Are We Really ‘Back To Normal?’ How the Pandemic Changed Grief
It’s apparent society is more than excited to be going back to the times before the pandemic– drinks and laughs are now being shared at bars, music is flowing from concert venues, and awkward first dates are making their return debut to restaurants across the country. But, the story is completely different for those who experienced loss during one of the darkest times in modern history.
The past year and a half has been nothing short of a constant feeling of whiplash. The pandemic has been violently shaking our lives back and forth with a sheer force that doesn’t seem to let up, leaving what we all know to be “normal” up in the air.
But the one thing that has been for sure? A collective feeling of loss.
More than 4.12 million people worldwide have lost their lives due to the coronavirus. The United States alone has lost over 625,000.
And that’s just those who have been lost from COVID-19. Loss can come in all shapes and sizes– the loss of a job, an idea, or a way of life... The idea of “loss” isn’t simple. It’s complicated. And, most of us have experienced some form of it recently– in one way or another.
“Having lost him during the pandemic was just like being in a vacuum or something. Everyone felt like they were in some sort of alternate reality just because of quarantine and having to be masked everywhere and the fear associated with contracting the virus. You compound that with losing someone so close to you… It just makes [grief] even harder…”
That’s my mother Amber Dix talking about her loss of my brother Connor Dix last October. He was just 20 years old.
My mother has been struggling with her grieving process for a while now. But, she tells me that the current reopening of society to a time where my brother was alive is both triggering and complicates her grief.
"Now, the last few months I feel like my grief has changed. I feel even worse, is what I’ve been telling my grief counselor," Dix said. "I’ve regressed a little bit because although we feel like we’re entering ‘normal,’ my life is not normal. Going back to pre-pandemic included Connor in that. And I don’t have him anymore.”
To her, It’s more than just physically losing someone she loves. It’s also the loss of an idea.
“It’s just this feeling of life moving on and I’m stuck. And I don’t know how to become unstuck.”
My mother’s story is just one of many that are out there in the world today. Grief, sorrow, and loss are all around us, unfortunately. And according to grief professionals, she’s not alone in her feelings.
“You know, it reminds me a little bit of war. When a society goes through something collective, that for most people is very painful, and very difficult, very heavy. But, at the same time, everyone’s experiencing it differently. And then the war’s over and naturally, people want to collectively celebrate.”
That’s Katrina Koehler. She’s the co-executive director of Gerard’s House here in Santa Fe. Gerard’s House is a place where families and children can come together for resources and programs to help tackle their grief.
And for the record, she’s not saying that the war of COVID-19 is over. Koehler is just making an analogy here.
Besides the point, Koehler said that the pandemic has been particularly hard for families because, well, it’s difficult to get some sort of closure from the death.
“The main reason it’s been harder is if the person died in the hospital, Zoom and a phone call just is not like being there with the person and comforting them. People [are] feeling really robbed of that opportunity to be there with their loved one," Koehler said. "And then, the lack of the kind of memorial service that they would have liked has been very hard. Some people have found the online service to be very beautiful for them. But for the most part, not being able to be with other people and hug them and have a meal with them afterwards was so so difficult.”
This rings absolutely true for my family.
The memorial service for Connor had restrictions on seating, social distancing, and mask-wearing that were, for a lack of a better word, uncanny. I found myself feeling guilty for being indoors with so many people, and reclining from hugs that would come my way. And, as I gazed out on a sea of covered faces and black clothing to deliver my brother’s eulogy, I felt more disconnected from my friends and family than ever.
“And for those of us here, Connor’s death may be an obstacle in the road of life. As grief tends to do. But as Albert Einstein himself once said: ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.’ And keep on moving we shall. Thank you.”
So, you may be thinking: What’s the right way to handle grief?
The short answer is… There’s no right or wrong way.
We might be familiar with the stages of grief that are stamped in psychology books these days– shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining… Sound about right?
But, different people experience grief and loss in numerous ways. So, it makes sense that one might cope with their grief in their own unique way and not necessarily by the book definition. Here’s Katrina Koehler with Gerard’s House again.
“Some people experience [grief] like a kaleidoscope of feelings or an explosion of feelings. Some people experience it like a rollercoaster. Then for other people, there’s a sense of like: What am I feeling? Where are my feelings? What exactly is going on with me and is this okay? Is there something wrong with me that I’m not having intense feelings of sadness?”
Koehler says the best approach to this is to be accepting and, most importantly, to trust the unique way a person chooses to grieve and that it’s the correct one. But, she saids there needs to be some type of closure from the pandemic when the time is right.
“One person said to me: ‘I feel betrayed.’ She had a loved one who died from COVID and she said she felt betrayed by society that now they are acting like everything’s fine and people are now wanting to celebrate. And: ‘I’m not celebrating, I’m grieving!’ Going back to the war analogy, when there is a collective either sigh of relief or, you know, it looks like it might be over… Or there are actual parades– it is over... There needs to be also this collective remembering and acknowledgement of what happened and those whose loss lives on.”
So, as we start peaking our heads out of our homes and start to venture back into our communities like the moles that we had become, let’s make sure to be aware of those who had loss during the pandemic– because some are scared they might get whacked back into their hole once again.
SAMHSA National Help Line: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Gerard's House grief programs/resources