On of my favorite Priestessing tools is “Comfort in….Dump Out,” which is also aptly entitled, “The Kvetching Order.” A more detailed explanation can be found in this article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, but it essentially says that you must comfort the people who are the closest to the aggrieved or afflicted. Here is a handy chart:
Basically, if you’re upset about your friend’s cancer, you don’t go to that friend for comfort over their illness. You also don’t go to their spouse, siblings, or parents. Instead, you stand there to hold their pain: You “comfort in.” It acknowledges that you too will need an outlet for your own grief, but that you need to take it to your own spouse, or a friend who is a little more distant from the situation and less effected. They will then take their own feelings to someone out there, in the further outer-circle.
In “normal” times, it’s a great system. But we’re not in normal times.
I started a different post last week, thinking I would write something helpful and clever anecdotes about losses during COVID-19. Up until now, throughout this pandemic, loss has conveniently stayed an arm’s length away. It was reminiscent of the smoke from the forest fires of years past—a hint on the wind, a remote possibility, and definitely sad and scary, but not a direct threat. Still, ash fell on my car and no matter its distance, the fires became a reality in dark smudges on the tissue when I wiped my nose, the itching and burning throat when I walked downtown for a coffee or a yoga class. I wanted to get away from all the smoke, but the clouds from the fires had coated the entire state of Oregon. I didn’t lose my home. I didn’t even have to evacuate. Still, there was no escape from the situation–physically or emotionally, as I eventually cried over those burned and lost trees.
This week, I’m feeling like the proverbial ash is falling on my car again. The bell curve blessedly flatter than in other places, but my heart hasn’t escaped the sick heaviness of the loss. Friends of mine have lost loved ones. Popping onto the social media portals just reads like an obituary section. People are losing their loved ones to this disease, of course. And those that are losing their loved ones to other causes are often missing out on being with them in the hospital. No one is immune to this situation, really. (No pun really intended.)
What do we do when it’s our turn to grieve, but there’s no ‘Outer Circle’?
I cannot, or should not, go to the friend who just lost her mother to COVID-19 and weep about my fears of this virus, and how sad I am over her loss. It is my role to hold the space for her, to listen if she’s crying and maybe cry alongside her…but I don’t turn to her for comfort. The same goes for the friend who lost a beloved in-law. Definitely not to the man who just lost his wife.
In the comfort-in, dump out model, there’s always an outer-circle to dump your grief. In pre-COVID times, if a friend lost a parent, I could hold the space for that friend. Then I could turn to another friend, one removed from the situation, and cry out my own feelings to them. But a situation like that is contained and isolated. This pandemic allows for no such isolation, aside from the isolation we have from one another.
It’s harder to “dump out” to an outer circle because everywhere we turn, we find ourselves running into someone who is either grieving a loss, or is frightened due to the prospect of losing a job.
We’re all in this awful stress soup together.
You knew all this already.
So now what?
Sadly, I don’t know.
But I do know what we can’t do: we can’t shut it up, shut it out, lock it into our bodies. We may not have a true outer-Circle to take this too, but we can–and need to–sit and cry, to give our grief space to breathe.
I’ve been taking much of my grief to the bathtub, crying into water spiked with sea salt. Last night I added apple cider vinegar and it was divine. I’ve cried through multiple sad movies. I’ve also dusted off my guitar and played songs that I love. It’s been a delicate dance between finding things to distract me from the grief soup and the time to acknowledge and release the feelings so I don’t carry them all around. Working this balance has helped me sleep a little better, as I have also been affected by the sleeplessness that’s been chasing so many of us all around. It’s helped me better focus at work. It’s even made me a little more creative.
The air here may be clear, the fires long subdued. But the Gorge forests are still scarred, and will likely be for the rest of my lifetime. The same is true of this pandemic. Even when the restrictions ease up and the vaccine is present, this period is going to hurt for a long time. The memories may well be with us for the rest of our lives, and we may never have an Outer Circle, as the generation behind us won’t understand any more than we could truly understand what our own grandparents went through.
We have to find it in the peaceful little spaces where we can.