As I think about the many ways in which this global health crisis has shaped and shifted our everyday lives and culture, always central in my preoccupations and concerns is the omnipresence of grief. Whereas we know that grief is uniquely experienced from person to person, the sheer saturation of individual and collective losses over the last two years can seem overwhelming. It would be challenging to find anyone who has not experienced weighty losses over the last two years, whether from the death of a loved one or through other means. (Learn more about non-death losses.)
Last year, I frequently expressed my belief that there can be long-term positive outcomes of this pandemic: grief was again being spoken of openly; the topic of loss had a space in public and national discourse; and communities stepped up to support both the bereaved and people whose vocations engage them in work with the dying or the grieving.
After a second year of COVID, I still believe these outcomes can be lasting, but only if we continue to do the work, individually and collectively, of seeing and validating the losses that so many continue to experience in real time. Every component of our lives that has been altered due to this pandemic may similarly contribute to the nature of our grief experiences and to the support offered to those who are bereaved. In reflecting on this second year of widespread death, loss, and mourning, I observe that the grief from losses experienced earlier in the pandemic might still feel “paused” or unresolved for many people. At the same time, those experiencing recent losses may not receive the care they need or the degree of attention in their grief that they would have received a year or two earlier.
In order to continue to process the losses experienced in the second year of COVID and to navigate another year ahead, it is necessary that we recognize ongoing grief, so we may work to understand the unique shape and weight of our unique and complex grief responses in these still-challenging times.
Recognizing Ongoing Grief
Recognizing our own grief and how our grief journeys may have been thrown off course throughout the last two years is important for our holistic well-being. While there is no set timeline for grief, in ordinary times, the second year of grieving a loss may feel significantly more manageable – we might be able to leave a space of unreality due to a loss and enter an increasingly self-directed space of changed reality.
As we all know, these two years have been anything but “ordinary times.” If you lost a loved one earlier in this pandemic, you might be experiencing disruptions to your grief process due to complications and stressors of the pandemic itself. You may feel pressure from others to “move on” from your loss, but it is essential that you give yourself permission to take your time with your grief process in order to experience healthy outcomes.
Ongoing grief isn’t a personal failure or sign of weakness; it’s a normal response to experiencing a loss in abnormal times. In working with many grieving students and clients over the last two years, I’ve increasingly heard people say that they have found themselves compartmentalizing their grief to get through other burdens or tasks expected of them. This strategy is understandable as a coping mechanism but may not be helpful if someone is then burying or hiding from their grief. However, if we recognize and validate our ongoing grief, we can begin to understand it as a part of ourselves rather than apart from ourselves.
Understanding the Shape and Weight of Grief
It can be hard to understand the shape and weight of our grief, especially when we are juggling expectations from work, family, and friends and coping within a constantly-fluctuating pandemic experience. One day, we may feel hope regarding the future, which might cause our grief to feel more manageable; the next day, we may feel despair over the still-mounting death toll, which may cause our losses to feel new and raw again.
When trying to understand the grief you are feeling at any given time, it is helpful to check in with yourself and identify the emotions you feel in relation to the loss – these are your grief responses, and they may shift from month to month, week to week, or even over the course of a day.
If you are trying to navigate more recent losses while still coping with earlier losses, it can be confusing to parse out your emotions. Conflicting attitudes and responses toward death loss in this pandemic may not make this work easier. “It’s not like in the first year,” a student remarked to me in referencing the recent death of their family member to COVID. “I feel like people think, ‘Oh, it’s just another COVID death’ now. There’s not the same kind of support.”
To assist in understanding the unique shape and weight of your grief, I encourage you to consider engaging in the following acts:
Sit with your grief. If you have a tendency to avoid or push away your feelings about the loss you experienced, schedule time to sit with your grief. Use this time to consider your emotions and the impact that your loss continues to have on your life. If possible, engage in self-talk to validate your feelings and how they affect you.
Unpack grief complications. Whether directly or indirectly, COVID has changed grief for all of us over the last two years. Consider journaling ways in which restrictions or attitudes during the pandemic, the actions and words of others, or any other extenuating factors have complicated your grief journey.
Actively remember your loved one. Whether you are grieving a loved one whose death occurred two weeks ago or two years ago – or longer – engage in purposeful remembrance of them. Remember that our bonds with our loved ones don’t disappear after death; they alter, but they also continue. Consider ways to incorporate memories of your loved one into your daily life.
Identify and use a support system. It can be tremendously beneficial to talk through our grief to understand and make sense of our losses and emotional responses over time. Because we have been living in a culture saturated with loss for two years, we may find that our support system doesn’t look the way it used to. Seek out friends, family, or professionals who will empathically listen to and support you.
The Year Ahead
Those of us who are thanatologists commonly say that we don’t get over grief; we get through it. As we think about the many impacts of the last two years on our grief, as well as on our daily lives, we may be grappling with a fluctuating host of other non-death losses as well as ongoing uncertainty about health, safety, and the future.
Considering the year ahead – our third year of COVID – it is important to remember that similar to grief, we haven’t “gotten over” this global health crisis. The pandemic itself continues, and we certainly haven’t gotten over its effects. But we will get through it, and with time, attention, and care, we will work through its effects on ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world at large.
Last year, in “Loss in a Pandemic: A Year of Mourning,” I wrote about the role of hope in navigating this pandemic and how hope can cultivate resilience, gratitude, and love. After another unique year of loss, I still whole-heartedly believe that we can emerge from our pandemic experiences with these virtues strengthened. To them, I would add also the potential for optimism.
Practicing optimism may seem daunting when still in the midst of a two-year public health crisis, but I hold onto optimism that in the coming year, we may see COVID shift from pandemic to endemic. I feel optimism over continuing medical advances toward life-saving treatments for those who contract the virus. Perhaps most importantly, I actively practice optimism that we may all see futures in which we experience and feel gratitude for the supportive people in our lives and the many moments of love, laughter, and joy that lie ahead of us, both within and following this pandemic.
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 an affiliate faculty member in the Thanatology Graduate Program at Marian University. She 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.