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Grief in the time of Covid

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By Susan Toleos, LMHC
Manager, Hospice Bereavement Services and Community Education/Outreach
Tufts Medicine Care at Home

Upon being tasked with preparing remarks for a memorial service at a local long-term care facility, I am confronted with the enigma of where we are in the life of the Covid pandemic.

This service is being held to honor and remember residents who died from and/or during the pandemic. So I contemplate – are we looking in the rearview mirror at Covid, or are we amidst Covid? Is there Covid in our future? I begin to write the words “post-pandemic” and become woefully aware the words don’t fit. And yet, things feel differently than they did at this time in 2020. The idea of predicting the future in terms of Covid seems a fool’s errand. What is there to say?

I turn to the subject of grief. For someone in the field of bereavement, this is a familiar and comforting topic. I realize that aside from the primary losses this pandemic has wrought – the deaths of so many loved ones – Covid has caused another devastating loss: the loss of grief itself. This loss makes us vulnerable to becoming what I call “grief zombies,” neither fully mourning our losses, nor fully embracing the lives we still have to live.

Grief includes mourning – acknowledging the reality of our losses and fully experiencing the emotions that come with them – and moving forward in our lives by adjusting to the changes that our losses bring and finding meaning therein. Our grief is taken from us (this is called “disenfranchised grief”) when we aren’t able to fully participate in the process of mourning.

Our losses can become diminished and our mourning stymied by circumstances, ignorance, fatigue and stigma. In the case of our Covid losses, the circumstances we found ourselves in severely altered our ability to mourn. We found ourselves separated from our dying loved ones as hospitals and care facilities were forced to restrict visitation. We found ourselves separated from others who were grieving the same loss. We found ourselves limited in being able to carry out the traditions and rituals we normally rely on when a loved one dies.

Covid losses have been affected by ignorance, fatigue and stigma as well. At first, we didn’t know the severity of the disease and weren’t prepared for people to die from it. As the deaths compounded, the sheer number became overwhelming, almost too much to take in. Our losses became vulnerable to being lumped into a statistic rather than acknowledged uniquely. As we have become more knowledgeable about the disease and the tools we can use to ameliorate it, deaths due to Covid become questioned as if the victims could be to blame.

Despite the progress we have made, Covid deaths continue. Amidst this reality, and with the gift of hindsight, now more than ever it’s time to take our grief back. A colleague suggests I refer to our being in the “late stages” of the pandemic, a suggestion I gladly accept, although I realize using the word “stage” isn’t right either. When we speak of grief, we also reject the idea of “stages.” Grief isn’t a linear process with a timetable. Grief never ends. With anticipatory grief, it is there from the beginning. Grief is always with us. Once we love, we grieve.

I read that the new thinking with Covid is that it becomes endemic, meaning it is something we live with, a regular part of the human condition.

And so it is with grief.

Susan Toleos, LMHC
Manager, Hospice Bereavement Services and Community Education/Outreach
Tufts Medicine Care at Home

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