The pandemic ushered in an era of loss. And healing from those losses demands reimagining our social contract to allow for stillness.
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During the fall of her senior year of college, Avalon Roche was missing classes, struggling to complete assignments, and experiencing what she says now was a “major depressive episode.” She was grieving the loss of her grandfather, who had become ill that summer and died in November. It was the first major loss Roche says she had experienced. “I don’t think I ever learned to grieve,” Roche explains. “We really aren’t given the space and opportunities to learn about grief and other hard emotions while growing up; most people I know don’t have any sense of what it means until they experience it for themselves.”
In the midst of grieving, Roche was also navigating where to find support, or lack thereof. She was left appealing to professors on her own, baring her soul for extensions. When she went to the school’s emergency counselor, she was told her situation wasn’t dire enough for that kind of help. Fortunately, she found support in friends when she couldn’t be with family, and the Women’s Center community on campus, where she volunteered. These sources of comfort became especially important, she says, the following semester—because it felt like her “allowed” time for grieving had passed. There was no time to process.
It’s now been four years since Roche’s grandfather died. Thinking about the past year and a half, and how many people are grieving, Roche says it “feels surreal that we are expected to carry on as usual while grieving the last year and a half and dealing with the uncertainty of the future, where we will almost certainly experience more loss.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of over 4 million people and counting, continues, compounding structural crises intersect: People have lost jobs and health care, if they had either to begin with. The childcare system has failed both children and working parents, specifically women, adding on to a caregiving crisis. Disparities in health care access and care keep growing, and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named racism an “epidemic impacting public health.” In June 2021, more than 4 million people reported fearing eviction or foreclosure. The pandemic only exacerbated the systemic issues, structural barriers, and stress that had defined “normal” all along.
All of this and more has compounded into a grief crisis. Having time, resources, and support regarding grief was never equitable. In the midst of ongoing chaos and crises, how individuals cope with loss hasn’t been a national priority, and some tools for coping are no longer working. As the pandemic continues, it’s ignited a long-overdue conversation on grief: Where, in a society in which capitalistic grind relies on a foundation of bouncing back, productivity, and self-reliance and resilience, does one learn how to grieve?
Roche’s story is one example of an experience that was too common even pre-pandemic: Without adequate systemic support, Americans are expected to “bounce back” from a loss within a few days and resume life as usual. According to a 2016 report from the Society for Human Resource Management, on average, four days of bereavement leave were offered to full-time employees—but that number changed depending on who the employee had lost. While four was the average number of days of bereavement leave for the death of a spouse or child, three days was more common for death of a domestic partner, grandparent, parent, or sibling, and many organizations offer zero bereavement leave for the loss of friends at all, a grim measuring of what “counts” as a loss.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor states that the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t require payment for time not worked to attend a funeral at all, pointing to this kind of leave being a “benefit” between the employer and employee. For hourly or contract workers who may have less access to policies like paid sick leave, there’s even less guarantee of time off to grieve, especially given that, currently, there are no federal laws that require employers to provide paid or unpaid bereavement leave.
As Roche pointed out, as a student, the burden of rearranging schedules and coordinating leave fell to her, and what support she could receive was under each individual professor’s discretion. Unfortunately, she’s even watched professors make jokes about people using the death of a grandparent to score an assignment extension. “I wish schools had policies in place to guide what happens when students experience grief, like they do for physical illness or injury,” Roche says. She also wishes schools understood grief isn’t just attending a funeral for an immediate family member—something that could be said of employers, too.
“I knew people in undergrad who had a variety of losses: their sister’s miscarriage; a close great-aunt who died; the deaths of friends; familial illness, like me; and even pet deaths that severely affected them,” Roche says, adding that instances of other trauma can also prompt grief. When systems and institutions are organized in such a way that people are asked to justify their grief, grieve for the least amount of time possible, and coordinate logistics themselves, of course figuring out how to give one’s self the time to grieve in the first place can feel like a challenge.
