The Year the World Disappeared:  Gratitude and Honest Grief Are the Paradoxical Catalysts for Transformation

In this pandemic year of repeated shrilling alarms of climate emergency, what are you grieving the most? As this strangest of years comes to a welcome close, I am finding that grief and gratitude are a paradox I must hold daily.

Nine months into the particular nightmare of the pandemic, I still wake up each morning thinking for a split second that the past months have all been one of those long, rambling warning dreams that I’ve been afflicted with since childhood. For just a nanosecond, I think the world is the “normal” where I give hands-on energy healing treatments as I had done consistently between 1987 and last March, and travel as a heart-to-heart bridge-builder, as I have since childhood.

And then I remember. I’m still in the distorted dystopia that this pandemic has created, still in the confusion, uncertainty, questioning and questing.

Almost overnight, sometime in March, the whole world disappeared. The unimaginable happened. Borders were closed, economies shut down, and death tolls began mounting. Most of the world’s population was ordered by authorities to stay at home (if we were in an economic class that had the luxury of working from home, and in some countries, even if we weren’t). Everything that gave spice to the process of living suddenly disappeared, dissolved, evaporated—especially for those living in a household of one.

Ever since, I have felt like a character in a sci-fi novel or dystopian movie who suddenly finds herself in a different time or dimension or part of the universe, and must desperately try to get back to the shelter and sanity of her own reality.


It’s still inconceivable to me that the London, the Vancouver, the New York that I know, the vital, diverse cities, don’t actually exist right now. Even if borders were open and Americans were welcome in more than a few countries (and my British friends have recently joined the list of pariah nations), what would be the point of flying somewhere alone to wear a mask among other masked people and sit alone on a beach or walk alone on a hiking trail? The point of travel, for me, has always been connection, and for many years, service either through writing, filmmaking, or healing. I’ve often traveled alone and found that my usually introverted self actually loves to talk to people, to hear their stories, to share experiences. I’ve learned a number of languages purely so I can talk to more people.

But we are separated and isolated, just when we need each other most.

In many ways, living through this year was like living through a war. I have a bit of experience of that, having been a journalist in the 1980s covering the war in Afghanistan and the plight of two million refugees in Pakistan. But nothing like my Afghan friends who have witnessed over 40 years of nearly-constant war, or any number of people throughout the world living in war-torn and climate-devastated regions. Or the parents of my generation who fought Fascism during World War II, whether on the front lines, in the service elsewhere, or working the factories and farms on the home front.

Worldwide, children have had their educations severely disrupted, and their young lives turned upside down by the sudden inability to socialize and learn the natural habits of human interactions together. It is a lost year for many, especially for the already disadvantaged and unequally treated, the poor, people of color, immigrants. People have lost lives, loved ones, homes, and livelihoods, just as they do during a war.

But the crucial difference is that during World War II and the Great Depression before it, people were able to come together. Communities pulled together, people mourned and celebrated together, widows and single neighbors were included, not isolated. People came together to pray, share food, grasp moments of joy, and support one another. There was a sense of shared purpose and resolve, unlike this time in which any of us not working on the frontlines have been sidelined. People over a certain age are not even welcome to volunteer at local food banks. The purposelessness and pointlessness of everything other than necessary work at a paid job or meditation for world enlightenment have felt like being ground in a planetary mortar and pestle.

“Together apart” is an overtired cliché, perhaps a placebo for some. “We’re all in the same boat” is a bland assumption, perhaps comforting to some, but ringing utterly false to me. No, I want to scream, we’re not together! We’re not having the same experience. Some people have luxury boats with crews, some people have houseboats with families or companions, some are drifting alone; some have stylish yachts that cut smoothly through these stormy seas, others are on fragile life rafts—or in the water desperately clinging to a floating piece of anything.

I know I’m lucky in many ways. I’m still financially secure. I have a roof over my head, live in a semi-rural area where I can take walks even when we are under a stay-at-home order, and so far I’ve been able to purchase all the organic food I can cook and eat. Like many, I have been able to find solace in connection with Nature, despite the relentless drought that has gripped New Mexico. My three cats have helped ground me, and horse-riding in the mountains above Taos has kept me sane and given me connection to the natural world, and to both the horse I ride, Charlie, and to some fellow humans with whom I go on trail rides.

Debra on Charlie Horse

As the pandemic has crept closer and I’ve seen it touching my wide spiral of friends in the past couple of months, I give thanks each morning that I wake up feeling normal and well. Wondering why this seemed so familiar, I reread the chapter in Weather Menders about the Second Plague, the respiratory plague of 2035. Tara and Xander are desperately taking care of their sick granddaughter and her husband, wondering why they are still alive while the young ones are dying, but grateful to be there for their great-granddaughter.

Intertwined with my daily heartfelt gratitude, I am deeply grieving. I haven’t, fortunately, lost anyone close to me to COVID-19. But I join all who are grieving family members and other loved ones, because this past year I have lost a significant number of friends and acquaintances to cancer and heart attacks.

