How do we grieve when we can’t gather?

The limitations—and benefits—of mourning in solitude.

We’d just finished watching a documentary when Billy grabbed his phone. “Oh no,” he said, his brow furrowed as he stared at the screen. “I hope this isn’t true.”

It was. Chadwick Boseman, best known for his role as King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther, died on Friday at 43, losing a four-year battle with colon cancer. For countless people, Boseman’s death felt like yet another blow in a year that had already taken far too much. 

His death is acutely painful because of what Boseman represented—on screen and in real life. He portrayed several Black historical figures. He visited children suffering from cancer while also privately battling the disease. As T’Challa, he was the ultimate Black superhero. He leaned into the role and embraced all that it symbolized for fans.

The loss is especially depressing because it reminds us, in a year marked by killings of Black citizens by police and a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and brown lives, that Black people can die in plenty of other ways, too. 

And Boseman’s death, like that of many beloved celebrities, brings us face to face with our own mortality. We are forced to confront, once again, that the amount of time we have on Earth isn’t guaranteed.

All of these things are magnified by the fact that we can’t gather and grieve together in person. Boseman’s death reminds us not only of our own mortality, but also of our ongoing loneliness.

As my friend Candice wrote, “There is something extra cruel about loss in a year of necessary isolation. The inability to gather and hold one another remains the cruelest part of all of this. Even our grief must be quarantined.”

I’ve often thought about what it would be like if Jamie died this year, instead of 2017. 

As a new widow, I greatly valued my independence and believed I needed to live alone in order to process fully the depths of my losses. Still, I had friends to spend time with and places to visit. 

I’m not sure I could have survived that first solo year during a pandemic. I may have moved back to Atlanta to live with my mom. I may have taken over a guest room in the house of a generous friend. If I could figure out the logistics, I might have bounced around—traveling from place to place every month or so—all while getting tested for COVID-19 and following quarantine rules as best I could.

But to do it entirely alone, without anyone to hug, comfort, or distract me when I needed it most, would have been impossibly hard.

The day after Boseman’s death, Billy showed me a video of an opening-night audience watching Marvel’s Endgame—a scene when T’Challa and his army triumphantly appear. The crowd roared with excitement and joy, which made Billy and me burst into tears. I was crying less about Boseman—though the magnitude of his death is hard to understate—and more because of the crowd. The video captured the electricity that comes from being in a room or stadium full of people, where everyone feeds off of everyone else’s energy. It’s addictive and fun, and makes you feel truly alive.

I miss that. I didn’t even realize how much I missed it until I watched that video. There have been many times over the past few months when I’d see footage of a crowd and cringe. That looks horrible and anxiety-inducing, I’d think, focused solely on staying in my COVID-safe bubble at home. I had forgotten, though, what it was like to be in a crowd and not be worried about a virus. I forgot what it was like to revel in the powerful, shared emotions of a room full of people.

As I was writing this essay, I came across a tweet by Maris Krizeman that summed up what I was missing. “One of the very best feelings in the world is looking around and realizing that so many people you love are in one room,” she wrote. “I hope all of us can experience that again someday.”

This, of course, occurs during the happy moments in life: the weddings, milestone birthdays, creative performances, baby showers, and retirement parties. It happens in the hard times, too. I will always remember the moment when I stood at the pulpit at Jamie’s funeral, taking a deep breath before reading my eulogy. I could barely register all of the faces looking back at me, but I felt the collective love and support from everyone in that sanctuary. From that moment on, I knew I wasn’t alone in mourning my husband.

It makes me incredibly sad, angry, and disheartened to know that there are so many people this year who have been denied the experience of collective mourning. There are people in my life who haven’t yet been able to hold funerals for their loved ones, or even be in person with other friends and family members who are grieving. If you’re in that situation and reading this (and I know that some of you are), I am so very sorry. It’s terribly unfair.

The good news—I guess this is what qualifies for good news these days—is that, in my experience, the work of grief is best done in solitude. Even when people are grieving the same loss, the way they approach and process that grief is often wildly different. 

Author Helen Steiner Rice famously wrote that “Grief is a solitary journey.” Only you can know your unique pain. She added, though, that comfort comes from observing other people:

Grief is a solitary journey. No one but you knows how great the hurt is. No one but you can know the gaping hole left in your life when someone you know has died. And no one but you can mourn the silence that was once filled with laughter and song. It is the nature of love and of death to touch every person in a totally unique way. Comfort comes from knowing that people have made the same journey. And solace comes from understanding how others have learned to sing again.

This idea brings me some encouragement—for my friends who are grieving major, life-altering losses, and for all of us, who are grieving the smaller multitude of losses that come from living in a pandemic. The work happens on your own. If you don’t fight it or run away from it, you can learn so much about yourself as you mourn. You will discover how strong, resilient, and beautiful you truly are.

The trick, I think, is to embrace solitude but not isolation. Even if we can't safely be together in person, there are ways to connect and stay connected to the outside world when we’re in the midst of our own grief. We can write letters, make phone calls, and wave at people as we go on walks. We can read about others’ experiences, and apply those lessons to our own. We can practice gratitude and remind ourselves that, no matter how isolated we may feel, we’re never truly alone.

I sincerely hope that we will emerge from this period of social distancing not only hungry for human contact and connection, but also with a deeper appreciation for and connection to ourselves. After all, death ultimately reminds us that we are the only true constants in our lives. 

I’ve heard grief described as love with no place to go. Why not direct that love to ourselves?




Something nice—just for you

A lesson I learned in the depths of grief—something I’m forever working on—is how important it is to care for myself. I’m currently reminded of that again, as many of us seem to be hitting a low point in pandemic life.

What’s something nice that you’ve done lately to lift your spirits? Perhaps you’ve treated yourself to nightly baths or a weekly visit to your favorite park. It could be something as simple as stepping outside during work hours for some fresh air, or as elaborate as arranging a fancy takeout dinner for one by candlelight. Do you find it easy to do nice things for yourself, or is it a challenge?

Share your self-love routines by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending me a message. I’ll compile your replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter. (And speaking of doing nice things for yourself, you can receive Thursday newsletters by subscribing for $5/month or $35/year!)

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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who was reminded while reading this essay how much she’ll miss the massive, nerd-packed crowds of DragonCon, which would have taken place this Labor Day weekend. Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash.

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