“Western society and culture does not prioritize grieving because it gets in the way of productivity, and productivity is like the kingpin of capitalism,” says Nneka M. Okona, author of Self-Care for Grief. In the book, Okona talks about grief rituals across different cultures, to show that “there are ways that people around the world have these really beautiful, moving rituals that they do to commemorate a loss and to initiate this mourning process.” But overall, Western society doesn’t center it. If you’re grieving, she says, you can’t be productive; stillness in general is not encouraged, and grieving is a form of stillness. That ties into the lack of open conversation around grief, too. “We don’t talk about grief because, I think, we don’t want to,” Okona adds. “It’s vulnerable, it’s hard, it’s painful, it’s complex, it’s not over in a couple months. It’s not over in a couple of years for most of us.”
Okona is half-Nigerian and half-Black American, and she says growing up bicultural affected how she processed grief and how it presented itself within her family unit. It’s something she didn’t realize until she began writing about grief more, becoming more familiar with it as a force in her life. But what brought her to naming it as grief, and writing about it, was the death of a dear friend in 2017. Okona noticed that there are “these hierarchies within grieving and grief, like if it’s not a family member people just kind of discount its importance, but it really just depends on the personal relationship because grief is different for every single person.” It’s something reinforced by policy and lack of access to tools that encourage individuals to seek support for grief: If your grief is continually discounted by society, it adds barriers to being open about it—a desperately needed conversation.
For some, in addition to lack of leave from work, lack of access to therapy or other support can feel isolating, especially in the absence of spaces and communities designed for them. “With our dysfunctional mental health care system in this country, it can be hard to get emotional support, especially for people impacted by systemic oppression,” says Chloe Zelkha, co-founder of the COVID Grief Network, a mutual aid network where volunteer grief workers donate their time to support young people experiencing a loss. “Even for people who have insurance, mental health services are poorly covered or not covered at all. This was true before the pandemic, but COVID presented a sort of grief emergency.”
Zelkha’s father died suddenly a few months after her 26th birthday, and it was a challenge for her to find grief spaces that felt right. “The dominant approach to loss felt overly clinical, patronizing, and pathologizing, and most of the spaces I found served mostly older people and were run by older people,” says Zelkha. When she entered residency as a hospital chaplain, she saw the same gap in grief support. She started running grief retreats for twenty- and thirty-somethings in the Bay Area. Later, as the pandemic surged and amplified systemic inequities, Zelkha and her collaborators decided to step in and do “what the government refused to do: offer free, accessible emotional support and peer community for folks who’ve lost someone to COVID.”
Some of what Zelkha hears from young adults in the network is it isn’t just emotional overwhelm that hits after a loss—it’s logistical overwhelm, too, like planning funerals, managing financial logistics, and getting a death certificate, things few people are taught to prepare for until they are experiencing it firsthand. It’s normal to feel that there’s some big secret of “how to grieve,” but “the bummer is that there’s no one roadmap for navigating the fallout after a big loss. There’s just moving through it every day. You’re not failing if you don’t know how to do this stuff,” says Zelkha, pointing out that connecting with people navigating the same challenges can help. She also hears that, because of COVID, it can take more time for a loss to feel real if there’s no in-person funeral or you can’t grieve a way you typically would.
“I hope we’re learning that we can’t ignore what’s hard,” says Zelkha. “We live in a grief-phobic culture that most often wants to turn away from heartbreak.” Zelkha points out that we see the toxic positivity— “move forward! It’s not so bad!”—that meets grievers on a policy level, too. “In the beginning of this crisis, our federal government largely chose denial,” she says, adding that the government cast the eldery, disabled people, immigrants, and people of color as disposable, and told people who were justifiably worried they were overreacting. “Grief forces us to be with things the way they are—the good and the bad,” says Zelkha. “I hope we’re learning, as a society, to turn towards pain and grief and pay attention to what it has to teach us. To listen. To honor grief, instead of denigrating it, hiding it, and pushing it away.”
