Grief, Everywhere

We must not mistake a return to “normal” life as the end of someone’s pain.

An illustration of a face
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

About the author: Marisa Renee Lee is the author of Grief Is Love: Living With Loss.

On February 28, 2008, my mother collapsed in my arms and had a seizure in my childhood home. As I laid her body on the floor, I knew it was over. She was officially pronounced dead a few hours later. My mom had Stage 4 breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. On that day in February, her diseases won, and I found myself lost.

At the time, I didn’t realize that my life as I knew it had ended and a new one had begun, one without my mother. I wouldn’t have her to encourage me to go for my dream job, she wouldn’t be there on my wedding day, and she couldn’t console me more than a decade later when my husband and I lost a much-wanted pregnancy. Those are just a handful of major milestones, but if you’ve known loss, you know that I continue to feel her absence in the most ordinary moments, when grief arrives like a paper cut—not debilitating but just sharp enough to force you to acknowledge all that you’ve lost.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, nearly 1,000,000 Americans have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Millions and millions of Americans are figuring out what life will look like for them, as they try to live—are forced to live—without that person they love. That process of piecing their life back together doesn’t end when their person is gone a month or a year or two years; it is an ongoing process that they will deal with for the rest of their life. Grief is the repeated experience of learning to live after loss.

Sometimes life may look like it’s moving on. As the pandemic comes and goes in waves, there will be times when life appears more “normal.” But for those grieving, even more-normal times don’t feel like old times. You cannot so easily enjoy a brighter post-COVID future when you’ve lost your husband, child, or parent to this disease. Two weeks after burying my mother, I was back at work. I was determined to maintain the appearance of someone who had “moved on,” but each morning as I ascended the subway stairs, and left the train behind to begin my walk to the office, I did so with a fire burning in my chest. Heart racing, blood pumping so hard it was all I could hear, palms sweating, I put one foot in front of the other until I reached the basement of my investment bank, where I hid my daily panic attacks and overwhelming grief for months. We must not mistake a return to “normal” life as the end of someone’s pain.

The pain of loss never fully subsides, and having access to quality care as you learn to live with your grief is an essential part of the healing process. Unfortunately, much of the grief and pain lie with people least equipped to handle it. Those who have died from COVID-19 are disproportionately poor, people of color, less educated, or veterans. They are statistically the most disconnected from quality mental and physical health care and less likely than other Americans to have access to paid time off, therapy, or child care, all of which can help relieve some of the burden that grief creates. You can’t properly grieve—you can’t heal—without safety and support and space to fall apart and be vulnerable. You need people to actively acknowledge your loss.

I’m from New York, and if you drive around the city for a day or two, you are bound to see stickers, signs, even license plates inscribed with the words Never Forget. We all know that they refer to September 11. Our culture clearly understands the importance of remembrance, of acknowledgment, of memorializing tragedy. We must do the same for the nearly 1,000,000 lives that COVID has taken. We must not simply move on; we must instead ask ourselves, how can we honor the dead? What does it look like to memorialize and bring about some sense of closure, not just for those who lost loved ones but for all of us who have lived through this collective trauma?

Part of the answer lies in how we treat one another—in remembering that many around us have lost someone in this pandemic, and in asking them, genuinely, how they are, and actually listening to their answer. We need to embrace empathy and compassion and grace. We need workplaces to reconsider bereavement policies as folks begin to return to the office. We need better mental- and physical-health support for those in underserved communities. Perhaps most of all, we need to remember that grief is a normal part of life, and it remains with us always.