death tolls, conspiracy theories, fake news, dramatically shifting political landscapes, unemployment, economic and social collapse, social solidarity, isolation, vibe-raising meditations, martial law, the new ‘normal’, the importance of gratitude to Covid-19, economic restructuring and let’s not forget the impending global recession.

What the fuck indeed.

Where do we start?

What do we do?

Moreover what can I do?

I’m a coach, shit, I should be helping, offering free sessions, making resources, doing SOMETHING that is a useful, supportive, perhaps funny, but definitely an important and active response to this great crisis we find ourselves in.

(Hey, I might even land some new coaching client!)

Yet what has felt most real and immediate is to do nothing.

To stop.

Ahhh. Just for a moment please stop with me…

Take in a deep breath, let it out nice and slowly.

Repeat two or three times. (or please, definitely ignore my instructions if you feel this is just ANOTHER thing you’re being asked to do! Fuck all that doing. Maybe even stop reading this and come back later if you also really feel a deep need just to stop. Go on, give yourself that, stop. I dare you.)

Ok, Grief and Gratitude, let’s do this.

Like the shape at the end of a trumpet we’re being bought into contact with extremes of life that are usually far beyond our experience. Doctors on the front line are working longer and harder than they ever have and are making life or death decisions on an hourly basis. The ventilators are not saving as many lives as previously thought.

It’s predicted that death rates will double daily for the next week or so (written on 31.03.20). This information is gathered from conversations I’ve had with two doctors I know working on the front line in London hospitals. Let’s call them Jane and Rob. Jane is an anaesthetist and Rob is a respiratory SHO (Senior House Officer). Rob shared with me that:

‘of those that need mechanical ventilation in an induced coma very few are making a full recovery’

How do we process such information?

I received a message from Rob the other day that read:

We have now run out of machines.

Half my ward on non invasive ventilators, we’re holding them, keeping them out of ITU but we don’t have anymore and ITU is now full, theatres full. Bigger places like St George’s and Tommies have space so beginning to ship them out there but they will be full very soon, few beds left only now.

We’ve got two weeks of it getting worse and London is almost at capacity. Need more machines ASAP. Need that excel centre ASAP but honestly we have no idea who’s gonna staff it. Lots of tough decisions being made. Threshold for ITU rising and rising. People being palliated where normally they’d be for escalation.

Lots of hard discussions with family members who are losing their loved ones before their time. Insult to injury is we have to manage public health risk and restrict family visits of dying patients. We are beginning to tire actually and the marathon has only just started. So all in all pretty rough…

Will keep turning up on time, in tune and doing the thing as long as we need to but we are willing it to end already yesterday.

Immediately the message bought tears to my eyes. The grief of our time became viscerally apparent to me. And the sense of impending doom, that things are going to get worse before they get better.

My heart goes out to the frontline workers. And if you are reading this on or around the 31st March 2020 then I really encourage you to consider who you know who works on the frontline in the NHS. Give them a call, send a message, tell them you love them and that they have the whole nation in support of their monumental effort right now.

This is crucial right now. I’m not in an ‘action suggesting mode’ but this is essential. You might, quite literally, save their lives.

In case you are unaware, and to go a little deeper into the grief story, we are witnessing a silent epidemic of suicide amongst young men and women. Suicide is the highest cause of death aged between 18–40 in the UK is a killer amongst young doctors who are under an incredible amount of stress during regular working conditions.

It’s hard to fathom the depth of suffering, anxiety, grief, despair, hopelessness and loss some of our friends and family might be experiencing right now.

I care specifically about the mental health of our NHS staff as my Mum was a GP who sadly took her own life in June 1998. And that tragedy happened during ‘normal’ working conditions. I wonder how she would have fared if a global pandemic had occurred while she was still working. Or indeed, if she was still alive today, how she might be finding this current scenario.

And so, grief.

It’s here and it’s deep and real and painful. If you have felt sadness, loss, despair or any of the other refractions of grief in the past few weeks then I honour you and your courage.

Grief can feel like a bottomless pit. A hole into which we will fall and never get out. A dark place best avoided, something to distract ourselves from, a heavy emotion that we’ll bring others down with, an admitting of defeat, a giving up of hope or a weakness best avoided at all costs.

And at times grief has felt exactly like all those things to me. And that’s totally OK, legitimate and an important part of grief. If it’s not real and scary and dark then it isn’t actual grief.

Yet within your conceptual framework of what grief is I’d like to plant a new seed. This golden nugget of a seed is that grief is also a window, it’s an acceptance, and a surrendering into what will naturally overwhelm you at some point anyway, it’s a letting go and being with what is.

Some of the grief I felt in 2019 felt like falling through the bottom of a cave. It was terrifying, like a living death.

And yet when I finally (not by my own choice) was forced to let go and just fall I found myself falling into a void that turned out to be full of acceptance, self-love, stillness, surrender and ‘enough-ness’.

Different, but with a similar emotional signature (as all grief has), I believe we’re experiencing a global moment of falling. And how we tend to this grief will make a difference to the world we create on the other side (if there is an other-side… sorry! couldn’t help myself!!)