Even before the pandemic, others sought outlets and communities for grief that felt truest to them and their experiences, not in accordance with a “five steps to grieve” guidebook. Claire, who is going by a pseudonym in order to protect her privacy and keep her personal life separate from work, is 26, and when her mother died two years ago, she was encouraged to get back to life as normal as quickly as possible. When she got back to work, she felt she had outgrown her life. “How could I sit at my same desk, send the same emails, do the same tasks when everything about my life had completely shifted?” Claire asks. As someone who needs to talk through her emotions, it was a challenge to find time and space to grieve in a culture that avoids it. Her co-workers offered sympathetic looks. “That’s what no one tells you about grief—it’s so awkward,” she adds. Well-intentioned friends avoided talking about it, as though they’d accidentally remind her. “You can’t remind me about something I think about all the time,” Claire points out. At the height of the pandemic, she tried therapy via Zoom, at which she found the therapist’s platitudes— “tell me 10 things you liked about your mom”—off-putting.
What Claire wanted was to talk about death. No platitudes. No euphemisms, like “battle with cancer” or “in a better place.” Where she found that was death cafes, typically in-person spaces where strangers gather to discuss death. (Some have shifted online in light of the pandemic.) They are not grief support groups—just spaces for people to gather and discuss something that’s still considered “impolite” or “dark” conversation. “We’d separate into small groups and drink mint tea and share hummus and have incredibly honest and morbid conversations about death,” says Claire. She met people caring for terminally ill parents, hospice workers, ER workers, friends of someone who had lost a child, people who had lost parents or siblings, and people who were afraid of dying and were there to process their feelings.
There’s no universal human experience that’s taboo the way death is, she adds. “And avoiding talking about what a good death looks like for you and your loved ones means that it’s going to suck worse.”
Because death and grief haven’t been normalized as topics of conversation—because they’re stigmatized in Western culture—people aren’t set up to feel comfortable talking about it, says Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of Modern Loss, a global movement offering candid content, community, and resources on loss. Soffer is also co-author of the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome.
Modern Loss normalizes those conversations, and feelings around them. When asked if the pandemic will have any ramifications on how openly we talk about grief, Soffer says: “I think that what we take from it is that hopefulness that maybe we can be more empathic with each other, more willing to sit with somebody else’s discomfort when they’re going through something difficult, less scared to hear each other’s stories, more automatically open to kind of sharing responses that aren’t anchored in platitudes, because we know there’s no easy fix.” In fact, there’s not an answer for everything, and not everything is going to be okay. But a lot of it can be, Soffer adds.
When her mother died, Soffer says, she found herself wishing people she was talking to could understand, for one split-second, what she was experiencing. “I wanted them to feel what it felt like to feel utterly tiny and overwhelmed and terrified and confused and not recognize the landscape of your life, and not understand like how anything would look in the future, because you kind of had this perceived notion of how it was going to work with the people who were alive in it at the time,” she adds. “And then all of a sudden, there was this key person missing.”
It was exhausting to explain, and embarrassing in a way, Soffer says. But it was also living with loss. “It wasn’t a flaw. It wasn’t a strength. It just was what it was. It was a thing that I live with just like we all live with our things,” she adds. During the pandemic, “we all know what it feels like to realize that we have no control over so much in our lives. We all know what it feels like to not have any idea what tomorrow is going to look like.”
With COVID-19 case counts still rising, some people pointed to virtual support groups, grief circles, and therapy as spaces where they had learned to grieve—and learned to live with grief. For others, they cited learning from people around them about what practices felt truest to their own experience, including organizations like The Dinner Party, community softball leagues for people who have lost loved ones, and death cafes, where talking about death, including your own, isn’t taboo. Okona points to the idea of self-compassion: “There’s so many instances, outside of ourselves, for people to be cruel to us, for people to not validate us, for people to make us feel like we’re doing too much or being too sensitive, or emotional. The last thing that we want to do is to internalize that behavior and treat ourselves that way. If no one else is being kind to you, you should be kind to yourself.”
Not judging yourself for how you’re grieving counts—and that includes knowing that learning to grieve and how it feels right to grieve. “I think that’s just the biggest thing,” Okona says. “Honor your own process.”
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