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You Can't Outrun Pandemic Grief04:12
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Family members mourn the death of Conrad Coleman Jr. following his funeral service on July 03, 2020 in New Rochelle, New York. Coleman, 39, died of COVID-19 on June 20, 2020, just over two months after his father Conrad Coleman Sr. also died of the disease. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Family members mourn the death of Conrad Coleman Jr. following his funeral service on July 03, 2020 in New Rochelle, New York. Coleman, 39, died of COVID-19 on June 20, 2020, just over two months after his father Conrad Coleman Sr. also died of the disease. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The first few months of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time on television. With so much grief rippling through the world, media outlets wanted to talk about it — they needed to talk about it. Grief was suddenly on everyone’s minds. It wasn’t some unfortunate thing that happened to other people. It was happening to us. Here. Now. Every single day.

COVID unified us, in a way. With everyone hurting, it became easier to talk about grief. And we had to talk about it — we couldn’t escape it. Over 600,000 American families lost someone (often more than one person) to the virus. Healthcare workers saw wartime medicine conditions. Whole cities emptied out, the silence punctuated by sirens. We washed our groceries before bringing them inside, eyed others with suspicion, wondered if the air itself was a direct threat to life. We missed births, funerals and momentous occasions, all in the name of trying to stay alive.

But now, with vaccination rates rising in the U.S., and the warm summer months beckoning, the rush back to "normal" is upon us. We all need a break from the pain and uncertainty of recent months... and yet, the quest for normalcy could override our need to process what’s happened to us.

The kind of cognitive distancing we’re seeing now is a normal human trait. As humans, we manage emotional intensity by forcing some space from it. We tend to approach things as an oppositional equation: you can either focus on your losses, or you can celebrate the future. You can stay in the dark, hard moments of the pandemic, or you can celebrate your survival. Which one will it be?

We’ve been at these cultural crossroads before.

It’s been true throughout all of human history: when we can’t talk openly about grief, it just finds another way to speak.

In 1917, three years into World War I and at the beginning of last century’s deadly flu pandemic, Sigmund Freud wrote his signature work on grief. It was a paper called “Mourning and Melancholia,” and in it, he posited that you simply need to “withdraw” your energy from the person who died and attach it to someone else. The paper gave a framework for suppressing grief in order to embrace life, a seductive and reductive approach to mental and emotional health.

Two years later, his own daughter died, followed soon after by his grandson. Freud himself recanted his paper in the wake of his personal experience, but by then, his initial position on grief had become canon.

While the surviving nation partied its way through the roaring ‘20s, grieving families were left without support as traditional mourning rituals disappeared, and the emphasis was on celebration, not grief-related rumination. Grief itself was tucked away from polite society. The historical practice of confining women to insane asylums or “sanitariums” due to their unseemly emotional response to loss continued through the 1930s. (The term “hysteria” is directly related to the medical establishment’s view of women’s grief: it was considered weak and unhealthy to have any reaction to loss at all.)

Twenty-five years after Freud’s paper, World War II brought suffering and loss into the daily lives of Londoners. The aftermath of World War II and the bombing of London resulted in the “blitz spirit” — a coordinated, stoic response to widespread loss, displacement and fear. Beautifully described by Richard Overy in an article connecting historical stoicism and the Coronavirus age, the message of  “keep calm and carry on” masked the reality of the situation, giving rise to the kind of positivity we see running rampant in modern social media and pop psychology today. This “stiff upper lip” approach served to erase the reality at hand, forcing people to deny their own losses and the losses around them. This paved the way for more suffering, as veterans of WWII (and all successive armed conflict) became invisible, their obvious wounds acting as reminders of the pain of suffering we’re meant to repress.

Medical workers hug outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020 in New York City. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Medical workers hug outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020 in New York City. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

These cultural and medical mandates to return to normal didn’t erase grief, they just made it harder to talk about. Each successive suppression drove us further from emotional wellbeing, helping to create the multiple, unfavorable health and relational conditions we have now. Even before the pandemic, loneliness was considered a growing public health crisis. Deaths by suicide were climbing, especially in younger populations and the medical fields. Addiction rates were soaring. It’s been true throughout all of human history: when we can’t talk openly about grief, it just finds another way to speak.

These last 18 months have been hard. What the pandemic gave us was a nearly universal experience of loss: no one was spared. Everyone carries something forward from the pandemic, whether that’s the effects of physical isolation, the dissolution of relationships, or the loss of people we love. And these losses will continue to unfold. Though it’s tempting to push forward and forget about the past, we can’t outrun this grief.

Grief has receded, but it hasn’t left our lives. If we so choose, we can make space for it, even as we embrace the joys of human connection and touch.

We have a choice now, as individuals and as a collective, to include these cascading losses as part of our story. We can talk openly about the hardships of this time, listening to each other, making space for grief to exist. We can learn from historical lessons and choose a different path of emotional honesty and connection, refusing to mortgage our future emotional health for the chance to move forward as if nothing has happened.

Grief has receded, but it hasn’t left our lives. If we so choose, we can make space for it, even as we embrace the joys of human connection and touch. We can make conversations about loss into acceptable party topics. We can talk about the ways we’ve missed each other, leaning into those things we longed for all those months. From that shared reality, we can build a world that respects the whole range of human experience, both joy and loss in equal measure.

Our cultural insistence on resilience as the marker of health isn’t going to do us any favors. Real health is not the absence of grief, but the willingness to tell the truth about how much things hurt. To own how hard it is to be human sometimes.

The real cutting edge of human emotional development isn’t resilience, and it isn’t a stiff upper lip. It’s acknowledgment.

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Related:

Megan Devine Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Megan Devine is the author of "It's OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand," and the new guided journal, "How To Carry What Can’t Be Fixed." 

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