Our year in grief
None of us were prepared for the loss of life as we knew it — practically overnight — back in March. But some of us who’d experienced it before knew what to call the impenetrable fog of surreality that suddenly fell, that void of absence — the hollow stasis severing you from the world just right outside your window.
It was grief.
To those fortunate enough to have avoided profound grief prior to the pandemic, it brings me no joy to welcome you to this most solemn of clubs, as universal as it is alienating.
Grief is the type of thing you cannot know until you yourself suffer a loss so cataclysmic that it takes a part of you with it. Grief is an isolation so deep it separates your very being from the realm of reality, leaving you unreachable even when not technically alone. Grief knows no rules, defying the laws of physics itself, so moments of distress last lifetimes while events from only days prior to your loss feel as though they happened in a different timeline, to a different person altogether. Grief comes in waves, the bouts of raw, skin-crawling agony interspersed with a deathly unfeeling, both jarringly juxtaposed against the unavoidable normalities of everyday life.
In mourning, the world stops. But it also shambles on like it always has. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.
In mourning, the world stops. But it also shambles on like it always has.
You still wake up each morning, clock into work, pay the bills, feed the kids, buy the groceries. As your body navigates existence on autopilot, you pretend the salivating gargoyle of mortality is not breathing down your neck every waking moment of every day everywhere you go. You get so good at pretending you start believing the lie yourself — until it all catches up, denial caves in, and you’re back in that festering agony. The cycle restarts.
No one on Earth escaped the incalculable, ever-mounting toll of losses that defined 2020. If you’re unsure what you’ve been experiencing is grief, though, there are some telltale signs for identifying the singular state of unreality that only bereaved minds comprehend.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s acclaimed memoir on the death of her husband, she describes the bouts of irrational “disordered thinking” that accompany grief, as a brain struggles to process an unfathomable truth. She panics after reading her husband’s obituaries, because it means, “I had allowed other people to think he was dead. I had allowed him to be buried alive.” She finds herself incapable of getting rid of his shoes because, “how could he come back if he had no shoes?”
The role of magical thinking in processing grief helps explain so much of the absurdly illogical behaviors we’ve seen in ourselves, others, and even government leaders in the highest offices.
In part, magical thinking was why you didn’t really listen to the increasingly urgent warnings from epidemiologists about the devastating outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China back in December 2019 — why you still refused to take its inevitable arrival on our shores seriously, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) officially in March.
It’s why you , calling everyone else suckers for not taking advantage of cheap flights. It’s why, even after America’s borders closed and quarantine orders began, you told yourself this was a good thing, actually, because you’d finally have time to garden or write that novel. (Did you know ?) It’s why you stock-piled on everything from canned food to toilet paper, because if you had access to 30 to 40 rolls of Charmin at all times, then you’d be safe, the virus couldn’t get you. It’s why you kept attending weekly Zoom happy hours and lackluster drive-thru holiday celebrations, forcing a smile onto your face to convince yourself as much as others that this was enough, that these by reminding you of all the basic human needs we could no longer fulfill.
It’s why you wanted to believe people (like the ) who said these fears were overblown, that . It’s why, despite knowing better than to trust Trump, you still , if only to justify the bigger risks you were taking as . It’s why, despite pleas from experts, you or anyway, because family was “worth the risk” and if we stop celebrating traditions then doesn’t the virus win?
It’s why you fell for at least one of the endless pieces of viral misinformation on social media, more willing to believe false conspiracy theories , a mass-orchestrated , or — because that was less terrifying than the . It’s why you still worry about getting the vaccine, even though you know you need to. It’s why you exploded in rage, needing to blame it all on China, or the WHO, or Dr. Fauci, or your governor, , , an unmasked family , innocent grocery store clerks politely asking you to wear a mask.
Unacknowledged grief can make monsters of us all. Loss refuses to be ignored. One way or another, regardless of whether you even know it’s what’s happening, grief always finds a way to escape despite being buried deep inside your mind.
WATCH: How people around the world are dealing with coronavirus lockdown
The endless stages of grief in 2020
In 2020, we were not “together alone,” like all those sentimental COVID ads insisted. We were alone, even when together.
As of this writing, the virus has robbed around 313,000 Americans — along with an average of suffering — of life itself. But acute experiences of grief are by no means limited to death alone. The multiplicity of the interconnected losses we suffered in 2020 are often just as painful as the passing of a loved one.
The unprecedented and unparalleled nexus of so-called “ambiguous losses” caused by the pandemic led Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, to describe grief in the era of coronavirus as a category all its own. “We’re talking about grieving a living loss — one that keeps going and going,” he told .
Aside from the more clear-cut loss of lives, the ever-ballooning crises of tell of the untold losses that millions of other Americans are suffering from different kinds of debilitating casualties. The loss of identity, safety, autonomy, expectation, and dignity that often follow joblessness and homelessness can be equally shattering, made only worse by the fact that they’re .