If you have room in your awareness now for a small suggestion I have an offering: Emotional Processing.

Emotional Processing is a spiritual or technical word for ‘having a really good cry’. And it works.

David Papa, longtime great friend, mentor, guide and teacher introduced me to a world of teachers who offer emotional processing in some form or another. Through David I learnt the techniques which landed best with me, and then over the years I’ve assimilated them into my own practice while teaching them to the people I work with.

Here is the technique:

Emotional Processing

blanket, candle, journal, and a quiet private space

1. Decide to process rather than pacify

If / When feeling an emotional charge within your body decide and allow yourself to go into the emotions and process them rather than pacifying them. An emotional charge might feel like butterflies in your stomach, constriction around your heart, nervousness or tingling, or whatever it feels like for you but learning to focus on the physical sensations of your emotions is part of this work.

2. Setup the space

Create a quiet, safe and comfortable space for you to process. It helps if the space is clear, quiet and you can be there in a peaceful way. Light a candle, close the curtains if you want, whatever has you feel special and held. You can go to town here with incense, a designated blanket, sacred art, or an altar etc etc but none of that is necessary.

3. Breathe into your emotions and let them come

Tune into your body. Where do you feel whatever you feel? Breathe into the centre of that feeling. Move your body, rub your tummy, stretch, hold yourself, experiment with kapalabhalti breathing or whatever it takes to shift, expand and loosen the emotional charge you have inside you.

4. Let it out

Usually the charge will start to move, to grow, to change. This is good, keep it growing and moving by focusing on the sensations and breathing into them. You can also visualise the emotion as a ball of light that is spreading and growing. And then, for me at least, as it spreads and arrives into your head feel it behind your eyes and then let it out in tears, laughter or whatever you feel.

5. Be present

As you cry — and really let yourself go there; try screaming into a pillow or punching the bed — be present with yourself. Notice the sense of stillness and peace in the centre of this process. Keep the tears coming, being OK with whatever comes. Love whatever comes. Love yourself that you can witness your emotions this powerfully. Be grateful that you’re doing this practice and shifting these emotions.

6. Lie still

A big like puking, it’s nice to just lie still after a good cry. Be with the new sensitivity you’ve opened in your body. You’ve just done some important and significant work, stay with that sense, feel into your boy, there may be more there, or you may be able to come back later.

7. Notice

Notice which thoughts and feelings you are having right now. What was it that was underneath, or on the other side, or through your grief or sadness? What thoughts or images arrive? Who do you think of? Sometimes lovely simple revelations or insights happen during this process. Make a quick note in your journal and come back to them later so you don’t go too much into your head at this stage.

8. Give thanks and close

Take a moment to be grateful to yourself for the important work you’ve just done. As you would with a wounded, or healing, child; hold yourself, love yourself, give thanks for your courage and bravery. As you close the space by blowing out the candle (adding in whatever else you want) remind yourself that you can always return to this practice. That you have now established a safe place to process your emotions and that this is a skill that will serve you for life.

Perhaps, going back to the trumpet analogy, as we are willing to experience the grief, to descend into the unknown, we move towards the outer rim of the curve. And moving as such we realise that it’s not a dropping off, indeed it’s not a 2D line going down off the page, but we’re on a three dimensional surface and moving into our deepest grief offers a spiralling and supportive movement to experience and touch upon gratitude.

Our capacity to be with both, the grief and gratitude, often in the same moment, is an important factor in birthing a new world as we emerge from this crisis.

Jane (name changed for confidentiality) is the anaesthetist I spoke of earlier. She’s currently working night-shifts in a London hospital entirely over-run with Covid patients. Every moment of her 13.5 hour shifts is consumed with death. Is there grief? Fuck yes there is grief.

Is there gratitude? Yes. Jane feels she’s living her purpose, that the support from the country for the NHS is beautiful, that the doctors are pulling together in a beautiful demonstration of coherence and support, that she is on the front-line and facing death in every moment is giving her an important insight into how we need to shift our perspectives around death and start to tell a new story.

She is learning and blossoming and will come out the other side of Covid-19 a changed person.

And tonight she’ll be anaesthetising countless patients into a comatose state enabling her to insert ventilators into their throats to pump oxygen directly to their lungs prolonging life for a few hours before the almost certain death comes all while being at at the highest risk of infection — literally putting her life on the line — as she works in such close proximity to the patients, leaning over their faces, breathing their air while supplies for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) run out.

Grief? Yes.

Gratitude? Surprising, but Yes.

Jane is one example of the countless heroic NHS workers that are working round the clock to save lives. That’s why it’s essential to offer and show your support for anybody you know on the front-line.

If you do one thing from this reading this essay please call that NHS worker.

Gratitude is a state of acknowledgement and thanks giving for what we have in life. It’s a feeling of appreciation, often characterised by awe and wonder. Gratitude is simple, real and present. It’s intrinsic to our makeup, it’s a binding elemental force in all relationships, and it’s what connects us humans to each other and to the wider field of life.

