Pamela Addison didn’t expect to cry as much as she did when she got her second vaccine a few months back.
But then she thought of her husband, Martin, a speech and language pathologist who happened to work at the vaccination site she had gone to, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey.
Martin died at age 44 in April 2020 from COVID-19, leaving behind Addison, a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son. His wife said he was a hopeless romantic, a Brit who loved Liverpool Football Club and an exceptional father who had a lot more parenting in him.
“Getting my vaccine, I thought about how he would have been one of the first to get his had he not caught COVID,” Addison told HuffPost.
“I was standing in line to register for my second dose and I looked to my left and there was a plaque with his name and a butterfly on the wall to remember those hospital workers who passed in 2020,” she said. “The moment I saw that plaque, I started to cry and didn’t stop until I left the hospital fully vaccinated.”
The heightened mixed emotions Addison felt that day ― fortunate and happy to be vaccinated but heartbroken over her recent loss ― is a common feeling for many who’ve lost someone to COVID-19.
“My life will never be ‘normal’ again because I have lost the person I planned to grow old with.”
Everyone else seems to be rushing to get back to “normal”: back to normal at the office, back to summer travel plans, back to wedding season, back to sporting events and the beach, back to simply enjoying life again, without fear of the virus.
But for many of those who are in mourning ― considering 600,000 Americans have died of COVID, it’s a sizable demographic ― there’s a general feeling that the country has still not done enough to acknowledge the loss we’ve experienced due to the pandemic.
For them, there’s no “normal” to return to.
“It’s definitely difficult to see people go back to regular life,” Addison said. “My kids will never get the chance to do normal things like go to sporting events with their papa, go on a vacation or spend another holiday with him. My life will never be ‘normal’ again because I have lost the person I planned to grow old with.”
Without having experienced a loss like Addison’s, it’s easy to feel like the pandemic is essentially over. But it’s not over for the loved ones left behind. In April, a University of Southern California study found that as many as 43,000 U.S. children have lost a parent to COVID-19 ― a 20% increase in parental loss compared to a typical year.
Not only that, but hundreds of Americans and thousands around the world are still dying of COVID-19 every day.
The virus still needs to be managed and monitored, but at best, it seems like concern over COVID-19 has melted away. At worst, it feels like widespread apathy and toxic American individualism.
For those left behind, it’s tremendously difficult to reconcile all of that with the unique kind of grief they’re still moving through, said Hope Edelman, a grief and loss coach and author of “Motherless Daughters” and “The Aftergrief.”
“The cocoon in which they’ve existed this past year, and in which they had to grieve in partial or total isolation, may have begun to feel self-protective,” she said. “They may not be ready to celebrate or resume social activities right away, especially if their loss created a change in status, such as from spouse to widow.”
COVID-era grief really doesn’t resemble grief as we’ve experienced it before, Edelman continued.
“Losses over the past 15 months are colored by memories of social isolation, hospital restrictions, and Zoom funerals, and we don’t know how that’s going to play out on a mass scale,” she said.
Memorials, graduations and baby showers help us mentally and emotionally process change and transition in our lives. But because of COVID restrictions, funerals and mourning had to take place from a distance, or alone. Without those public rituals, moving through the pain and getting to the other side is a tall order, said Casey Swartz, a Pittsburgh-based counselor who specializes in dealing with trauma.
“When we can’t engage in those rituals, there’s a sense of derealization ― feeling disconnected from the emotion, or the realness of the loss,” she said.
“As we ease out of quarantine life and back into everyday life it can feel like you’re starting the grieving process over again. And in some ways you are,” Swartz added. “The reality of that person missing from everyday real life has begun.”
What Lifting Restrictions Means For Mourning
“Getting back to normal” has been a surreal experience for Fiana Garza Tulip, a Brooklyn-based communications worker who lost her mother, Isabelle Papadimitriou, to COVID-19 on July 4, 2020.
Papadimitriou was a 64-year old respiratory therapist with visions of retiring at 65 after nearly 30 years on the job. The frontline worker spent her last week texting and calling her kids, reassuring them she was strong and that there was no need to worry about her.
She even found time to send some Amazon packages their way. “After she died, we received a package with a pair of pink frilly sandals for Lua, my 9-month-old daughter,” Tulip said.
“Everything happened so fast,” Tulip added. “I had visions of flying down to Texas to see her. I thought she’d be on a ventilator for a few weeks and then we’d have our mom back. I could then tell her I loved her and hug her so tight.”
When Tulip hears President Joe Biden and others talk of “getting back to normal” by July 4 ― the one-year anniversary of her mom’s passing ― she feels like she’s in some alternate universe.
“I’m stuck in this cycle of misery and grief. I can’t even imagine what ‘normal’ is at this point,” she said.
