How the pandemic resurfaced my grief

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Content warning: detailed description of death 

I wish I could say that I learned a new hobby or language during the pandemic — that I taught myself to crochet or picked back up the guitar that has been collecting dust in the corner of my room. Instead, all I have to show for my time during the pandemic is a hefty amount of emotional baggage. 

Our basic understanding of grief is as a response to the loss of another life — say family, friend, pet, or acquaintance. I always thought that grief was something felt only when having experienced physical and tangible loss. But I’ve learned that grief can also come as a response to anticipated loss, a traumatic event, period or experience. 

When I went through a period in my life where I was bracing myself for loss, I felt like I was walking through water. A numb mind and body consumed me and prevented me from moving forward or processing the world around me. Only recently did I realize that I was experiencing early signs of grief.

Before the pandemic began, I witnessed my mother become ill with cancer. My last two years of high school with my family were spent distancing ourselves from one another as we dealt with our fear and grief individually. I was approached by friends and coworkers of hers asking, “Where is your mother? I heard she took time off.” Their questions came as a response to her noticeable absence, and I feared the possibility of that absence becoming permanent. Yet I did not allow myself to be explicit in my emotional responses to her illness. Every day I repeated to myself, You’re not the one with cancer. In my mind, I felt I had no right to become emotional and start grieving when I was not the one in pain.

After my mother beat cancer, I felt insurmountable relief that it was over. I saw her recovery as an indicator of an optimistic future — the impending new decade would be a chance to leave my grievances behind. My grief began to dissipate as I took her recovery and a new decade as a sign of good fortune — our home would no longer be haunted by the possibility of impending loss.   

Yet as the pandemic began, and the two weeks to flatten the curve turned into two years, so many of us have witnessed loved ones get sick. Grief has become one of the most prominent features of the pandemic. Whether we’re grieving the loss of the lives we once had or loss of someone to COVID-19, grief is all around us. I am incredibly fortunate to have not lost anyone from the pandemic. But there are thousands of others who have. It cannot be understated how devastating the pandemic has been for those who have felt insurmountable loss. 

During the months we collectively spent in isolation, I was languishing in the despair of life lost. Time spent alone only exacerbated these feelings. With the news of the outside world holding constant reminders of death and illness, my fear of death and grief resurfaced. I think back to when I was unable to move throughout the day, stricken as I was with immense guilt over being unable to take my mom’s pain away and make it my own. I realize now that I’m still grieving this period of my life. No matter how hard I try to push my memories down, I still get flashbacks of my mom saying, “Don’t look” when I saw her hair in the trash can. The pandemic caused the pain of watching my mom grow weaker from disease to be at the forefront of my mind. I still fear death and feel the dread of anticipated grief.

As I write this, I wonder if I am even entitled to say that I am grieving at all when there are so many others who have lost so much more. But to some degree, we have all felt some form of loss from the pandemic. Life, loved ones, whatever it may be, we are all entitled to our emotional responses to loss and to trauma. 

I am still struggling to come to terms with my past and the collective trauma of the pandemic that has wrung out all emotional and mental capacities I once had. I know now that I am still capable of moving forward in my life and that I should continue to try to let the past go. I don’t want to completely forget. But acknowledging the pain of the past while not letting it consume my present will allow me to properly heal.

For now, I’m comfortable knowing that the most important task ahead is to heal from my past. Maybe then I can finally pick up my guitar again and adapt to a post-pandemic world.

Maya Banuelos is a social media deputy editor. Contact her at [email protected].