How do we grieve in a pandemic?

A few weeks ago, I wondered aloud whether people grieve the same in the middle of a pandemic. A pandemic or other tragedies like earthquakes or tsunamis, when there are hundreds or thousands of people grieving for their lost family members and friends, is their individual grief felt less acutely? Does it help to know that there are other families grieving like yours? Or does the individual grief get pushed aside by collective trauma?

My dad died of COVID-19 last week. He’d come back to Wisconsin from Florida about two weeks before; my mom planned to stay down there in their condo for a few more weeks. He was still working (he thought if he stayed 6 feet away from people, it was fine to still work). He was in the office on Tuesday; I convinced him to call his doctor, go home and stay there. He reluctantly listened, was started on a Z-pack by his doctor, and by Wednesday morning, he said his cough was a lot better, and he was planning to nap and work from home. I told him he probably had COVID-19, but that a test wouldn’t change the course of it. He was so surprised to hear me say that: He was absolutely convinced he just had a cold. That was the last time I talked to him.

Just after I talked with him Wednesday, a residency friend called and reported the horrific news that my medical school and residency mentor, an amazing family doctor and gifted teacher, was murdered alongside her husband in a targeted act of senseless violence. My heart broke in two. All I wanted to do was hug all of my residency classmates and faculty and share in our collective broken-heartedness. A spontaneous phone tree spread the news to the far-flung places where their friends sat in disbelief, alone in our pain.

At work on Thursday, I heard a lot of “I’m so sorry to hear about your friends,” along with “I wish I could hug you.” I could feel myself delaying my grief. I just wanted to keep busy and move forward with all of the COVID work I’ve been involved in. I Zoom called into incident command as usual on Thursday and quickly had to turn off my video when the CEO read a blessing aloud to the team at the beginning of the meeting so I could cry at my desk. By the end of the meeting, though, I had tasks and jobs and work to do. It helped me get through that day.

Friday morning, I was at the clinic when my brother called and mentioned that he and my mom hadn’t been able to get in touch with my dad the day before, so they sent someone to check on him. He was sleeping, she woke him up, and he seemed “OK”, but no one had heard from him since. I started thinking about driving the 3 hours to my dad’s house to lay eyes on him. I thought about the PPE I would bring, and grabbing a pulse ox to bring with. I thought about putting him in my car and bringing him to my local hospital, where I knew the kind of care he would get and might be able to visit him if he was admitted. I called my mom when I was done with morning patients to check-in. When she answered in a quiet voice and asked where I was, I knew immediately what the news would be. My dad was dead. Found by a coworker on the floor next to his bed; EMS was called and said he had been dead for a couple of hours.

Grief in a global pandemic means that when my colleague walked to my door because she overheard my end of that phone call, she lovingly put her hand on my back, but we didn’t hug. Grief in a global pandemic means my mom drove alone from Florida to arrive at a house that she’s afraid might still be contagious. Grief in a global pandemic means that my friends and family are all collectively grieving in the silos of our own homes. Grief in a global pandemic means sitting down to write a futile email to Wisconsin lawmakers to please, for the love of everything holy, cancel in-person voting for the scheduled election.

The medical examiner called yesterday with the result we expected. COVID-19 test was positive. My dad was the second person in his county to die from it, the 77th in the state of Wisconsin, and roughly the 8,000th to die in the U.S. I am heartbroken for us, but also heartbroken for the thousands of families worldwide who are grieving in these lonely times.

I am grateful for my generous and loving community, who have called, sent cards, messages, freshly baked bread, eggs from their chickens, baked goods, soup, casseroles, and homemade beer. A friend came over yesterday, I told her to BYO chair; we chatted 8 feet apart. A faraway friend sent a care package with coffee and bath bombs. My daughter’s teacher invited her to a one-on-one Zoom meeting, and she let me know she adjusted the family questions on the upcoming autobiography project so that it can be therapeutic for her, rather than painful. Grief in a global pandemic doesn’t have to look lonely.

Someday we’ll gather and mourn the loss of our loved ones. Someday we will sit in moment of collective joy — a concert or a festival maybe — and smile in disbelief. Someday we’ll all go to a funeral not long after someone beloved has died and rejoice in the fact that we can be with our communities as we grieve, and hug the ones that are hurting. Until that time, I’ll grieve in this unique, delayed way, and hope that all the other families who are also grieving have a community to lift them up with love and peace from a distance.

Sarah Fox is a family physician.

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