Let’s face it – COVID has taken a lot from us. Many of us have found that we are living in way that is very different from our pre-COVID lives, and while some of the changes are concrete and quantifiable, there are other differences that we can’t quite put our finger on. In my experience, the discomfort that we find ourselves experiencing is a product of the loss that we’ve endured through the pandemic. In order to start processing the COVID losses, we must identify and name them.
The most obvious loss that we are experiencing – as individuals, as families, as neighbors, as friends, as colleagues, as communities – is the loss of people.
It feels like every day (sometimes multiple times in a day) I hear about someone who lost their life as a result of COVID, and the stories are all heartbreaking. Even if we are not grieving the passing of someone in our immediate circles, most of us are experiencing some level of secondary or tertiary loss.
Just yesterday, I spoke with a young woman whose brother-in-law passed away from COVID. She expressed that her sister was mourning the loss of her husband and the father of her child, the loss of companionship and the stability of a two-parent household, and the loss of the rituals and routines that she and her husband had fallen into over the years as a couple and as parents. The woman’s family was mourning the loss, too, but in addition, they were experiencing vicarious grief for their daughter/sister.
The layers of emotions are not necessarily unique to COVID.
Whenever someone passes away, the people around them grieve the loss of the person and the normalcy of the life that they had with that person. What is different is the frequency of loss and how quickly multiple people in a unit can be impacted directly with COVID. I often hear about couples passing away within days of each other leaving their loved ones to grieve multiple losses, or one person losing their life while others in the family who test positive for COVID survive but are left with long-term health conditions and survivor’s guilt. The loss of people is tangible, and, in some way, that helps us understand our feelings and grieve.
There are other losses that we’re experiencing during this pandemic that may be harder to identify or name.
I am feeling the loss of opportunity. There are so many things that my husband and I have been hesitant to do. We rarely go out to eat, shop, or socialize the way we once did. Once upon a time, it felt completely normal to have a dinner-and-a-movie date, peruse the stores at the mall, or call some friends on a Friday evening and ask if they wanted to come over for Game Night. We’re now realizing that we took those activities for granted because the option to do them seemed like it would always be there.
This isn’t the biggest loss of opportunity that we’re feeling, though. We are parents to two-year-old twins. Before they were born, we dreamed of all the things that we would take them to see, the things that we would experience together. We imagined the simple things – playing with them at the park, watching their reaction to their first touch of sand and the first wave at the beach, sharing in their wonder at the zoo and aquarium, having playdates and birthday parties with their baby friends. We envisioned some of the bigger trips to Disney World, sporting events, their first flight on the airplane. COVID has bereft us of these hopes and dreams, and we are grieving the loss of a normal babyhood for our children.
Although we know that time isn’t moving any faster or slower than it always has, sometimes it seems like pre-COVID days were forever ago while other times it feels like we fast-forwarded through the past year and a half.
Along with the loss of opportunity, it feels like the pandemic has caused a time warp. When I look back to the beginning of the pandemic, it really is hard to believe that it’s been so long. Despite everything that’s happened, everything that’s changed, I can’t help but feel like we skipped 18 months, like somehow, I lost time.
In some ways, the loss of opportunity and the loss of time are intertwined. We’d planned to enroll our children in an early education center when they were between 6 months and a year old but at that point, it didn’t feel safe or necessary to send our kids into a social setting, so we kept them home. My kids missed a year of socialization and learning in a childcare setting, and that’s a COVID loss.
My kids having spent just about 70% of their lives living during a global pandemic makes me feel like I’ve lost time. “Celebrating” milestone birthdays, anniversaries, life changes, and accomplishments without the pomp and circumstance makes me feel like I’ve lost time. Not yet meeting my nephew who was born during the pandemic but doesn’t live within driving distance makes me feel like I’ve lost time. Time is moving forward, but somehow, it’s also been lost.
Whether we’ve lost someone during the pandemic or we just don’t get to see our families and friends, many of us are missing the relationships that we’ve built and the community that we’ve come to rely on.
