How a death prepared me for a pandemic

Since last March, every day has been filled with news of COVID-19 statistics: surges, declines, the myriad of symptoms, and the staggering number of deaths. As a 23-year-old pre-med post-bacc student, I was suddenly moving home — with my apartment’s meager supply of toilet paper and Clorox wipes — to spend the unforeseeable future with my parents.

Like many, the first few weeks were filled with uncertainty, worry, and a naïve optimism, or perhaps ignorance, that this unusual virus would be figured out soon, and within weeks we would get back to “business as usual.” The weeks and months wore on.

The fear of COVID-19 grew as new and varying symptoms were reported. But, people’s patience also wore thin.  Not only were we all dealing with the stress surrounding fears about the virus, but we were also dealing with the emotional, mental, and physical strain that isolation had put on us. Our lives were abruptly interrupted in so many ways, yet we were asked to carry on and shoulder these burdens in seclusion.

The emotions I felt and am still feeling during this pandemic echo the experience of chaos and absurdity I was confronted with when my dad died suddenly. We as humans struggle to grasp both concepts, so it manifests in grief, anger, numbness, all while still being forced to carry on.

The familiarity of these emotions was almost comforting, knowing I had experienced a life-altering, perception-shattering loss. It was a loss of a loved one and ultimately a loss of the person I was and the life I had before.  Five years later from the sudden loss of my dad, I found myself facing another uncertainty, this time in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. I almost felt emotionally prepared, thinking if I survived my dad’s death and came out on the other side, I could (at least emotionally) cope with this pandemic and the volatility it was to bring.

Throughout this year, I have spoken with friends and family about this traumatic time. We are isolated, we are afraid, we are worried for ourselves and loved ones, and most of all, we are coping the best we can. Coping also means grieving: grieving the lost time, lost opportunities, lost youth, lost year(s), lost social interaction, and let’s not forget the lost lives.

Whether you or a loved one has tested positive for COVID-19 or not, we have all been personally affected by the pandemic in varied and unique ways. Some of us powered on and clung to the mundane in our lives. Some appreciated being able to work from home but also dealt with the double-edged sword of increased isolation. Some of us ventured out every day to work in-person, braving the potential of contracting an uncertain and deadly virus- and to frontline workers, we thank you.

And just as trauma and death can take time and distance for the real reckoning and grieving to begin, we will all have a moment where we take a deep breath, feel a sense of relief that the worst is over, and then the realization and grief sets in. But with grief comes healing and perspective, and that is what I am hopeful for.

Jill Fleming is a premedical student.

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