The first year of grief is the worst, that’s what they say. Like everything in grief, it isn’t always true… and it isn’t never true. The first year of grief is unimaginable. The world you knew and imagined with someone you loved has shattered into 10,000 pieces. No amount of glue is putting it back together. And every week brings new ‘firsts’ to face. The first meal made for one, the first birthday, the first holiday, the first time visiting those places you used to go together. The first year of grieving is excruciating, plain and simple, again and again.
That’s how I have always known the first year of grief, how I have always experienced it, how I have supported others through it… And then 2020 happened. I’ve lost three people in this complicated year. As I waded through the muck of grief month after month, as the holidays approached, something came into clear focus for me: I haven’t been experiencing those grief firsts. I mean, maybe sort of? But not really.
2020 has upended everything. Nothing looks the same as it did last year. Part of the devastation of those firsts in grief, part of what knocks you on your ass, is the contrast between present and past. You’re sitting around your holiday table, surrounded by friends, family, and tradition, but you’re acutely aware of that empty seat. Things feel both the same and yet completely different. The person you love is missing; the world is still turning, but they’re not in it.
But in 2020, there have been no normal holiday tables in my life. The contrast between present and past is not simply that those people you love are gone. It is that this year in no way resembles last year. Many “firsts” that would have happened any other year haven’t happened, because nothing about 2020 is familiar.
I walk past the restaurant where my friend and I had regular dinners and drinks before she died, but they haven’t been open for indoor dining, so the option of a “first” dinner there hasn’t been an option at all. Thanksgiving came and went and, though my uncle’s absence was deeply felt, it didn’t feel like the first Thanksgiving without him because it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. I’m in that first year of grief, but the firsts look and feel entirely different. That hasn’t made it easier or harder, per se. In fact, it probably made it both.
We’ve always been quick to remind people that the first year is not always the hardest. For some people it is. For some, the first year is a blur, and the second year is suddenly so much harder than they imagined. I have to wonder what this strange experience of 2020 will mean. There is no crystal ball, but I imagine my second year of grieving these losses will be a year of firsts. And though there are no universals in grief, I imagine I won’t be alone.
I don’t have any advice here, no lessons or tips. Just an observation that yet another aspect of the complicated year we are all living through might impact the way our grief unfolds. And an invitation for you to share—whether you relate or you don’t, leave a comment. We’re all navigating this grieving alone-together in 2020 thing, so sometimes the best thing we can do is just share the thoughts and the feelings and the experiences and hope that maybe somehow it resonates with someone else.
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