For many years I have been teaching my clients how to build a House of Truth, a sort of psycho-spiritual fortress in which to live their lives after loss and grief have taken a wrecking ball to the world they once knew.
Death Has a Room at the Inn
In the House of Truth I have been constructing in my own life, death has always had a room at the inn, so to speak. This might be because I grew up on a ranch where the complexities (or is it the simplicities?) of life are a part of everyday life. This, combined with the fact that I was an introspective and deeply observant child, made ranch life my first and most brutally honest teacher. Heroics to avoid the inevitable are few, and death is a fundamental truth that is on frequent display.
This personal mantra, that death always has a room at the inn, has guided and informed my life in more positive ways than I could ever express. Yet in large part, it is a mantra that I have learned to keep to myself.
You see, when death saunters by the outskirts of most people’s lives (we could call this death once removed), they rarely offer it a chance to drop in for a chat and a cup of coffee. Instead, they quickly pull the chain on the “No Vacancy” sign and lock the door. They turn away from the spectacle of death and hope it just keeps traveling on to somewhere else.
In the last six months though, I have noticed that my House of Truth is not as quiet and vacant as usual. At the time of this writing, more than 215,000 Americans have died from COVID19. That number in itself is staggering, but the way that so many of them died is even more staggering — alone, unaccompanied by family members, and attended to by a medical community that has been overwhelmed and underprepared for what they have been forced to face.
The Greatest Toll of the Pandemic
A new study shows that perhaps the greatest toll of this loss of life are the millions of grievers who are emerging. This study calculates that for every COVID death that has occurred, there are nine family members left grieving. At the moment, this pencils out to over two million people actively grieving a COVID-related death, which translates into millions of people grappling with difficult memories of their loved one dying alone. This adds trauma to grief, creating a complicated bereavement process that can have an aching ripple effect that moves through every part of one’s life.
When death picks up the keys to that room at the inn in someone’s life, there is another mass check in process that begins as grief scrambles into every vacant room that it can. Unlike death, which inhabits just a single room, grief spreads into many rooms; it spans all floors and it settles in.
The way grief will take occupancy in one’s life is always unique, but one constant that I have observed in my long career as a grief therapist is the fact that the way we perceive our loved one’s final moments has a tremendous impact on our grieving process. When the moment of death is one of peace and connection, the grief process for survivors reflects this. When the opposite is true and final moments are traumatic or go unwitnessed, this will often result in a more complicated grieving process. This kind of grief can stealthily span across one’s entire world, like fingers of frost across a window pane. In my clinical opinion, it is this insidious and often unseen eruption of pain that is the true price of grief.
This is why a large part of what I do with my grieving clientele is assist them in understanding what we know about the subjective experience of death — in other words, what the dying actually tell us that dying is like.
When we learn the presumably “cold, hard facts” about what the moment of death is like (based on science, academia, and the personal stories of the dying themselves), it almost uniformly causes that old wrecking ball to start swinging. And, before you know it, down goes the House of Truth that held the belief that death is always a horrid, suffering, desperate event, and up goes a new wall or two, as new information leads to new perceptions.
The wrecking ball of loss is devastating, but it never swings without purpose. Demolition takes away, but it also makes room for growth and perspective. That may feel like a very fragile win in the moment, but as you begin to explore the different rooms at the inn that grief may occupy in your own life, there are resources that you can take with you. This video may provide comfort to families grieving a COVID19 loss, and the grief kit is a collection of tools and teachings designed to help you find a place for grief in your life.