You don’t need to have been a victim of to share in the ubiquity of trauma from 2020’s all-encompassing loss of normalcy, predictability, control, justice, or trust either. Kids were deprived of childhoods, a whole generation of youth robbed of milestones like prom or going to college or graduating, the elderly fortunate enough to have survived apocalyptic nursing homes were denied their last years of life.
You could be one of the thousands of survivors with “long haul” COVID, grieving the unexpected loss of your . Perhaps you are on the , a or the loved one of someone dying of the virus who can’t even properly care for them. You are left in the impossible circumstance of grieving the impending loss of your loved one who might be on just the other side of a hospital door. But your only responsible choice is to leave them to die alone so you can protect yourself and other loved ones from exposure.
Or maybe your grief is more maddeningly internalized, that masochistic form of bereavement rendering lockdown more unlivable than it already is: a loss of belief in yourself. Because you never wrote your King Lear. Your pandemic garden is now rotted and weed-infested. You mourn the person you thought you were, someone who’d be strong enough to persevere in the face of adversity with productivity.
But it turns out you’re not that special. You’re like everyone else, just as incapacitated by a globe-crushing pandemic. For some reason this feels like a personal failure, rather than a comforting universality of simply being human.
The grief of diseases no vaccine can cure
Incredulously, the losses of 2020 were not contained to the coronavirus’ immediate after effects, either. Nothing was immune to the boundless scope of our year in grief. From to the mere , the that was 2020 infected everything else the virus itself didn’t directly touch.
There were also the communal losses of so many titanic legends, their deaths (unrelated to COVID-19) devastating in a normal year but unthinkable in one so dark that we could spare the extinguishing of their lights: Kobe and Gianna Bryant, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Little Richard, Alex Trebek.
That’s not to mention the irreplaceable lives senselessly stolen by such a cacophony of injustices that the entire world joined America’s chorus in saying their names on the streets.
That’s not to mention the irreplaceable lives senselessly stolen by such a cacophony of injustices that the chorus in saying their names on the streets: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile — and the names we can’t stop chanting.
Meanwhile, no matter which side of the political chasm you’re on, most of us experienced an irreparable loss of faith in our government as it failed at every possible turn to protect its citizens in our greatest time of need. Somehow, our dear leaders found a way to disabuse us of every last remaining vestiges of hope we’d clung onto that the richest nation in the world could not possibly leave its people to languish in death, decay, and poverty. But they did, struggling to provide anything more than an insulting to survive a year-long pandemic and greatest economic recession since the Great Depression.
I’m by no means surprised, but sometimes the sheer horror of it sinks in. We’ve all been left to fend for ourselves in a global pandemic, as the people we voted for on both and state level wash their hands of caring to instead plan all that hard work they didn’t complete to save us. It’s a loss of faith in not only our current system, but the very foundation of those truths we allegedly held to be self-evident.
This profound grief is more than a loss of faith in just our country, leaders, and institutions, though. You can’t come out of 2020 without at least questioning your trust in literally each and every single fucking pillar of modern human society. It’s a grief that mostly manifests as red hot rage, as you think of all the spectacular failures of our technological marvel of a digital age.
Far from delivering on its promises of utopian advancements, the tech industry punished us in 2020 instead. From in their warehouses to from the comfort and isolation of their own homes, we paid for the privilege of this technocratic death state by making . Despite knowing for years of the real-life consequences of misinformation’s viral spread on social media, companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter only started making , when it was already far too late. Tech monopolies, so busy innovating their awesome future filled with “disruptive” innovations like and , never bothered to safeguard humanity against the worst impulses that their inventions exacerbate (maybe because it’s ).
Grieving the nauseating false idealism of the tech industry is only the top layer of that especially pus-filled 2020 wound. Beneath the rotting flesh of our loss of faith in tech is the bone-deep loss of faith in people themselves.
How many of us grieved loved ones — fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, lifelong friends — lost to the ? The number of people swallowed by the black hole of social media-fueled conspiracy was so large this year that the worst of it was voted into goddamn Congress. In 2020, we the power to influence our governmental policies for determining the survival of our democracy, recovery from the pandemic, and larger issues of catastrophic climate change.
Watching a loved one succumb to the alternate dimensions of is that living loss Neimeyer talked about, a grief for something both gone but still ongoing. Obviously, loved ones lost to 2020 misinformation are not dead. But the people you thought you knew all those years don’t feel very alive anymore. You’ve effectively lost them, but are not allowed to grieve them. Instead, you must face the desire to they’ve been ensnared in. When you reach out a hand to help, though, it only ever seems to come back empty. You yearn for the love you shared before this labyrinthian hellscape of a year. Yet you know that, like so many other losses from 2020, even if you can pull them back, it won’t ever really be the same.
