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Pandemic Grief

Dorothy P. Holinger

A friend recently told me, “I’m irritable, sad, and I get mad so easily. I can’t seem to get anything done. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. And it’s hard, scary to leave home. I think I must be depressed.” No, my friend is not depressed; she’s experiencing grief and the many emotions that accompany grief: feeling angry, sad, and vulnerable. Afraid of the virus that could harm her, her ailing father, and her sister who has a compromised immune system. She’s also afraid for her friends, some of whom don’t wear masks. She’s grieving the life before Covid-19 hit the world, the life that’s been lost. And she’s not alone in her grief.

We as a nation are grieving the loss of the life we lived before the virus made us all vulnerable and fearful of its ravages. It’s not depression, which includes a loss of self-esteem or an inability to experience pleasure. It’s a pervasive feeling that is unique to this time in history. This is a new form of grief that has affected us all, in some way. Our national grief is new. It’s called pandemic grief.

Pandemic grief is different from the collective grief that nations experience during war. The collective grief during World War I and II was a shared sense of communal loss for those who were killed or wounded in battle. Today, our national grief is different because the war we fight is different. It is a war against an invisible enemy that randomly attacks anyone without warning. It is a life and death battle with Covid-19.

Initial fears and heightened awareness have morphed and mutated into other emotions: frustration, impatience, and uncertainty over having to continue social distancing, to wash our hand innumerable times, and to hide our faces with masks. These behaviors are necessary to protect us against the minute molecules and even smaller aerosols carrying the virus that could infect us and further send our lives into a tailspin.

We’ve lost the way we lived before the pandemic descended upon us. At the end of this Covid-19 summer, we grieve a summer that never really was a summer. This wasn’t a season of fun and relaxation, the way summers used to be—the way summers are supposed to be. To go away on vacation involves risk; the romps, parties, and jokes with family and friends are limited and edged with danger. The new world is restricted and, for many, virtual.

For many others, it isn’t only about losing life as it was. It’s more. Over 182,000 coronavirus victims have died in the US, isolated and alone without family because of the risk of contagion. For those newly bereaved, grief is suspended because they aren’t able to participate in traditional funeral services. Wakes, memorial services, funerals, sitting Shiva, burials—so many rituals have become virtual experiences. There are drive-through funerals with visitors talking into a screen, and some remember the deceased with others virtually through Zoom. Their grief is overlaid with the remorse of not having been with their dying loved one. No longer is there shared hand-holding, embraces, and tears in person with family and friends. These times are postponed until friends and family can come physically together to reminisce and share memories of the deceased.

All is not lost. After a death and in the midst of grief, growth can happen. Eros is not only a love force but also a life force that propels change, adaptation, and discovering new ways to live. Many of us have picked up the gauntlet of transformation. There is caution in how we behave, aware of how to protect ourselves and others. This is caring. We work remotely with colleagues, developing new approaches, resulting in better productivity for some. This is expansion. Using Zoom and other apps, we’re in touch with family and friends who are close, or far across the country and the globe. This is connection. We may cook, play, and work through disagreements more than we ever have. This is intimacy.

Like life after the death of a loved one, the life that’s been lost by Covid-19 has been replaced by a new life. We don’t know exactly what is on the medical, personal, and professional horizons, or when the horizons will come. The horizons continue to shift. Meanwhile, we live with pandemic grief while our hope springs eternal.

Dorothy P. Holinger, Ph.D., was an academic psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for over twenty-three years. She is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and has her own psychotherapy practice.

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