Laura Jackson also feels immobilized by grief while the rest of the world seemingly moves on. She lost her husband, Charlie, a 50-year-old army vet “with a zest for life” in May 2020.
“This time is bittersweet because I want life to be normal, but when you lose someone so precious to you to a virus that claims so many lives, you proceed with hesitation,” she said. “I’m fully vaccinated but I still wear my mask.”
Mostly, she just misses her partner. “I haven’t properly mourned my husband,” she said. “I am still struggling with the fact I couldn’t be there to hold his hand and say goodbye. My final touch and time with him was in full PPP equipment. I couldn’t feel his skin or kiss his face.”
Jerri Vance of Princeton, West Virginia, lost her husband, James, a retired police officer, on Jan. 1 ― roughly one month before the couple were supposed to get their vaccine. Vance said her husband was the ultimate “girl dad,” ushering the couple’s two daughters to and from soccer practice, cross country meets and dance recitals.
What bothers Vance most is how quick folks are to put this behind them and throw caution to the wind when it comes to the new strains of the virus.
“I do feel like things suddenly started opening up really quickly and my children and myself are still very careful and scared of the virus,” she said. “I say that we have PTSD from COVID.”
That’s understandable, given the outsized loss the family has experienced: Just 52 days after James died, the girls also lost their grandma to the virus.
Vance wishes there was more empathy for families like hers right now.
“I worry that 10 years from now, COVID will be a joke to everyone, but for the 600,000-plus families who lost a loved one, COVID will always be a trigger for us,” she said. “I’ll always be thinking about how the vaccine came a few months too late to save him.”
Playing through the what-if scenarios is what Rezina Malik is currently struggling with. Malik lost her 75-year-old father, Khalifa, in February 2021, just as the vaccine was beginning to be rolled out in the U.K. where the family lives.
“At the time, the news would demonstrate how COVID death rates were decreasing with all these snazzy graphs and numbers,” she said. “I hated it.”
Malik and her mom both still feel guilt over what they could have done to further protect Khalifa. “My mother blames herself, ‘I should’ve taken better care of him. I shouldn’t have allowed anyone into the house. We shouldn’t have gone to Tesco’s to shop,’” Malik said.
She often thinks about how much life he had to live. A study out of the University of Glasgow found that people with coronavirus are dying 10 years earlier than they would have naturally, disproving the notion that those who died were already nearing the end of their lives.
“Hearing that statement lands like a heavyweight punch in my gut,” Malik said.
How We Can Acknowledge And Recognize Pandemic Grief
Kristin Urquiza lost her dad, Mark, in June 2020. A year later, she still feels like she’s in the thick of it sometimes.
“When my dad first passed, I felt a combination of rolling grief and pure rage. I felt like there was a hurricane inside of me that could blow over buildings,” she said. “But even just yesterday, I found myself in a heap of tears on the ground saying, ‘When will I ever get to mourn?’”
Urquiza has spent the last year advocating for the needs of grieving families as the co-founder of Marked By COVID. Tulip is also involved.
Currently, the group is working with Congress and mayors to establish a permanent federal COVID-19 Memorial Day (HR 174) to help people more ably process their grief.
“The point we try to make is that as a society, we need to both celebrate the victories and mourn the losses,” Urquiza said. “I haven’t seen nearly enough on that latter front. We want people to take our grief seriously.”
Because of the nature of the pandemic, there’s been few public displays of collective mourning. The candlelit vigils we’ve come to expect in the wake of national crises like 9/11 or the Boston marathon bombings have been eerily absent from this shared experience.
To that end, Marked By COVID has organized more than 150 grassroots vigils and hosted online vigils that have been attended by thousands of people grieving.
Therapists we spoke to said ritualizing these losses in such a manner is important to the grief process. So, too, is finding an outlet to talk about the experience, whether it’s a good friend or clinical therapy.
“There’s a saying in therapy that the mentionable becomes manageable, so talk with your friends and family about how you’re feeling if you’re going through this,” Swartz said. “Chances are they’re feeling similarly and would be relieved to hear you are, too.”
There’s no timetable for how long grief lasts or how you should feel at any one stage, and that’s especially true with COVID losses, according to Edelman.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all model, no ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts,’” she explained. “You get to choose what feels right for you. Anyone who tries to force your emotions into a preexisting model or police your responses simply doesn’t understand this.”
The language used to talk about grief matters, too. Just as those impacted by COVID are sensitive to the framing of “get back to normal,” we should be careful about the verbiage we use to discuss the mourning process.
“Let’s remember phrases like ‘moving on’ and ‘getting over it’ often make mourners think the ultimate goal is to leave their grief behind,” Edelman said. “We need to change the language to ‘moving on with’ rather than ‘moving on from.’ We carry grief forward, where it continues to flare up from time to time. That’s completely normal.”