Image of White House rotunda with 500 candles representing 500,000 deaths. Vice President Kamala Harrs, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stand solemnly in front of the display.

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White House

Grief Will Redefine What’s ‘Normal’ Post-Pandemic

A "return to normalcy" is on the horizon. But with all the compounding loss suffered over the last year, can we really go back to pre-pandemic life?

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The average casket is seven feet long.

In the year since Americans began to contract a virus previously unknown to humanity, half a million of us have been killed by it. If each of those humans were laid in a casket, and each of those caskets were laid end-to-end, and we kept laying those caskets down until we closed the very last lid on the very last person to have died of COVID-19 somewhere in America in the minute before you read this sentence, the line of caskets would reach from New York City to Kalamazoo, Michigan. From Lubbock, Texas to Navajo Mountain, Utah. From Los Angeles to Salt Lake City.

And then we would have to keep going, keep closing caskets, keep laying them down, one after the other, because in the days since we reached that half million mark, in the hours since we woke up today, in the time it took us to get breakfast or lunch or start another load of laundry, more have died.

“They say that for every person who dies,” says Dr. Sherry Cormier, bereavement and trauma specialist and author of Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief, “there are nine people directly impacted by their death. That is an astronomical number of people walking around with a deep sense of loss and grief.”

“And this is not just an individual loss,” she says, “this is collective loss. We all feel the loss of all these deaths. This is collective, global trauma.”

I wrote last October, when we’d lost some 220,000 souls, about the “American grief that I now carry in my heart, in my bones, in every cell and sinew of my being.” I wrote that I hadn’t lost anyone to COVID-19 but had the foresight to use the word “yet.” That changed in December when my mother died. Hers was one in a wave of late-fall nursing home deaths, when the professionals across the U.S. who had managed to protect the frail elders in their care for nine long months were overcome by their country’s failure to support them.

It’s an odd and jarring thing to feel such personal grief in the midst of collective mourning, to miss a specific voice, a particular sense of humor, in an ocean of missing. When President Joe Biden held our first national memorial on January 19 to honor our then-400,000 dead, I tried to see my mother’s light among those lights. When Washington National Cathedral tolled its bells this week to honor 500,000 gone, I tried to hear her bell among the bells.

Like so many families, we held a Zoom memorial. It was lovely and comforting and odd, just as all the efforts to process this trauma have been. “We heal best by being with the people we love the most,” Cormier says, and that is surely true. But what if we’re burying those people? What if, all around us, people are burying those people? And, no matter how those people died—whether from COVID-19 or heart failure or cancer that went untreated because doctors didn’t want cancer patients risking the hospital at the height of a pandemic—what if we cannot be with the others who loved those people because to do so would be to court more death?

The advent of a new administration and the growing momentum of the vaccine rollout have kindled a light at the end of our very dark tunnel and with it a return of the question we first posed, in all our shocking innocence, almost a year ago: When can we get back to normal? We seek a date to circle, a time when we will be able to live without this sorrow, this disruption, this bone-deep fear.

That fear often goes unmentioned, but is, I find, always there. Will a slip of my mask kill me? Will I carry the virus to someone I love? Will my kids lose too much in this year of lost school, will they go hungry in this year of lost income? I don’t know what normal looks like in a nation that’s been marinating in fear for months on end, a nation whose dead now stretch across some 700 miles, a nation filled with people who survived but only just. A nation in which a flicker of hope can seem, some days, like a particularly cruel delusion.

One way to build hope, Cormier says, “is to find ways to grieve together. When we don’t have those things in place, it’s going to be hard to heal.” She chokes up a little at a mention of the January 19 event: “I thought that was a tremendous way to bring the country together, to say let’s just stop and pause and acknowledge all these losses.”

“But we have to also have events that are close to home, in our neighborhoods, our communities, our towns, things that are accessible to us right here, right now.”

Dr. Kenneth Manges, forensic psychologist and PTSD specialist, raises another issue that has marked these past months: The interruption of routine, of habit and ritual, on the tiniest and most grand of scales. “In terms of long-term impact, there will be a gap, a loss of sense of comfort, and a loss of sense of completion. A loss of one’s sense of being able to feel right about how this year has been spent.”

“As neurological beings, we look for patterns,” he says, and references a psychological principle known as the Zeigarnik Effect, the notion that we feel fundamentally unsettled when a task or event is left unfinished. “We look for closure,” he says. “And we have, on a massive, massive scale, a lack of closure.” Closure that we will likely never get—which is, in turn, its own source of grief.

“It’s a myth to say that we get over grief,” Cormier says. “To say to someone ‘you’ll be okay,’ or ‘you’ll move on from this’ is offensive. It’s offensive. We don’t move on from grief. But we learn how to integrate it into our lives.”

“That missing piece, that loss, will be forever,” Manges says. “It may not be as troubling in the distant future, because there will be adjustments and newfound joy, but it’s inappropriate to not admit that it is now a part of us, with ripples outward, as in the casting of a stone into the water.”

I think about the ripples crashing into each other all around me. The losses we have piled up, the nine people affected by each death, the healthcare workers holding our loved one’s hands, the deaths of dreams and hopes and the world making sense. The times that we have lost our grasp of time, the days we’ve lost, the guilt when we laugh, the sorrow over that guilt. The fear. Ripples and ripples and ripples.

Not everyone is buried in a casket. And yet there is a piece of me right now that feels it can hear each lid come down as the next one is moved into place. I have no idea what normal will ever look like again.

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