Grief and Loss in the Time of COVID-19

Porter Huyck, Staff Reporter

We are living through a slow burning disaster. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has touched every part of our lives and our society, forcing people to remain distanced from one another, destroying the economy, and killing tens of thousands of Americans. Unfortunately, the worst is likely yet to come, with many tens of thousands of people dying before this pandemic is contained and inflicting a secondary pandemic of grief from which few will be spared.  

A family close to me recently and unexpectedly lost someone, though not from COVID-19, and in that process of grief and mourning my thoughts were turned to the impacts of COVID-19 as both a cause and complicator of grief and loss in human communities and what loss means when so much of it is happening in so many places. 

The death that COVID-19 brings is particularly painful and lonely. With such a contagious disease and so little protective equipment available, those who die to COVID-19 are often alone, isolated from their family and friends and struggling to breathe through disease-ravaged lungs as their organs fail. It is a distinctly unpleasant and undignified death and imakes the mourning process that much more difficult. Perhaps most importantly, the death that COVID-19 brings is also widespread. In almost every part of the country people are dying or losing family members and friends to this awful disease. With many tens of thousands of people projected to die from this disease before we have it under control, it is likely that many Americans will know someone who has been killed by COVID-19. The magnitude and spread of this tragedy are immense and will have profound consequences for our society as we grieve together for those we have lost in this tragic time.  

The losses caused by this pandemic are not just of life however, they are of jobs, important events, stability, social interactions and normalcy. The measures taken to protect people and prevent loss of life are taking their toll in smaller losses. 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past five weeks, erasing a decade of job growth in a little over a month. With this job loss comes financial hardship, stress and a significant emotional toll as years of hard work and career progress come to a screeching haltImportant life milestones must also be celebrated in isolation, cancelled or postponed. Millions of high school seniors across the country cannot attend prom, participate in an assortment of special activities or graduate in the way they have looked forward to for years. Rather than experiencing the grand celebrations of all they have achieved, the class of 2020 must stay at home, physically isolated from their friends and family. This is not an insignificant loss; students make great sacrifices to experience these important life milestones and now something will always be missing from their life experience. Marriages have been postponed or officiated over video call, important religious and coming of age ceremonies must be celebrated at a distance or rescheduled, robbing people of events that are enormous parts of their lives. The pandemic of COVID-19 has also destroyed our sense of normalcy. Everyday those of us not deemed essential workers are forced to work or learn or survive at home, robbed of the routines of our old lives and the stability they brought. A nice morning coffee from your favorite coffee shop? Even if the shop was open, that once innocuous activity now risks your life and the lives those you come in contact with. The research on prolonged stress states brought about by job loss, fear and instability shows that these things can have serious impacts on our wellbeing and quality of life. The loss brought by COVID-19 is not limited to loss of life and the impacts of this pandemic are going to be significant and long lasting. 

Compounding the pain of loss amid this pandemic is isolation. Whether mourning a loved one, enduring the stress of a lost job or feeling lost in a suddenly unstable world, humans are social creatures who need interact with each other for our emotional, mental and physical health. Normal gestures of kindness and solidarity with one another during a time of loss of grief are suddenly dangerous. Shoulders to cry on and hands to hold are now in short supply. Instead, funerals are limited to ten people and live streamed to those who would otherwise be there to mourn and comfort, memorial services must be held virtually or socially distanced, and deliveries of support like home cooked meals or flowers must now be thoroughly wiped down and disinfected. From unfortunate personal experience, I can say that mourning in isolation is far more difficult than mourning with loved ones present to support you. 

The two rays of hope that can be offered in this difficult time are that we are in this together and it will come to an end. While this time is difficult and the losses we experience will be significant, we are alone together. These tragic times will form a common bond for all those who experience them that will last a lifetime. Like national tragedies we have experienced before; we will endure this as a country and as a society. America has weathered wars, natural disasters and pandemics before and will again. When a vaccine is finally produced and distributed, we will return not to the same lives we lived before but a new normal, and we can truly mourn, together, again.