As we pushed our canoes into the river, the instructor said to me, “You [healthcare workers] are getting us through this pandemic and now you will teach us how to grieve.” My reflection from a recent wilderness retreat for healthcare workers.

We will teach you how to grieve.

A doctor once told me that in critical care everyone hopes to save lives, but our most important work is when we remain present to witness the end of a life.

Yes, we will teach you how to grieve.

As the world opens back up, it will try to entice you to forget. Don’t forget. Because grief will still come. Let it come. Let it wash over you in whatever form it takes.

Your mind is good at distraction, good at creating distance from the uncomfortable, good at forgetting, but your body remembers. Your body won’t betray grief.

The world will offer so many temporary balms to silence grief…one more item to purchase, one more glass of wine, one more screen to scroll. But your body will keep remembering and aching for something more.

Silenced grief will eventually kill you. Embraced grief will teach you how to live.

Sit. Rest. Breath. And welcome grief in. For some, in that single moment, it will rush over us, bend us to the ground and flow through our tears. For others, like me, it will be much slower, and that’s okay too. Some of us are slow to let our guard down, you don’t need to rush it. There’s no wrong way to grieve. Just invite it in, that’s your only job.

But a warning: you will not “get over” grief like the common cold. This isn’t something to check off your self-care list. Where grief arrives, she remains.

But do not confuse grief with despair.

As grief teaches you, she will find a lighter spot to rest within you and the initial heaviness will dissipate. She’ll become a lifelong companion and a guide of sorts She will help you navigate this world when it entices us to forget her and life itself.

Grief will show you a bird in flight, attune your ear to the laughter of a child, turn your body to the setting of the sun. She’ll remind you to breathe in this beautiful, terrible, precious life once again – to celebrate it and mourn it. She will honor us as we say the names of our beloved over and over again.

She will become a safe place for you. When the day is too beautiful or the night too dark, she will cradle you in her arms and hold all your heaviness with grace and gentleness.

She will help you fear death less and live life more. She’ll keep your feet grounded while allowing your spirit to soar.

Let this be our last act of heroism for the world.

The brightly colored lawn signs cheering us on have faded. News coverage of hospitals and long-term care will become background noise to more sensational stories. Companies will stop gifting us with discounts and food.

The world will want to make us into caricatures, posters like Rosie the Riveter but with N95’s instead. They will try to freeze us in time and reduce us to a page in a history book. They will say “This is done. Go back to the way it was. Let’s get back to normal.”

Normal is a lie. Life is too good and too precious for normal. Let’s teach them how to grieve.

Written by Corein Turbak, Hospital Chaplain, participant in Healing the Healers Canoe Day