Proceed as if Normal

As we approach the two year anniversary of shelter-in-place, I simultaneously feel bewildered and unsurprised by the clusterfuck that is society’s response to so much collective worldwide trauma. It will be years before we fully understand the psychological ramifications of the last two years, but it seems unlikely that capitalism’s not-so-gentle pushes to get us back to the status quo will help humanity acknowledge the magnitude of the grief at hand. I’m reminded of the Stalin quote that captures our tendency for dissociation and avoidance so aptly, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.“ I’ve never been one to feel much in response to numbers, it’s one of the reasons I became a therapist instead of a mathematician. Yet as the causes for grief add up, I can’t help but notice the impact of avoiding the piece of collective grief I am called upon to carry. I observe myself numbing out with countless hours of Jane the Virgin. I alternate between fighting and flirting with being comfortably brainwashed by the industrial wedding complex. The elephant in the room tries to convince me that spending hundreds of dollars on matching pajamas for my bridesmaids will soothe the ever present anguish in my heart. That silly elephant- tricks are for kids! 

Therapy is teaching me that one secret to living a happy life is learning to balance holding space for both joy and grief simultaneously. In the early years of my life I became a professional at using denial to simply ignore the things that distracted from my joy. Doing this might work in the short term, but in the long run it is like slowly compressing a dimmer switch on happy emotions. In No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Han writes, “Without suffering, there is no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.” For me, approaching the world’s suffering with tenderness means slowing down and sitting with the elephant in the room. It means continually guiding myself back to acknowledging the white supremicist culture I was born into and recognizing my privilege in being able to choose when, where, and how I do that. It means holding space for the legacy traumas in society and our planet caused by racism, patriarchy, sexism, materialism, and rugged individualism. It means allowing myself to grieve the losses of the pre-pandemic world that we will never recover, while simultaneously celebrating the positive changes and possibilities the last two years have brought with them. 

I feel a palpable pressure from society to return to business as usual. To specifically put the trauma of the last two years behind us and move on. I know I’m not responsible for anyone else’s process, but I’ll be here doing my best to recognize, allow, investigate and nurture my piece of our collective grief. 

And if you want my professional opinion, I’d suggest you give it a try too.


In my grandfather’s final days I witnessed many acts of unconditional love. My father, gently shaving my grandfather’s face as he lay in his hospital bed. My sister, wrapping her arms around me as I wept at the dinner table. My nana, holding my sister and I as we both wept after visiting our grandfather for the last time. My friends, calling to check in on me and see how I was holding up. It’s in the darkest hours of life that love shines through most brightly. 

~ ~ ~ 

The second to last time we saw our grandfather, my sister and I brought all the good news we could think of to his bedside. We laughed and smiled as we told stories and made jokes. Our grandfather, too weak to talk, responded to us in smiles and shrugs. “Boy, your kids have been taking real good care of you, huh grandpa?,” I asked jovially. “Rob sure is a good son, isn’t he?” To this remark my grandfather leaned back with great effort so that he could offer two deep, slow nods. As our conversation continued we shared agreement through our smiles and sighs. It is in my experiences at the bedsides of the dying that I see most concretely how the spirit transcends the shell of the body. 

Eventually I found it too hard to hold back my grief, and let my fears fall. My grandfather reached out his hands, muttering something that I heard as, “Oh, don’t cry,” to which I quoted my father saying, “well grandpa, my dad always says, the depth of the grief is commensurate with the amount of love that is felt.” We talked for a little longer, and then it was time to say goodbye. My sister and I held my grandfather’s hands as we told him we loved him, and that we’d see him tomorrow. “Thank you for coming,” he mustered with a smile. 

~ ~ ~ 

My grandfather was truly a lovely man, someone who delighted in the arts, in nature, and in the potential for growth in all he came into contact with. I like to think that my grandfather influenced some of the best parts of me, and I’m pretty confident that I’m right. 

Stanley Dropkin 1925 – 2021 

Lowercase grief

When the big, existentially sad thing happened, capital letter emotions came with it. CONFUSION. SADNESS. ANGER. GRIEF. They stuck around for a while, sitting shiva with the heart. The world continued turning, and the limited number of capital letters moved on to fulfill other duties. One day little lowercase grief arrived to stay, quietly setting up camp next door to the heart. “Why hello there, how can I help you?” asked the brain, noticing the new arrival, but the responses given by little grief were unintelligible. The brain shrugged to the heart and went about its business. The heart, on the other hand, sat down on the ground next to little grief and waited. After a few days little grief crawled into the hearts lap, and the heart began to gently rock it. They quietly stayed this way while the brain stayed busy, keeping the legs running and the hands moving.

Weeks passed, and the heart waited.

The brain projected and stressed, searching for distractions and answers to where little grief had come from, and how to send it back. The teeth gnashed and the fingers scratched. The stomach showed up to help with a familiar coping mechanism. “How wonderful!” it thought, “I almost thought this one was history.” And still the heart waited, cradling little grief, rocking it back and forth.

Finally the brain tired itself out. It came back to the heart, and this time it listened patiently to the mumbled noises of little grief. To the brain’s surprise, the mumbles began to change into intelligible sentences. “My name is grief, and I’m here to stay,” said little grief. “I am here to remind everyone that life is finite, but love is infinite. If you give me regular acknowledgment and honor my purpose your existence will benefit. If you ignore me or try to fight me, I will simply transform and show up in bigger, badder places.” The heart, still rocking, nodded quietly in agreement. The brain went for a long walk to consider little grief’s words.