And as an empath, I grieve for the thousands of frontline healthcare workers, many of them people of color, most of them female, working several jobs in care homes, who have lost their lives or become ill in a tragedy that could have been largely avoided with governmental foresight and fortitude. I grieve for doctors and meat packing workers, for nurses and for the farmworkers who pick our food.

I grieve for those who have lost their livelihoods, while I have merely suffered an income cut due to less business. I grieve for those who are living with post-viral disabilities, hoping that the situation is not permanent. I grieve for the hungry and homeless and food insecure, for the undocumented living in fear, for those without health insurance in this richest of nations where already-billionaires have increased their wealth at an obscene pace and rate.

I grieve for the lack of leadership and vision that has plagued the U.S. (sorry, friends in the U.K., but I’m afraid you’re not far behind).

I experience a different flavor of grief as I mourn for movies and meals with friends, for gatherings of healers, for music in streets and concert halls, for places to go dancing even though I don’t (yet) know how to Tango, and for those who enjoy live sporting events. I find an old copy of our newspaper’s weekly arts magazine and remember what a culturally vibrant place Santa Fe used to be. It’s like reading an ancient record of old customs: movie reviews, art gallery openings, classical concerts, live theater, performance art, Meow Wolf’s immersive art experience, film festivals, a variety of historical and art museums, Spanish Market, Indian Market, Pueblo feast days and Christmas dances.

Everything is gone. That world, too, has disappeared. I’m not sure what all the tourists who came to New Mexico in the summer actually did. Perhaps they went hiking, perhaps they ate outdoors at restaurants, perhaps they just drove around. My one two-night getaway was a Staycation in Taos near the barn where I ride horses. I had a lovely time, soaked in an outdoor hot tub under the autumn stars, joined my riding instructor Kimberly for a meal on a terrace, and went riding in the mountains.

And I also felt sad that I couldn’t hug Kimberly, and that other friends wouldn’t even let me within eyeshot. No part of me can brightside and silver line enough to cheerfully accept having to treat every other human, and presumably ourselves, as if we are infectious, because we actually could be.

Most of all I grieve touch, the most normal and comforting of human activities. Happy partnership is the new wealth on social media. I am continually puzzled by the couples who post maskless pictures of themselves cheek to cheek in some lovely nature place, blissfully oblivious of the effect on their left-out single friends and family members—who if they have been strictly obeying the rules, haven’t experienced human touch in nine months. And even the careful discerning huggers of other careful single people have had only crumbs of touch. Talk about being oxytocin deprived.

Worst of all is that people are sick alone, hospitalized alone, in care homes alone, dying alone. And that people can’t even see their loved ones, even if they are dying of something other than COVID. A friend and I went to great lengths to find a part-time caregiver for a friend’s dying sister who was on hospice at home. If our overwhelmed friend had been deemed too mentally unstable to provide care, her sister would have been sent to a facility hundreds of miles away. We knew our friend could never have touched her sister again until after she died. If we could prevent it, we weren’t going to let it happen on our watch.

It’s been an exhausting year, a year of enduring each day, snatching snippets of joy wherever we find it. I love watching movies and TV where people are acting normal: a kind hand on a shoulder, a firm handshake, hugs, kisses, lovemaking, gathering, singing, dancing, celebrating, watching sports together. I’ve never been a fan of crowds, but now I long for the right and safety to be in one.

I sometimes feel keenly the loss of my very raisons d’etre. The hands-on energy healing I have practiced for over 30 years has become a forbidden practice, and my work to heal the Earth’s ecosystem, biodiversity, and climate has been truncated by our inability to gather, to travel, to learn and share in person. I’m frightened that the momentum of the mass demonstrations of youth and others has been interrupted—and yet strangely hopeful that, finally, the climate emergency is being talked about almost constantly, in media, government circles (well, soon-to-be government), and even by corporations in their public relations. Dare we hope that a true Green Recovery may be possible, that in the end something good could come of this massive dystopian disruption?

What and when was your Last Normal Day? Mine was March 7th, the day I gave a talk to the volunteers at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden on “Positive and Possible Solutions to the Climate Crisis: From Soil to Sea Grass.” I spoke to an enthusiastic group of about 25, I shook hands with new acquaintances, I hugged friends, and I took the friend who had done my video to a thank you lunch, indoors at the Museum Café.

A week later we were shut down, and it went on and on with soul-wearying extensions.

I belong to an unusually high-touch subculture—hands-on energy healers and bodyworkers. Most of us have not seen our clients for months. Many have lost their livelihoods and worse, life purposes, at least for the moment. Depending where you live in the country, some healers have been able to see clients with appropriate safety protocols, and others remain shut down or have closed their practices. I can’t imagine relaxing into a massage or energy treatment wearing a mask, but I hope that others can.

