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Mourning 'A Sense Of Normalcy': COVID-19 And How We Grieve

Marcio Jose Sanchez
Darryl Hutchinson, facing camera, is hugged by a fellow relative during a funeral service for Lydia Nunez, who was Hutchinson's cousin, Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

Ashley Taylor could have gotten special permission to visit her grandfather when he entered hospice this spring. But she has an autoimmune disorder, and didn’t feel comfortable visiting a nursing home, many of which have been plagued by the coronavirus. 

“Luckily he was on the first floor for a little bit,” she said. “So, I went to the window and played some of his favorite songs on guitar and sang through the window.”

For a good portion of her grandfather’s final months he was alone, which Taylor said was upsetting for her and her family. When he died in May, the funeral couldn’t be in a church. The gathering had to be small, with everyone physically apart.

“You know we were all masked up, we weren’t hugging,” said Taylor. “That just felt so restrictive … It felt like you didn’t really know where everyone was at, in terms of emotions.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made nearly every aspect of life more complicated, including how we process loss.

Psychologist Brent Robbins specializes in the intersection of mental health and social issues at Point Park University. He said when people find funerals to be comforting, they not only report less overall grief, but also less despair, anger, hostility and guilt.

“However [a bad funeral experience] can be something that’s a catalyst for increasing grief and other poor outcomes," said Robbins.

One example of a poor outcome could be a family conflict. Another is a phenonemon called complicated grief. That’s when a person is still paralyzed with sadness months or even years after a loss.

One of the most effective ways people can help a loved one is just by being present, Robbins said. But the pandemic has made that very difficult.

“Even when you’re out, you’re avoiding each other,” said Robbins. “There’s this profound lack of connection and I think that has a very severe mental health consequence.”

After her grandfather’s funeral, Ashley Taylor said she was sad about a lot of things.

“Because then you’re sad about this person you lost. But then you sad about all these things you felt like you lost in the time of COVID,” she said.

Amy DeGurian, who specializes in grief and loss at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, said everyone, to one degree or another, is grieving right now.

“What we’re mourning is this sense of normalcy and this sense of what was,” she said.

After a tragedy, DeGurian said a person has a “shattered” world view.

“They ways you manage life become unsettling,” said DeGurian. “It’s a constant adjustment to a new normal … I’m hesitant to use the word ‘normal’ because what we’re experiencing is not normal at all.”

Then layer on any kind of trauma or tragedy —a death, divorce or job loss — and  the fact that so many positive parts of life have been canceled — graduations, vacations and parties — and it feels so much bigger.

Some people may not experience grief right away because processing it right now is too much. DeGurian warns her graduate students, who are studying to be therapists and social workers, that those feelings do come out eventually.

“Get ready,” she said she tells her stuents. “Get ready. You’re going to be out there practicing as this comes into light.”

When there’s finally a vaccine and leaving one's house is no longer health risk, DeGurian predicts waves of people will suddenly start feeling all sorts of upsetting emotions and need mental health care.

Ashley Taylor, herself a therapist, worries that she hasn’t fully grieved her grandfather’s death because COVID-19 has been so distracting.

“Other that initial month that felt really raw, I don’t know if I felt as raw as I was expecting for like the whole summer,” she said. “It’s scary, in a way, to not what awaits any of us.”

Taylor said that's why she tells her clients it’s healthy to mourn the absence of all kinds of things.

“Grieving that you can’t go to your favorite coffee shop,” she said. “Or, like I couldn’t play with my softball team this summer.”

It’s important, she said, to allow yourself to mourn those things too.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.