You’re Okay—I’m Falling Apart
In the pandemic's long shadow, many people are struggling with loss and grief.
Posted May 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Grief is a normal reaction to loss but it’s not easy, and the pandemic has made it harder.
- Opening oneself to become fully present with grief allows us to make a space for loss.
- The reflection phase of grief brings individual and societal opportunity.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your own understanding.” —Khalil Gibran
The sun is shining and the days have grown long. It’s spring, full of new growth and possibility, and nature is calling us out to play. Masks are coming off and friends are posting about weddings, travel, and spring break. What is less visible are those who are struggling, and continuing to reckon with loss and profound grief.
The pandemic has been traumatic. Regardless of one’s experience, we all are processing the epic damage of the past two years. In the U.S., deaths from COVID-19 are edging toward 1 million. Each death ripples, touching numerous others in its wake. There have been other losses as well: jobs, relationships, milestones, and moreover, our sense of normalcy and security.
While grief is a normal reaction to loss, it doesn’t feel normal. It’s hard. It’s also unavoidable. The only way out of grief is to go directly through it. Grief is not just feeling sad. It involves a complex pattern of cognitive, existential, and spiritual coping processes in reaction to the disintegration of existing structures of meaning (Wong, 2008). In other words, grief unmoors us, leaving us adrift and uncertain about how to navigate the future. Grief can feel awful, but it’s part of a natural process, like a scab that forms on a wound. Unfortunately, the slow process of grief is very much at odds with our desire to move on as quickly as possible, beyond the pandemic and beyond grief. This haste is compounded by cultural expectations to get over it—to suppress pain, emotions, and grief.
The impulse to avoid the feelings of loss and grief, to try to bounce right back, makes sense. Nevertheless, it is not that simple. At first, avoidance provides some relief from the shock and deep pain of grief; however, persistent avoidance or complete dependence on avoidance strategies can deepen and prolong the grieving period (Baker, et al., 2016). Grief requires facing loss head-on and allowing oneself to become fully present with it. By opening up to feeling the grief in the mind and body, one can begin to understand what has happened and find perspective.
We don’t ever get over a loss. We don’t forget. Loss remains with us, but grief gives us a way to hold space for our dreams, our sadness, our memories, and our future. We grieve to remember and honor who or what has been lost. By allowing the waves of grief to wash over us and compassionately integrate into our being, we gather wisdom and find a way forward.
Grief inevitably brings with it a phase of reflection. When things that were once important no longer hold meaning, the fragile nature of life comes into focus and prompts an appraisal of priorities. People have changed jobs, moved domiciles, and restructured life goals. Others look away, unable to tolerate the demands of grief, the need to turn inward and recalibrate. Pushing grief aside isn’t effective. It is also a disservice as taking stock brings an opportunity, a precious moment to honestly reflect on what we wish to retain and what we want to change.
Pandemic grief has triggered reconsiderations of choices for the economy and society. Measures of happiness and wealth might now be measured in terms of health, access to health care, a capacity for working from home, and the ability to socialize with others. The pandemic has accelerated some trends such as remote work, telemedicine, and changes in the way data and supply chains operate. It has also intensified partisan divides, increased wealth and structural inequalities, and elevated crises related to mental health, education, and unemployment.
We have become more aware of the interconnectivity of lives and issues. We now know that poverty is a greater predictor of health outcomes than lifestyle. We have learned that race, gender, and class are intersecting axes connected to larger patterns of power and privilege. The pandemic has been a lens through which societal inequities have been magnified (Mohanty, 2021).
In this global phase of grief, we gain a collective moment for reevaluation. This phase can lead to new forms of activism and act as a catalyst for systemic change. The complexity of the global pandemic is certainly challenging, but to focus on national recovery alone, in the absence of meaningful international cooperation, would be shortsighted to the tragic detriment of humanity.
Sure, spring festivals sound great—we all want to move on, but to look away from the tragedies of the past two years is not coping; it is denial. We have an opportunity to face this moment together and find ways to work in solidarity as human beings within a single species. We can choose to organize our society in ways to better care for one another. We can recognize that the health of our most vulnerable people is a consequential factor for the health of all of us.
If you are well and packed for the beach, I hope you have the best time. It’s been a tough pandemic. We all deserve a break. Just keep in mind, should you find a moment to reflect, that everyone is not okay. Some people are falling apart. Some are finding it hard to move on. Solidarity is a choice. By standing in unity with those who have lost family and friends, with those who are perhaps still sick or vulnerable, we weave a community safety net able to hold us all in our grief.
Baker, A. W., Keshaviah, A., Horenstein, A., Goetter, E. M., Mauro, C., Reynolds, C., 3rd, Zisook, S., Shear, M. K., & Simon, N. M. (2016). The role of avoidance in complicated grief: A detailed examination of the Grief-Related Avoidance Questionnaire (GRAQ) in a large sample of individuals with complicated grief. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 21(6), 533–547. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325024.2016.1157412
Mohanty, K. (July 14, 2021). The Seductive Lie of Post-Pandemic Self-Optimization, New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/162957/pandemic-self-help-exercise-depr…
Wong, P. T. P. (2008). Transformation of grief through meaning: Meaning-centered counseling for bereavement. In A. Tomer, G. T. Eliason, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), Existential and spiritual issues in death attitudes (pp. 375-396). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.