Death is more present than it usually is in daily life—people are surrounded by reminders of it in the news, in stories from friends and loved ones, and in the sirens of ambulances.
Devine: When I hear a siren go by, my habit—and it has been for years—is to wish them luck. Right now, we can’t get away from the overwhelming volume of loss, and that’s forcing us to really let in how fragile life is and how easily that siren could be for us or someone we care about. To deal with that, it might help to come up with a ritual, a habit, that you do after you hear a siren or read a news story.
One of the things that’s happened during the pandemic is we don’t have the usual protections that keep the idea of death at a distance. Often, we say things to ourselves like, I always wear my seatbelt—or I do X, Y, and Z—so I don’t have to think about that too much. But right now, we can’t say, Oh, that would never happen to me. With this virus, it’s so uncertain—being outside can kill you. So there’s grief, yes, and there’s also a lot of anxiety mixed in with that.
Boss: I think it's triggering anxiety about our own mortality. I mean, why wouldn’t it? We’re all in danger. Science is coming, but it isn’t ahead of the game yet, and there are conflicting messages from leaders about what to do and what not to do. The anxiety we’re all feeling right now is collective and understandable.
Carmen Inoa Vazquez, a clinical psychologist and a co-author of Grief Therapy With Latinos: Right now, a lot of people are experiencing a sense of communal grief—they may feel like this could happen to any one of us, and they may know people who have died. Some people who have lost loved ones in the past will tell you that eventually—and the amount of time varies—they started to take a different approach to life and find meaning in the loss and in their future. So during and after the pandemic, maybe people will try to pay more attention to their unfulfilled wishes, or have conversations with loved ones that they may not usually have and affirm their love for those people. In this way, the pandemic can bring unity and connection, and help us deal with our mortality.
On top of its death toll, the pandemic has also stripped away many aspects of life that give it joy and meaning—canceling graduation ceremonies, causing layoffs, unraveling visions of the future. These losses are more abstract than deaths, but grieving them is no less valid.
Boss: The loss of having answers to questions, the loss of a routine, the loss of freedom to go out and do what we please, the loss of being able to hug our loved ones and be with our friends—those are all major losses, and they have to do with the relationship between ourselves and the changing world. These losses are not the ones we have sympathy cards or rituals to deal with, and grief for these losses often gets stuck because there are no supports for it. When nobody notices or acknowledges it, that makes it so much harder for the people who are experiencing it. What we need to do now is name these losses. You can’t cope with something until you have a name for it.