January 28, 2022

How COVID-19 is Like Grief.

I’m grateful that we didn’t know, as the pandemic first slithered into our lives in early 2020, that we’d still be dealing with it two years later.

I’m not sure I could’ve handled it.

With little warning, regular life as we knew it toppled. Kids were home from school. We feared each other’s exhales. We hoarded toilet paper. Some of us even sanitized groceries. We struggled with the surrealness of life in a pandemic.

Fast forward two years. In the past few weeks, several of my vaccinated, boosted, science-lovin’ friends have gotten COVID-19. At this point, trying to avoid it no longer seems realistic. It would be like declaring, “I’m never going to get a cold or flu again!”

It seems like COVID-19 is here to stay. Like seasonal colds and influenza and mosquitos.

Like grief.

If someone had told me, when I was 24 and my brother had just died, that the grief would never go away, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle that, either. My hands were full with trying to survive my family’s new, terrible reality. My chest throbbed, as if someone had just ripped out a fistful of my flesh. I was grief-drunk, my brain bursting with strange thoughts and glistening memories while the ticker tape of my brother is dead marched on an endless loop. New grief is like the hardest part of childbirth, when the contractions crash over one another—there is no space to rest between the blinding bursts of pain.

When someone we love dies, we’re sometimes expected to heal quickly. To move on. Find solace in the memories. Basically, hurry up and get the devastated, shock-riddled, grief-sick phase over with so the rest of us can feel more comfortable in the presence of your gaping pain.

But grief isn’t like that.

There’s often an acute stage, where our bodies and minds are working so hard to comprehend the loss that it takes all of our time and energy to do so. Early grief is often physical—our chests ache, our immune system becomes more vulnerable to infection. We might find it hard to eat or sleep.

But what about months or years later, when we’ve had some time to process the loss? When the death is no longer a shock, but a fact of our lives?

Grief for my brother can still rise up in the most unexpected of times. It tends to lie dormant for a spell, coiled in a dusty corner. Then I’ll hit a deathiversary or I’ll spot someone in the grocery store who looks like my brother, or I’m innocently browsing birthday cards and my eyes graze the placard that says From Sister and I wonder, am I even a sister when my only sibling has been gone for longer than he was alive? And the loss roars over me, a wave of grief as forceful as the ones I felt in the very beginning.

We don’t get over grief, just like we probably won’t get over COVID-19. COVID-19 blazed into our lives, chiseling out a new and unwelcome before and after.

It’s transformed how we work and socialize and hold funerals. It’s shifted how we feel about vaccinations, which didn’t use to be so political and polarized. It’s changed us in ways we’ll be dealing with and processing for a long time. The ripples of trauma, anxiety, and grief for health care workers, teachers, children, parents, and those who’ve lost loved ones will be profound and will likely take years to unpack.

Most epidemiologists agree that COVID-19 will become endemic, like colds and the flu. We might experience seasonal or geographic flare-ups. With time and scientific advances, we’ll probably accrue more and more tools to handle those flare-ups.

We’ll learn to live with COVID-19 as an uninvited, but likely permanent, guest. This is how I’ve come to see grief, too. It’s endemic. As stubborn and lasting as love.

If I could time travel back and sit beside my newly grieving self, young and broken, I might say,

It won’t always feel like this.

The pain will stay, but it will soften. You will learn to exist alongside it.

With time, you will find spaces to rest.

You will navigate flare-ups.

This loss will leave you both stronger and more tender. 

You never invited grief, but it’s here. Allow it in.


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