For more than a year now, the world has been shaken up by a pandemic. It affects everyone’s life differently, but what connects us is that we all experience loss. Even if we haven’t lost a job or a loved one, we have all lost the world as we knew it. After facing the disappointment of her studies being cancelled, author Minke Sijbrandij felt compelled to dive into the topic of grief to figure out how to cope. 

This story starts on 7 March 2020, when I arrived home after my first intensive presence phase of Innsbruck University’s Peace Studies programme. Four days later, on 11 March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Returning home after these intense two months spent fully immersed in experiential learning while living communally with fellow students is already challenging. Returning home to social isolation and a lockdown… that’s a different level of challenging.  

Several weeks later, in April, we received a message from programme director Wolfgang Dietrich telling us he was sad to announce that our next presence phase in the summer was cancelled because the Austrian government had decided that all universities would close. No exceptions. “We’re feeling so many losses,” grief expert David Kessler explains in conversation with Brené Brown, who researches emotions. “The loss of physical connection. The loss of routine. The loss of work. The loss of physical touch. The loss of gathering for meals. The loss of gathering for worship. We don’t have enough time to count the losses we’re all encountering.” 

Because I already had to deal with the loss of studying in community, I didn’t focus so much on other, in my eyes ‘smaller’, losses. After the news about my studies, I didn’t set many new expectations for the year. I was going to have half a year free and then do my intensive study phase in January the year after. Having a six-month break was in some way even a blessing for me, since I could use time off. All around me I saw people struggling with day-to-day, week-to-week uncertainty about their immediate futures. Not me, I thought, I have some time off from my studies and then I’ll continue my life as planned. 

When I opened my inbox on 3 November 2020, I saw an email from the programme director with ‘sad update’ as its subject. I already knew what it was going to say before I opened it. Indeed, per decree by the government, all classes would be taught online until the end of the semester. No exceptions. Suddenly, I couldn’t cope with the daily losses anymore. Not hugging people outside my direct circle, the over-complication and awkwardness of gatherings, no more events to dance or sing together… earlier I hadn’t minded so much, but then it became too much. Without realising, the prospect of the next presence phase was what had kept me going during the first half a year of the pandemic. 

Trying to ‘just keep going’ suddenly didn’t work anymore. I needed a different strategy. I needed to learn how to grieve. “If we don’t name it,” David Kessler explains about grief, “we can’t feel it […] And if you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it.” One of the few places where I was able to name and feel my grief was in the sharing circles for students, facilitated by programme assistant Sabrina Stein. Finally, I felt safe and comfortable to share my sadness about our cancelled presence phase, because I knew others felt the same. I thought my loss of studying together with a community of peers came nowhere near the losses other people were experiencing due to the pandemic. I was living with housemates, was still earning money, and my loved ones were healthy. Part of me thought I was too privileged to be upset. “We want to always compare losses”, Kessler says. However, “the worst loss is always your loss,” he reassures us. And, “all losses are valid and legitimate”. 

The worst loss is always your loss

So, naming and feeling our loss, is that how we grieve? There’s another important component to it. Kessler: “Each person’s grief is unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining”.  This has been the painful paradox for me in this pandemic: more than ever there is a need for community, belonging and togetherness, while we are urged to practice social distancing and keep moving in and out of a lockdown. 

Fortunately, online initiatives still provide a space to grieve together. Kessler offers weekly online grief groups. Mirjam Schulpen, trainer in nonviolent communication, hosts online mourning circles every couple of months. “Mourning longs to be met with loving attention,” she explains. “It yearns for compassionate acknowledgment. To be accompanied when I share my pain can be a healing and transformative experience, quite different from staying alone with it. Grieving is a powerful life skill and a practice that got lost in our modern society.” 

Grieving is a powerful life skill and a practice that got lost in our modern society

In spring of 2021, about a year after the pandemic started, I lost the place I had called home for several years and a few weeks later, my romantic relationship. More opportunity to practice grieving. When I attended one of Schulpen’s circles in June, we were asked to bring one thing we wanted to grieve at that moment. “Do I have to choose?” I asked. The different losses I was experiencing all wanted to be witnessed. I brought every one of them into the space and was finally able to let the emotions that had been stuck inside me for a while flow through me. Being witnessed in my grief by ‘strangers’, who I almost instantly felt connected to, was relieving and liberating. 

Before the pandemic, Nontokozo Sabic, international facilitator, trainer and South African indigenous knowledge keeper, facilitated grief ceremonies. Now she hosts webinars and online workshops. “Grieving in a community context has a much bigger impact in terms of healing,” she explains in one of her webinars about grief, trauma and Ubuntu, “because then you have a sense of knowing that you are interconnected and that you are not alone.” The fact that it’s a collective experience, reminds us of our interconnectedness. Sabic: “Our experiences with coronavirus are different, they depend on the privileges we have and don’t have. Still, it reminds us of the fact that we’re all interconnected. The virus is collective, it’s global. If anything, it may remind us of this, may we never forget, may this memory of interconnectedness stay with us, as long as we are here.” 

Our experiences with coronavirus are different, they depend on the privileges we have and don’t have. Still, it reminds us of the fact that we’re all interconnected

While everyone experiences grief differently, this pandemic affects everyone in one way or the other. “This is a collective loss of the world we all lived in before the pandemic,” says Kessler. “And we, like with every other loss, didn’t know what we had until it was gone. We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew. The world we knew is now gone forever.” According to Sabic, we are even going through global collective trauma. “We need to find ways and to create spaces where we can allow and give permission to our emotions to acknowledge this trauma. Not only on an individual level, but also by finding community with which we are able to grieve and express the emotions that are accumulated in our physical body, because that is where we store trauma.” This is why it is so important that sharing circles continue to take place, also online. And how do we find support when everyone is affected? By being there for each other. Kessler: “I witness your grief and you witness mine.” 

During the intensive communal study periods in Innsbruck, we start each morning with active listening: in pairs, we each get five minutes to share what is alive in us at that moment while the other person listens in silence. When the ‘presence’ phase was moved online, we continued to start our days with this exchange, and even through our computers and phones it was a powerful experience. Outside the programme, I also use this method of sharing and witnessing on a regular basis with friends. Some people call it emotional hygiene and consider it as important as cleaning our body. I definitely notice myself getting frustrated when I haven’t been able to share what is really going on in me for several days. So dear reader, when was the last time you took care of your emotional hygiene? If it’s been a while, I would warmly invite you to find someone to witness your grief, and for you to witness theirs. 

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  • Minke Sijbrandij: Guus van den Tweel
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