“In the span of less than two weeks, the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has changed virtually every facet of our daily lives in American culture. At the time of this writing, approximately 8,000 people in the United States are confirmed as having contracted this virus, and the number rises by the hour. This pandemic is not expected to be resolved in a matter of weeks but is currently projected to continue for a number of months.” – “Loss in a Pandemic: Funeral Planning,” March 19, 2020
When I wrote the above lines a little less than a year ago, like most people in the United States, I was shocked at the seemingly-sudden emergence of COVID-19 and stunned by the rapid changes it elicited in our public, professional, and private lives. At the time, I received some skeptical responses from friends and colleagues because I had noted that the pandemic was “projected to continue for a number of months.” As we know now, that prediction couldn’t encompass the reality – or surreality – of the year that has followed.
Currently, there have been over twenty-eight million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and more than half a million people in this country have died as a result.
One year has resulted not only in half a million lives lost but also in tens of millions of survivors, as well as a year of mourning, which has become a constant presence in our country and in many of our lives. “We’ll never be the same again,” one of my students recently remarked during a class meeting. She is right; we won’t.
A Year of Grief
In many ways, we have been shrouded by grief for the last year. Those who have not experienced death losses during this time may have undergone job and financial loss, the loss of social and familial interaction, and certainly, losses of freedoms which may have been previously taken for granted. Others have grappled with losses due to increased anxiety, depression, and additional mental health stressors. Persons with disabilities, substance use disorders, and suicidality have had to cope with challenges to accessing support systems and managing stressors healthily. Parents have watched their children try to adjust to their own losses, while medical and other helping professionals have never been more burdened.
While these losses are often unrecognized as losses, the emotional responses to them are grief responses and are just as valid and attention-deserving as a death loss.
For individuals and families who have experienced a death loss in the past year, both the overwhelming nature of this pandemic itself and the restrictions necessary for health and safety have impacted and, frequently, complicated their grief. Moving forward with grief in these times has meant accepting that many of the rituals of mourning need to be significantly adjusted or postponed and that the shape and weight of grief feels different than it did after previously experienced death losses. In considering the many people impacted by each of the deaths that have occurred over this year of pandemic, it is crucial that we acknowledge the palpable presence of grief and the need for ongoing support for those who are bereaved.
In “normal times,” we know that grief does not have a timeline or fixed endpoint, and these have been far from normal times. If someone you love is grieving, their grief may feel interminable, similar to how this pandemic has begun to feel endless. Grievers may feel guilty for not being “over” their grief or could feel cheated from not having the type of service they would have wanted for their loved one. They may be harboring anger or resentment over the circumstances of their loved one’s death or sorrow that they were unable to be with them in their final days.
To support grievers, it is essential that the unique and often traumatic circumstances of their loss are acknowledged, that their feelings are consistently validated, and that they have people dedicated to bearing witness to their loss and to listening empathically when they speak of their grief. Importantly, we need to remember that while loss has become a public crisis, grief remains a unique and personal experience.
A Year of Hope
In the space of one year, little in our daily lives has been left untouched and unchanged. Even our language has altered dramatically. Words that were never part of our daily conversation now dominate our vernacular – quarantine, isolation, Zoom, bubbles, and pods – while medical jargon has bled into public language; we discuss monoclonal antibodies, transmission vectors, and mutant strains as eagerly as medical professionals now.
Lately, however, I’ve been focusing on three words that were not initiated into our language because of this pandemic but instead represent long-lasting concepts that may be more important than ever to consider in these continuing hard times: Resilience. Gratitude. Love.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant.” Specifically, psychological resilience refers to “the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly.” From both of these definitions, we might raise an eyebrow skeptically at the word “quickly.” In my own work, I consider resilience to be a tool in our coping toolbox that can strengthen over time. Certainly, we cannot recover quickly from our losses in this year because the losses and grief are themselves ongoing. But we can and do cope, and we will recover. Even when we are hitting a wall, we must hold onto the belief that we will get over, or through, or around that wall – because we have been doing exactly that for a year. That is a demonstration of individual and collective resilience.
The nature of a pandemic had thrown so many aspects of our lives into chaos, confusion, and instability. Grieving both intensifies and is intensified by the effects of living through these uncertain times. Still, we can and should pause and reflect on components of our daily lives for which we are grateful. Identifying and even cataloguing our sources of gratitude can promote mental health and wellbeing while also serving as a reminder of what remains most valuable to us. Expressing this gratitude, especially to those who have supported us or made our lives a little “less hard” in the past year, can strengthen our bonds with others and remind us that while we may be facing individual losses, we are not alone.
Love and loss are inextricably linked phenomena. Without one, we do not truly experience the other. In this year of mourning, we must remember and hold fast to love – both the love we shared with those who have died, as well as the love we give to and receive from those who bring joy to our lives. Complicating a year of pandemic, our country has also endured unprecedented and multilayered division, divisiveness, and acts of hate. Stress, pain, and grief may all encourage us to give up and give into pessimism, cynicism, or misanthropy. But I believe wholeheartedly in the power of love to heal and to hope, and I believe that love put into practice is the most powerful act we can undertake.
The Year Ahead
In a 2010 interview for The New York Times Magazine, Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously observed, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” As we move out of the first year in a pandemic into the year ahead, these are my hopes for us all: that our grief will be recognized and supported; that our losses will be lessened; that we can affirm our personal strength in coping with these challenging times; and that we continue to do the best we can for ourselves and the people in our lives who count on our presence and our support.
Have you experienced a loss during the pandemic? Share Your Story.
Listen to the Related Podcast: COVID-19: A Year of Loss
About the Author
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups. Dr. Murphy is also a bereavement and suicide consultant and the author of the booklet, Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of Your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a free resource available to grieving families and helping professionals published by the Funeral Service Foundation. She can be reached at SaraMurphyDeathEducator@gmail.com.