If you survived 2020 without losing or severely damaging a significant relationship, one way or , then consider yourself lucky. It’s not just a loss of individual people, either. The crippling toll of separation, , escalated for some folks so much that they’re left unsure of whether they’ll be able to be around people up close like in the before times.
We have been drowning in a world so subsumed by omnipresent grief that we didn’t know to call it anything other than a “new normal.”
Like , we have been drowning in a world so subsumed by omnipresent grief that we didn’t know to call it anything other than a “new normal.” Nothing about this is normal. Failing to name grief only gives it more power, alienating us from not only each other but our own selves, denying us the awareness and collective mourning that helps us cope.
One of the hardest parts of grief is reconciling with the permanence of your loss. That might sound contradictory to the hope we now feel after finally seeing the first people in the world get vaccinated. At last, a glimmer of light at the end of the ever-darkening tunnel.
But sometimes, that glimmer looks so far out in the distance that it only serves as a reminder of how far away the outside world still remains. It makes you wonder what kind of world even awaits us on the other side, if it’ll be at all recognizable, or something we want to live in.
The trauma of everything we lost in 2020 cannot be cured by a vaccine.
Like the grief I felt after my sister died suddenly four years ago, I know that eventually the rawness of this gaping wound will scab over and heal. Still, the scars of absence always remain. Mourning is not forever, but the loss of life, livelihood, normalcy, safety, dignity, certainly, and sanity we just experienced on such a massive scale is uncharted territory. It’s hard to not feel even more prolonged, anticipatory grief over the countless crises we can already see on the horizon of the post-pandemic world.
The thing about grief people often fail to understand is how, eventually, you start to mourn the loss of grief itself. As time passes, as you settle more into stages of acceptance, the shape of your loss — of your loved one or missing part of you that’s gone forever — erodes too. Memories of them, of the way it was, start to fade along with the pain.
You are shocked to realize you fear losing the grief itself — the visceral, tangible, living agony — most of all. Because once that’s gone, there will be nothing left but an empty hole where the people and things you loved used to be. You are terrified of rupturing the magical thinking that kept the permanence of loss at bay.
We can’t go back to something that’s gone forever
As the promise of a return to the world as it used to be rises, a new kind of grief comes with it. In the back of your mind, you worry that maybe you’ve been too successful at adapting to pandemic life, dreading the expectation that we can resume normal life as if nothing ever happened. Are the new selves we’ve had to become over this past year equipped to handle “normal” anymore? Do we even want to be?
At this moment, as I only scratch the surface of all our losses and grievances in 2020, I am too angry to accept any pressure to just move on. I want justice, repercussions for the people and systems who failed us when we needed them most. I need retribution, recognition of everything that cannot be recovered. I seek revolution, because all those things 2020 robbed me of made me lose every ounce of trust in the “normal” world that got us here in the first place.
But I know we won’t get any of that. Just like surviving the pandemic, learning to live with the aftermath of its innumerable traumas will be our individual burden to bear too.
Personally and intellectually, I know we will recover from this. Human beings have been surviving collective grief throughout history. Most applicable to our current situation, the world did indeed come back from the 1918 Spanish Flu, though the public’s desire to forget rather than address the trauma of such losses made the residual experience of grief that much worse, . On the more drastic side of wide-scale historic grieving, Jewish people survived century after century of persecution, and it’s by no coincidence that their traditions are often grounded in reconciling with those traumas, honoring their collective losses. Black people around the world from the African diaspora also continue to transform the incalculable losses of all that was stolen from them in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade into a culture of art so powerful (from music to poetry to dance) that its impact often far surpasses anything from people in the white-dominated societies that still oppress them.
I am done pretending that we can put a neat little bow on this ever-expanding monstrosity of loss that is 2020.
Yet, despite knowing all that — the implacability of the human spirit in overcoming even the most severe cases of collective grief — I’m still not ready to concede to optimism yet. I am done pretending that we can put a neat little bow on this ever-expanding monstrosity of loss that is 2020.
At the height of my grief after my sister died, I resented nothing more than the false platitudes people like to say to comfort themselves more than the bereaved. So I won’t do that. Psychology and grief counseling experts say that one of the best things you can do is try to make meaning out of grief. I found that one to actually be true in my previous experience.
For now, I will sit here with my grief in the same room I’ve inhabited for almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over the past nine months. I will continue to let my grief reveal its shape to me, teach me the language for naming its every contour. Hopefully one day I will learn how to befriend my grief. Then maybe after that, I’ll know how to let go of the strange comforts found in mourning.
Like all mortal things, grief dies too. Our only choice now is in how we lay it to rest.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.