Collective Grief in a Pandemic

All people experience loss in life, but for the first time, we are all experiencing loss at the same time, and due to the same root cause.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred conversations about anxiety, stress, fear, loneliness, disappointment, confusion, and other valid emotions and experiences. But in my own experience, none of those labels seem to wholly represent the continuous, amorphous sense of heaviness that has settled around me. And I think that’s because it’s actually grief.

Disclaimer: I hesitate to describe what I, personally, and what we, collectively, are going through as grief because I do not want to diminish the traditional grief that people have experienced in the past or during the pandemic in the form of lost loved ones. I don’t want to take away from the loss of a loved human life that grief typically refers to. But if we acknowledge that that type of traditional grief has its respected space, we can broaden our understanding of grief to include the variety of losses that we as a community and each of us as individuals are experiencing as a result of this pandemic.

What unites us in the COVID era is a collective experience of loss. Some people are losing people. Some people are losing parts of themselves due to the circumstances. Some people are losing experiences they expected to have. We have all lost a sense of normalcy and safety.

Everyone had their own expectation of 2020. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, big moves, and other life transitions have been compromised, and even everyday parts of life have been stolen by this virus. Small routines and daily habits that bring us joy and that all come together to form our identity were suddenly taken away from us.

Many of our jobs, friendships, hobbies, and even obligations that make up the puzzle of our self-concept have been eliminated or paused. And some of us aren’t sure who we are without all of those parts of life. We are left with an intangible loss that can be difficult to explain, and even difficult to understand ourselves. And so far, I haven’t seen much space to talk about that. How should we grieve these losses?

Human beings do not experience feelings of grief and go through periods of mourning only after death. Losses of a relationship, a job, or an important identity all induce emotional and behavioral responses that mirror those that follow the death of a person.

We may have first experienced denial. Back in March, you might have thought lockdown would last just two short weeks or you might have scoffed at the seemingly over-the-top precautions the CDC suggested we take. Even as the pandemic’s seriousness set in, denial might have been a natural coping mechanism.

We may have then begun to feel anger and frustration at being denied the freedom to engage in activities we enjoy and took for granted. We may have felt angry that we could no longer see our friends and family whenever we pleased.

We may have bargained. We may have joked that we’d rather never work from home again than be forced to do so every day. Maybe we even pleaded with whatever force we believe in to change reality.As that reality refused to change, we may feel depression. Isolation from our loved ones, lack of human touch, and a dulled everyday life contribute to this feeling. Yearning for that which we’ve lost simply is depressing. And after two months of lockdown, I have a feeling that may be the stage that a lot of us are in. Life has become quite one-dimensional for a lot of us. And so we mourn the other dimensions that we do not have access to for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know if I believe that acceptance, the final stage of grief, is the ultimate goal here. But I do know that allowing ourselves to acknowledge and experience feelings of grief as they descend upon us is healthy.

A common refrain I’ve heard is that people feel guilty for having negative feelings about their personal experience of COVID, normally citing that other people have it much worse. While I am a proponent of acknowledging one’s privilege and being empathetic to the pain of others, we all deserve to validate our own pain and loss in this time. The fact of the matter is that we have all lost things that are important to us because of the pandemic.

Big or small, in the grand scheme of things, a loss is a loss and deserves to be mourned.

I can recognize the frivolousness of some of my own losses without negating the genuine pain I feel. My graduate school career, and my student identity, will culminate unceremoniously in a Zoom video call that more likely than not my Wi-Fi will not be able to support, instead of the blowout celebration that was supposed to take place with 20,000 other NYU graduates at Yankee Stadium, a day that my family, my classmates, and I had been daydreaming about for two long years.

Loss is relative, and while my loss genuinely is trivial compared to losses that others have endured, I believe we can all empathize and relate to one another’s experiences of grief. I do feel that my student identity deserves a proper mourning. I feel sad that I’ll never participate in lively class discussions, share bubble tea with my classmates in Washington Square Park between classes, or get to learn from quirky and brilliant professors again.

I miss my people. I miss my routines. But more than any of that, I miss how every little piece of my life used to come together so beautifully to create the essence of who I am. Without my life, I don’t feel alive.

During the pandemic, accepting loss has become a norm, but we aren’t necessarily all equipped with the tools to do so. So, how do we adjust? How do we feel alive again?

We acknowledge and accept our pain for what it is. We do not pass judgment on ourselves for feeling pain in response to a loss. We allow ourselves to grieve and mourn our loss without minimizing its effect on us.

At some point, we must adjust and problem-solve in order to move forward. And sometimes counting our blessings and finding gratitude in our circumstances can be healing. So we develop new hobbies, new routines, new types of fun and spontaneity, new means to connect with our loved ones, and new ways to fill our days. But recognizing that as each of us experiences our own personal grief right now, so does everyone else. At the exact same time. Due to the same root cause. And maybe we can take some comfort in the collectiveness of that experience.

Meghan Nayyar