[NOTE: This is this second piece in a COVID-19 recovery series. See the first installment here.]
Elsa, my 2-year-old poodle, and I enjoy our routine walks in the neighborhood. It has become more frequent since the onset of COVID-19, and we both look forward to the fresh air, change of scenery, and connecting with the neighbors as we pass by (socially distanced, of course). On this day, we approached the home of my new neighbors. They are a young couple, and during our last encounter, they indicated they were pregnant and expecting their first child. They had just pulled up in their driveway and were disembarking the vehicle as we walked toward them. “I’ll get him,” the husband called to his wife as he exited the car. “Oh, they had a boy,” I thought. “How wonderful.” I slowed my pace to see if I could get a peek from across the street where Elsa and I dawdled. He opened the back door to his vehicle and proceeded to unbuckle his son. Imagine my surprise when a toddler jumped out of the car! When did that happen?!
I have heard it said that 2020 is the year that wasn’t. As we all stayed safe in our homes, socially distanced from friends and family, an entire year went by — without us. Oh, things happened, but many of us were not able to participate in the regular encounters that add richness to our lives. Weddings, births, celebrations, graduations and even funerals took place in non-traditional and much more private ways. Gatherings consisted of virtual or outdoor activities. Basic shopping was outsourced to delivery services, and additional errands occurred with faces shielded and six feet apart.
To make matters worse, the arrival of 2021 did not magically remove the pandemic or correct the social injustices and political tensions experienced. The losses have been and continue to be great. At the time of this column’s publication, the World Health Organization reports over 116 million confirmed global cases of COVID-19, and over 2.5 million people have died.
Navigating death during a pandemic is beyond challenging, as I experienced when my father-in-law died recently. He had contracted COVID-19, along with other residents in his assisted living community. He had recovered, but never completely. On Friday, Jan. 30, we received a call that his health was failing. My husband and I rushed to the facility where he resided. After testing negative to a rapid COVID test, we donned mask, shield and bodysuit to enter into my father-in-law’s room. Other than visits where we spoke through his window while we stood outdoors, it was the first time we had seen him in several months. He was unresponsive but resting peacefully. My husband asked me to set Pandora to Glen Miller (one of his father’s favorite musicians) and proceeded to tell his father about all that we had experienced since we last saw him. We rambled about the holidays (that we were unable to experience together), the home renovations we were starting and our hope to have family gathered as soon as safely possible.
Because only two people could visit at a time, we had to wrap up our visit when my brother-in-law and his wife arrived. My husband and I stood on either side of my father-in-law, rubbing his arm and holding his hand, and told him we would see him soon. We left knowing it would be our last time with him. He died early the following morning.
The grief associated with this loss is profound. As I discussed in an earlier article, “Counseling Connoisseur: Death and bereavement during COVID-19,” the traditional rituals that help in grief recovery are often altered or absent due to pandemic safety protocols.
In addition to the loved ones we have lost, there have been a plethora of other losses, actual and symbolic. Symbolic loss is often intangible. Sometimes it accompanies death but is not acknowledged as a loss. For example, my father-in-law’s memorial service is delayed until it is safe to gather, thereby preventing the emotional closure that funerals and memorials provide in the grief recovery process.
Other tangible losses include the millions of lost jobs due to the economic impact of the pandemic. The loss of community and social support during isolation and quarantine may be unquantifiable and thus “intangible,” but its effects are significant. Additionally, life happened — without us gathering to record or mark it. The loss caused by our inability to gather for significant events will become more and more evident as we begin (in time) to reconnect with friends and family.
For example, after becoming fully inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine and continuing to follow the Centers for Disease Control safety protocol, I returned to a couple of my favorite group fitness classes (now small, ventilated, physically distanced, and masked). It felt like a homecoming after a yearlong hiatus. The four or five of us in attendance spent the first few minutes of class just catching up. “So, what did you do this past year?” It was uncanny how life had continued for each of us apart. There had been cancer remissions, divorces and retirements, along with weddings and babies born. Except for what I like to term the “COVID cushion” of a few pounds of weight gain for some of us, everyone looked the same. They looked great. I had not realized how much I had missed this community of women I have sweated with side by side for over twenty years!
There have been so many losses this year, and the eager anticipation of a return to some semblance of normalcy is palpable. However, things have changed, and it is important to prepare our clients and ourselves with tools to navigate the losses resulting from the pandemic.
Prepare for change: Life has continued, and things have changed. An entire year has passed in the lives of our family and friends. While you may have remained in contact, it will be different when it is safe to resume getting together this year. People may have died or moved. New members may have joined the family or friend group. Expect change.
Acknowledge loss: Recognize the changes. Honor the losses. Gatherings may be bittersweet. So much time has passed. So much has been missed. So much economic hardship for so many individuals. Talk about it. Journal. Seek therapeutic support.
You can’t go back, but you can move forward: The truth is that even when it is safe to resume previous activities, it will never be the same. It can’t be. Too much has happened. While we may mourn the past, maybe that is not a bad thing. Perhaps, we can use our experiences and create a better future with what we know now. As C.S Lewis suggested, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
The pandemic has brought a lot of loss. While we are more cognizant of the actual losses of death, we must also be aware of the symbolic losses we have experienced. We can acknowledge the sadness of missing out on life experiences, the inability to give comfort in person when family and friends struggle with health or economic distress, or the loss of group celebrations. We can recognize the cumulative grief and fear caused by the pandemic and political injustices. We can prepare ourselves for the shock and mourning that may accompany our re-entry into our post-lockdown lives over the next year, brace for the changes that occurred while we remained sheltered in place, and ready ourselves for life to continue.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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