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grief and loss during the coronavirus pandemic

I’ve been keeping in touch with my friends more than ever. Phone calls, texts, group texts, a new app [for me] that allows us to send videos back and forth (and use hilarious voice filters). Yesterday I spoke to someone that I haven’t seen, or spoken to, for three years. We’re all connecting more often and virtually. I’m grateful for the technology we have available today; it is amazing that through my phone I can see my friends’ faces and their babies, puppies, gardens and art projects. 

 

In one of these many group conversations I have going, a friend of mine sent a Harvard Business Review article interviewing an expert on grief, David Kessler. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss and founded www.grief.com

 

Grief is what we are all feeling and according to Kessler, the best way to manage grief is to name it and allow ourselves to feel it. 

 

We have a tendency to ignore our feelings, or chastise ourselves for feeling what we are feeling. I feel sad right now, but I know that the situation in North Carolina is not as extreme and dangerous as it is in New York City. Does that mean I shouldn’t feel sad? That word, ‘should’ is not helpful when it comes to your emotions. 

 

Allow yourself to feel sadness, discomfort, anxiety and grief. Name these feelings and try to keep them within the present. 

 

There are many forms of loss right now. 

 

loss of travel

My freshman year college roomate has been studying in the UK for quite a few years and each year I promise to visit. Finally, this past January, I bought a plane ticket to London. You all know the rest of the story: for a while I thought I would still go, then Carol texted me urging me to consider postponing the trip, then I tried to get a refund (no luck) on my tickets, then the flights were cancelled by the airlines. 

 

It happened so quickly. Barely two weeks passed and a trip I’d been thinking about for years was suddenly not happening. Who knows if I’ll get a refund on my ticket, and for me, that’s the difference between getting to go at a later time, or not. 

 

I’m mourning the loss of my trip; the lost chance to see my friend for the first time in five years. I’m sad to miss the chance to connect.

 

loss of relationships and companionship

Quarantine is perhaps more difficult for extroverts. I am one of those. I am an extrovert. Sometimes, when I lose my sense of self, I feel that if no one can see or know what I’m doing, then whatever I am doing is pointless. I thrive when I am connecting with people. 

 

The New Yorker wrote an article about the toll that loneliness is taking on people during isolation and quarantine. From the article, Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo is quoted: 

 

People are struggling with the emotions as much as they are struggling with the economics. 

 

There’s no point in comparing emotions with economics – they are often closely linked. I can’t imagine what a small business owner is feeling with loan deadlines, rent to pay and no income. 

 

We miss people, crowds, bars, coffee shops, bumping shoulders on a busy street in New York, or London. Luckily this is a loss that we can fill, though not with the same quality, digitally. 

 

Facetime instead of call, but absolutely make that phone call. Start a group text, send a picture, ring an old high school friend. Wave at people on the street. I’ve noticed that more people are waving to complete strangers; a way to connect every so slightly during a time of severe isolation. 

 

grieving the unknown future

Right now there are so many question marks. The future, more than usual, seems unknown, possibly more dangerous, and full of questions. Coronavirus case numbers, and death tolls, are rising every day; government responses are reacting at a quick pace and all of these can make the future seem uncertain because the present is changing so quickly. 

 

When we don’t understand the present or it’s passing us too quickly, we don’t have the time to consider the possibilities of the future, and prepare. 

 

David Kessler, mentioned in the beginning of this post calls it anticipatory grief. This is the anxiety and grief that we feel before the loss of a loved one, or in anticipation of something grave happening. The grief we feel before something happens [will I lose my job because of lockdowns? Will my mother get sick? Is my friend, who has the virus, going to make it? Will I lose my business?] is often more difficult than the more conventional type of grief that follows a loss. 

 

It feels like we have lost the future: we cannot plan trips, or dinner parties; our concert tickets in June are not a guarantee of a show. But we have not lost ourselves, and hopefully not our health. 

 

We are still here. You are still here. The present is still with you. If you feel anxiety about an unknown future try to focus on what you can do and enjoy in the immediate moment. 

 

loss of life

The Center for Disease Control keeps a report of current COVID-19 cases that is updated daily. Below the case count number is the death count; today it is 7,616. That is over twice the amount of people that were killed in the 9/11 attacks. While a virus is naturally occuring, and a terrorist attack is born of malicious intent, loss of life is a loss regardless. 

 

There are many people, families and communities experiencing the ultimate form of grief: mourning the death of a loved one. 

 

I heard a story that broke my heart: an elderly couple both caught the coronavirus and were hospitalized. Their conditions quickly deteriorated and both passed away.They said their final goodbyes to their children and grandchildren through facetime. They were alone. Their families were not able to share an embrace or give support in any physical way. 

 

Grief support systems have been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grieving alone can mean that grief, sadness and anxiety last longer than they would normally. Funerals are now virtually live-streamed. Families are physically separated from the bodies of their friends, family and partners. Our rituals, words, and physical actions help us come to term with loss; without the grounding reality of seeing our loss, we have more trouble processing our emotions. 

 

This affects us all, but especially people and cultures that value group-based rituals that require close contact. The Jewish shiva typically lasts a week; mourners remain at home and are visited by friends and family. Shiva.com offers guidelines and advice on how to process ‘new grief’ amid COVID-19. Currently, shivas are restricted in some areas to limit exposure. 

 

CNN calls the grief of a coronavirus death as a ‘double trauma’: we experience the trauma of death while also being afraid of having been exposed to the virus by the very person we lost. 

 

It is okay to grieve. Whatever you have lost, or are afraid of losing, it is okay to feel how you are feeling. 

 

 

It will be okay. Though a virus seems cruel, it is devoid of intent, malice and strategy. I take solace in the knowledge that a virus is only an infectious agent that spreads (in the case of COVID-19) via contact with droplets from an infected person. The base, biological nature of a virus means that it will pass – if we do our part to slow and stop the spread. Keep doing your part. Stay strong. Connect, grieve, support each other. And, wash your hands, stay at home as much as possible, and wear a bandana as a face mask when you go out. We’ll get through this. 

 

be brave

be well

Elise