Along with the world, our lives have disappeared. We have all become shadowy, smileless figures, hardly looking into each other’s eyes on a walk for fear that someone will think you’ve gotten too close, or you’re wearing the wrong kind of mask, or you shouldn’t have spoken because droplets might travel on your words. When out walking my neighborhood or in the aisles of a grocery store, I find myself choosing to avoid people if possible. Since I’ve never been able to do false-note transactional chit-chat, the cheeriest greetings I can come up with are something like, “Pray that this nightmare ends soon,” or “It will be better next year.” Which sometimes have elicited darkly fearful and unhelpful replies like, “it’s not going to get better anytime soon.”

And now I’m grieving Winter Solstice, the most important day of my spiritual year. For over 20 years I have held gatherings, sometimes quite large, sometimes small and intimate, to pray in ceremony and celebrate in feast the Return of the Light in the northern hemisphere. This year, on what is, if one follows astrology, arguably the most important Solstice in our lifetimes, we were unable to gather.

But why would I expect Solstice to be any different than the lost Easters, Muslim Eids, Hindu Diwali, Buddhist feast days, Jewish New Year, Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year celebrations?

Something else to endure. Something else to persevere through. One day at a time, indeed.

Some people seem to enjoy Zoom or other virtual connections, but for some of us the screen is a separator, not a connector. Although I didn’t used to mind it once or twice a month pre-pandemic because I could connect with colleagues scattered around the world—many of whom I had previously met in person and hugged—it quickly became a mind-numbing, soul-crushing agony when we were forced into canceling the hoped-for in-person conferences. I cried after our Healing Beyond Borders Healing Touch instructor meeting. For me, connecting online did not outweigh my grief at being unable to be in the same place as my friends and colleagues, sharing stories, exchanging healing treatments, laughing, crying, singing, dancing, eating together. For me, the virtual world feels like the scene in the movie Mandela where Nelson Mandela is imprisoned for life and told he will never touch his family members again. Having to rely on the internet for “connection” feels like a thick plexiglass wall between me and reality, between us and our essential humanity, which has been sacrificed to techno-fascism on a digital altar of illusory connection.

So, on this Winter Solstice that is said to be the true dawning of the Age of Aquarius at last, we are scattered like the pieces of the murdered Egyptian god-king Osiris. I feel like his beloved wife and queen Isis, endlessly searching, willing the power of my love to pull the pieces of our shattered and scattered world together, to resurrect hope.

Again and again, I return to my belief that Consciousness is the wild card that can catalyze change against all odds. In complexity theory, a “Black Swan” event is a highly improbable event that can be viewed as positive or negative, life-enhancing or life-destroying. The pandemic is not a Black Swan, because it was entirely predictable that viruses would cross species barriers to infect humans who have invaded the natural habitat of, well, all other species. I did enough research while writing about the three pandemic “plagues” in Weather Menders to know that sooner or later a pandemic was in our probable future.

A Black Swan event we’d all like to see is an unexpectedly quick end to the pandemic. But for many of us, a return to the old “normal” of growing inequality, systemic racism, and abuse of the planet is not what we want. I want us to collectively envision a move out of our temporary abnormal to a consciously chosen “transformed normal.” In this sense, the dissolution of the world we knew gives us an incredible opportunity to re-vision the world we wish to co-create.

I’ve been involved for decades in experiments and experiences of conscious collective focused intentionality, also know as prayer or visualization. I was one of 40 healers in a series of double-blind controlled studies conducted by Cal Pacific Medical Center on the effects of Distant Healing on patients with advanced AIDS in the Bay Area. The results were statistically significant and written up in the Western Journal of Medicine. I have always felt humbled to have participated in such cutting-edge work bridging science and spirituality.

These experiences lead me to the concept of applying the principles of Distant Healing, which is thought to work through quantum non-locality, to the ills of our time. Let’s begin with the most existentially threatening—the current pandemic, the climate emergency, and the ecological imbalance caused by increasing loss of biodiversity. Let’s envision a world of justice and Green Recovery, a reconnection with and an honoring of Nature and natural law, an unprecedentedly swift and grace-full Great Rebalancing of the planetary ecosystem.

Let’s call in Black Swans, and let go of the attachment to how and when the desired outcomes of healing are achieved. Like the fabled butterfly that flaps its wings in Beijing and changes a weather system in New York, let the wind of the wings of the Black Swans bring about the radical and rapid transformation in every aspect of human endeavor that we need to co-create in the next 10 years in order for organized life to survive on our Mother Earth.

Black Swans – Version 2

Not long ago, in a meditation I saw a vision of the Earth seen from space suddenly melting, becoming fluid, and passing through a wormhole into another dimension where it reformed into balanced beauty, subtly different from the Earth we knew, vibrating with life and light.

Through our intentional visions, our individual and collective grief can be transformed. But to be transformed, grief must first be acknowledged. Not clung to as a badge of courage or an indelible mark of ongoing trauma, but seen, looked at, listened to, and honored. Only then can the healing wings of Black Swans and ancient Goddesses stir the still-stagnant air and bring about the currents of change that we desperately long for, sorely need, and will rejoice to see.

Debra Denker is the author of the ecotopian cli-fi novel Weather Menders.

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