Here in New Zealand, we've seen the COVID headlines over the past year. We see the numbers, the statistics. We see images of mass graves as we head to a café, hug a friend. We know others are having a tougher time of it ‘out there’, but how hard?
This time last year I joined a live Zoom workshop that was being run by the Upaya Centre in Santa Fe. The topic was Grief. The speaker one of the pioneers in the end-of-life care field, Frank Ostaseski.
I’ve heard Frank speak before. I’ve read his books. He is a wonderful, kind human being who has helped so many facing the end of life, and dealing with grief. Today though, this was a different kind of grief and this wise compassionate man was speaking from a different kind of place within himself.
It brought home how sheltered New Zealand is from the storm that is raging beyond our borders.
The call brimmed with words which were not about being at the bedside or the power of touch. This was a vocabulary of compassion shot through with alienation and aloneness. Fear was palpable. A kind of dazed bewilderment at the speed in which our world is changing. Heartbreak leading to helplessness in the context of a moral crisis and climate catastrophe. In this new world, death is a number recorded, no connection, no gentle touch of a loved one’s hand in those last gasping breaths. Lonely deaths where once comfort was given. My father died a few months before COVID arrived in our world. I was with him through the three days it took his body and spirit to slowly unwind and part. Today, my mind placed him in an empty room, me unable to reach him, me picturing his death in these coronavirus times and I felt such infinite grief at what might have been, and what so many are now experiencing.
There was a doctor on the call. She was from Colombia. She said, “I know our hospitals are reaching capacity within the next couple of weeks. What can I do? How can I serve?” Her voice cracking and breaking like a wave over us all. A doctor clinging to the branch of a tree for fear of being swept away in the torrent.
“His eyes, that doctor’s voice, all tangling me up in the grief and fear of the world beyond our shores.”
Frank’s eyes welled. Rimming red, lashes clumping in tears. A deep soul sigh. “Grief, he said, cracks our shell and exposes our human frailty. We are all tangled up in each other. Individual suffering connects us to collective suffering.” His eyes, that doctor’s voice, all tangling me up in the grief and fear of the world beyond our shores.
In our New Zealand world right now, we can go to the corner store without worry. Others, in other places, pick up their purse and keys – and their loved ones look at them with wariness, with the fear that the simple act of buying milk may ultimately result in the loss of life. We have much to be grateful for. Even if we don’t know how we re-enter the world again. Nobody has all the answers now.
This Zoom session exposed the collective wound, the collective fear that so much of the world is facing. We spoke of the overwhelming numbers of loss that is just so hard, almost impossible, to fathom. How can this loss be so vast, yet so out of sight? Behind doors. Them there. Us here. No touch. No connection. A doctor with her head in her hands, weighed down by the decisions she makes and the awareness of the tsunami advancing upon the hospital door.
In our New Zealand world, our worries are about whether the border should be open, or should be closed. We want things to be normal. But our experience cushions us from the pain and the fear that is spreading with the virus throughout the world.
I wept during that call. I wept for all things lost: people, freedoms, choice, and the ability to be able to hold someone’s hand as they are dying.
“What can I do?” “How can I serve?” A desperate doctor’s words rippling out, a stone dropped in a pool of COVID-consciousness.
I don’t know what the future looks like from here. But I do know that we all have a deep need to receive and give comfort. So, wherever the storm swirls or the stone lands, be generous. Radiate integrity. Feed people if you can. Call people you think might be alone and share your love with them. Be the Totara for them, be the tide, be the new hope in the new Matariki year. Be aware that this is so much bigger than just us.
My thanks to the Upaya Centre for the work it does, and to Frank Ostaseski for the person you are.