By Chris Eble
You say pandemic in almost the same way in English as you do in German. Pandemic - Pandemie. In both languages the words originate from the Greek roots - pan, meaning all and demos meaning people. All people.
This time we’re in is strange, in part, because we’re conscious of going through something as a global community; we have common fear and hope and grief.
Grief is often a thing that makes us pull away from each other. In some ways, it’s only natural; grief hurts. We don’t want to hurt. When someone nearby has grief, we want to know that we can keep from catching it. One way we do this is by saying - well, they asked for it. Grief that’s a consequence of something you chose is less upsetting to the community.
Right now the whole community of humans is feeling threatened by something none of us asked for. But I wonder if grief is ever a thing an individual chooses. Grief feels like it is, at its very roots and from long before this pandemic, a thing that holds all people.
The past four years in my life have been filled with grief on many occasions. My father passed away in 2016. In 2017 I left the company I worked for for over a decade. In 2018 our beloved pet died suddenly. Weeks later my wife and I left Portland, our home for 13 years, to live in Germany, my native country. My mom has suffered from depression all her life and was committed to mental facilities on several occasions over the past three years after trying to commit suicide.
I could not save my father. His illness was no one’s fault, no institution to blame. Accompanying him through his illness and being by his side during his final hours was a deeply moving experience. Also full of excruciating grief. The months after his death were a strange blend of depression, a robot like existence, and moments of joy and gratitude. I did not ask for any of that.
I did choose to leave my employer after 11 years in order to pursue something else. Or had I given up? A choice that hurt so bad once I walked out of the building for the last time, colleagues wishing me well, long embraces, tears rolling down faces. So many memories of camaraderie and crazy stories. Was it the right thing to do? The grief lasts to this day. I chose to change jobs.
Losing our pet in the midst of our preparations to move to Germany was a shock. I never had a pet before in my life. I often thought it wouldn’t affect me much should something happen to him. I was so wrong. The grief I experienced when I held his limp body in the vet clinic after he was put to sleep was unlike anything I have felt before. Different than when my dad died. The latter experience was whole and deep, quiet at times and somewhat suffered in solitude. Losing the cat was piercing, like being scalded by hot water. Seeing my wife suffer just added to the pain. We did not choose for Elmo the Cat to perish.
Our final day in Portland was spent with a few of our best friends. Cocktails at 10am, before our drive to PDX International Airport. The apartment we had lived in for 13 years on the corner of SE Belmont and 33rd was now a ghost. Empty rooms, a few items left behind for the next renters. Just the painted walls reminded us of what once was our home base. The lead up to our departure was filled with numerous good-byes, so by the time the day of our flight arrived I felt drained, tired and numb. The grief went into hibernation only to arise from its slumber with a vengeance about year later; as if someone set a timer running in the background that suddenly burst into a loud alarm bell. I was not prepared for it. The sadness and sense of loss still loom large after almost two years. We chose to leave Portland.
I cannot help my mother. I find myself standing on the sidelines, watching her be tossed around by inner demons. It has been going on for so long. I am so saddened to see her like that. I am so mad at her for being like that. I am so scared for what will happen to her. I am so defeated for not being able to provide a way out of it. The grief I feel is so bewildering. My mother is alive, yet I feel as if she died long ago. But then I feel her body when we embrace, her warm hands touching me. I feel her living spirit, her undying love for me. My mother is dead and alive at the same time. She wants to end it when she is at her lowest, yet she provides such graceful and loving care and shelter for me. I did not chose this, neither did she.
I cannot handle this grief.
Would it make it easier to handle if I imagined it was a consequence of my freedom and hers, rather than the random fits and rages of a world beyond our control? I don’t know - I don’t think so. Giving it shelter, allowing it to live in my house feels right. If feels like perhaps it could be a way to transform the pain I feel. Sharing it with you - knowing that, whether it’s the consequence of choice or fate, at its heart it’s not different than your grief, feels right.
We aren’t each affected in the same way or to the same degree by this pandemic. There’s some choice involved in our experience of it - do we wear a mask when we take a walk with our friend? Do we take a walk with a friend? Do we take a walk? but mostly it’s not choice. Mostly the people who are suffering more aren’t suffering more because they asked to. The people who are finding meaning and fulfillment and something like peace aren’t having that experience because they’ve made better decisions. And even if they were - does grief hurt less when it’s the consequence of choice? I think it doesn’t. I think (I hope), maybe, this common grief will make it harder to insist that those who suffer do so because they choose to.
I hope that it will help us to feel less separate.
Pan - all Demos - people
I grew up in Germany and studied in Würzburg, Berlin and Austin, TX. I emigrated to the U.S. in 2004 and lived in Tucson, Phoenix and Portland before returning to my native country in 2018.
My wife and I now live near Stuttgart in southern Germany. I’ve never written anything before, only marveled at the intellectual and artful work of others. Now dipping my toes into unknown waters.