And of course, connected to all of the losses that we’ve already talked about is the loss of relationships. I find myself missing my time with my colleagues whom I used to see daily. Working from home has stripped me of the relationship that formed through breakroom run-ins and lunchtime conversations. I recently went to work for a few hours and realized how deeply I missed the connections I had with my work friends.
Another uncomfortable but very real reason for a loss of relationship is disagreements about and varying levels of COVID comfort. There is constant noise on social media with people’s opinions on policy, vaccinations, masks, and the list goes on. If someone close to you has strong opinions that are different from your own, it can be hard to respect the differences of opinion. This can cause a shift in or dissolution of the relationship.
I’ve also found that there is a huge range of COVID comfort, and none of the “levels” of comfort come with a definitive list of what activities feel safe. A person may be fully vaccinated but still not feel comfortable socializing while a second person may not be vaccinated and feel comfortable with small gatherings while wearing a mask, and a third may have returned to their normal life. There are so many varying levels of comfort and just because a person is comfortable doing one thing doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re comfortable with something else.
These varying levels of comfort can make it difficult to understand someone else’s perspective and to express your own.
We were recently invited to an indoor birthday party at a restaurant with around 20 people – we declined the invitation because that didn’t feel safe for us. We do socialize with smaller groups and go to restaurants to pick up take-out, so it might be hard for someone else to understand why the party was different to us. The idea of being in a closed space with that many people plus people who weren’t in our party and being unmasked to eat and drink wasn’t comfortable; being in a group where we are either outside or can distance ourselves indoors or just going into a restaurant without having to take off my mask is within my comfort zone.
Navigating relationships and conversations about social encounters has gotten more complicated during the pandemic. How do you react when your unvaccinated neighbor asks to arrange a playdate but that doesn’t feel safe to you? What do you do when your best friend argues that you should hold up your commitment to be in the wedding party at their large, indoor wedding since you are fully vaccinated, and you don’t feel comfortable attending at all? How do you manage your feelings when people decline your invitations despite your efforts to follow guidelines to keep everyone safe? We are all juggling a lot, and these new conflicts that we are facing sometimes leave us feeling like we’ve lost relationships, and therefore, our support networks.
How do we process all that we’ve lost as we continue on without a true sense of closure?
For me, the answer has been scheduling my self-care into my daily routines. Having some time for myself has made the difference in how I manage my new, albeit temporary, normal, and some parts of my self-care rituals stay the same day-to-day, while others change. There are some key things that I do for my own well-being everyday. One of my daily necessities is working out. I dedicate 20 minutes in the morning for exercise. Along with maintaining my body and health, that is one of the few times (if not only time) during the day when I am totally alone and uninterrupted. This “quiet” time allows me to think through and mentally process my recent experiences, including losses.
At the end of every day, I reflect on my “silver linings” – I am feeling the loss of time and opportunity, but with those losses, I also gained the opportunity to be home and actively engage in my children’s growth and development in a way that I never imagined as a working parent. I use this time to be mindfully grateful for experiences and opportunities that I do have.
On an ongoing basis, I have made it a point to continue to connect with people who are important to me in different ways. In the peak of the pandemic, my neighbor/good friend and I began taking lunchtime walks. Our other friends would plan backyard socially-distanced picnics to enjoy some good company and a meal together. Finally, as tired as I am of staring as a screen all day, I have made an intentional effort to plan video calls with friends and family from near and far. This has helped me manage my feelings of loss around relationships as it allows me to connect with my support network virtually.
We have experienced many COVID losses – people, opportunity, time, and relationships, just to name a few.
We are grieving things that we may not even be able to identify. As you consider all of the things that have changed, remember to give yourself the time and space you need to process what you are feeling and take care of yourself for a physically, mentally, spiritually healthy future.
Associate Director of Effinity
Tejal is an educator at heart. She began her career as a middle school math teacher and then transitioned to working in Higher Education Student Life. Her journey with self-care began in college, when an administrator told her, “If you’re not good to yourself, you can’t be good to others.” Since then, Tejal has been actively engaged in her experiences and in practicing self care so that she can be and do her best for others.