Gratitude helps us build a relationship with the ‘More than Human World’ as a previous mentor of mine — Peter Hawkins — used to say. Interesting side note here on the ‘More than Human World’ — Covid-19 is an exclusively human problem. We’re the ones who are getting infected, dying and who’s economy and way of life is being destroyed. Perhaps we’re getting a small taster of what the Orangutang felt when his entire way of life, his home, his economy was destroyed and collapsed because of our consumptive demands of palm oil.

Or further — haven’t we also behaved like a virus? Since discovering fossil fuels, a seemingly bottomless source of energy or food, we’ve consumed it all as fast as possible, procreated rampantly, exhausted our food supplies (see the depletion of fossil fuels and topsoil) and excreted toxic waste materials that are destroying the biome upon which we depend for our survival.

Anyway, back to our human experience of life: many conversations I’ve shared in the past few weeks have explored this terrain of grief and gratitude. It’s fascinating to uncover how people are really feeling about this crisis, and what, those with vision at least, are seeing as the potential outcomes or positive changes that might occur because of this.

What I sense is that those with a vision for what is coming are also the ones acknowledging the gratitude they feel for this experience. Here’s a selection of some of what I feel and of what I’m hearing from others:

I am grateful for the collapse of a global regime that has perpetrated untold crimes against humanity and the natural environment.

I am grateful of our growing awareness that we are living on an unhealthy planet created through destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem depletion.

I am grateful that nobody will ever again vote in a government suggesting to reduce NHS funding (at least I hope not!)

I am grateful for the peace and stillness that I feel in the air.

I am grateful for the social solidarity I feel with my neighbours in Frome and more broadly with the international community of friends around the world.

I am grateful for friendship and love, family, and community that seems more essential than ever as we share a crisis.

I am grateful for all the hilarious memes and the ability to laugh in the midst of grief.

I am grateful for time at home, in peace, fixing things and cleaning the place.

I am grateful for loosing my job and for all the opportunities that are arising now that I’m willing to be in the unknown.

I am grateful for the example of humanity coming together in coherence to tackle a crisis and how well this bodes for the changes that need to be implemented to avoid further climate breakdown.

I am grateful for the refuse collection, food delivey service and kindness of strangers without which I would be fucked.

I am grateful for enlightening conversations with those who hold the field from which I write and because of whom I believe a more beautiful future is pssible.

I am grateful for The Coronation essay by Charles Eisenstein (published 29th March 2020) which, finally, gives clarity to the total confusion that was my state before reading his lucid analysis of this time.

I am grateful for the conversations I’m having with my family about real stuff that actually matters.

I am grateful for the reprioritisation of our personal and professional lives.

I am grateful for the collapse of an economy that wasn’t really serving anybody and for the opportunity to do something radically new and beautiful.

I am grateful for the deep sense of calling many of us are experiencing to play a role in the birthing of a new story of people in which we value land, water and regenerative ways of living.

And so; Gratitude.

It’s also real, present and important.

There is not a right or wrong place to be in relation to grief or gratitude.

Sometimes we feel deeply lost, other times elated and full of the high-vibes we’re being instructed to maintain.

And at times we feel a deep sense of gratitude that brings tears to our eyes for the grief we are collectively sharing at the destruction and creation that are occurring simultaneously.

Have you seen those charity collection coin depositors in which you insert a 2p (not a 20p or 50p) into the ramp and it rolls the coin round and round and round the huge conical shape that reminds you of a blackhole?

That’s the trumpet shape.

As some point the analogy doesn’t work anymore…

And yet what I sense we’re left with from all this is an awareness that our grief and gratitude are both welcome in this time. That they are inevitable, intrinsic, and important.

Perhaps grief comes first, but not necessarily. Most important is that we are present with whatever feelings we are having. It’s a crucial moment for our species, how we hold, manage and support each other through this time will influence our future.

Let’s be with this unfolding; if possible that means avoiding distraction, actively choose to slow down, turning off the screens, being with your body, and noticing how you feel.

Last week on a morning run I bumped into a local friend Annabelle. We chatted about the impact of Covid-19 on our lives and she shared how it feels like we’ve all been grounded. That this virus has made us sit still and ‘think about what we’ve done’.

My sense is that part of our constant need for distraction, be it social media, food, drugs, shopping, work or just being busy, is that we are unwilling, or unable, to feel the grief that comes when we comprehend the destruction we’ve perpetrated upon our lovely planet.

It’s painful because from a perspective of inter-being that deforestation, or top soil depletion, or pollution of our local river, is in fact the destruction of our own bodies.

To acknowledge, and face up to the fact, that ecocide is not so far from slow suicide is a deeply confronting and challenging reality.

What if that’s why we’ve been grounded?

Forced to acknowledge the depth of destruction we have perpetrated upon our home and bought face to face with the grief we feel we might ask; what misunderstanding has lead to such a state of affairs?

And in what way (when the time is right) do I feel called to readdress the balance?

At least you now know what to do when that grief arises. And who knows; as the trumpet shape reminds us, the depth of grief we are able to experience is equal to the corresponding gratitude for what an emergent new story may feel like.