The Lonely Losses of the Pandemic

How grieving with the world can leave us feeling alone.

Posted Apr 25, 2020

Zainagatdinov Marat/Shutterstock
Source: Zainagatdinov Marat/Shutterstock

As the world mourns the horrific losses associated with the pandemic, many of us feel alone with our personal grief. Our personal losses seem minor compared with the global devastation. What’s more, “social distancing” has left many of us to suffer our losses in isolation. And yet, we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge and mourn our personal losses as we would at any other time. Doing this will fortify us to tackle the challenges of our anticipated new normal lives—whenever and whatever they may be.

Everyone has suffered a loss of some sort during the epidemic. Many have lost loved ones. Some have been deprived of the ability to physically comfort dying relatives. We have all lost our freedom to move about freely. Many have lost their jobs or at least suffered financial losses. We have all lost the innocent ability to interact with other humans—strangers, friends, and family, alike—without the fear of becoming infected or of possibly infecting them with a potentially deadly virus. 

The Fallacy of Comparing

Many compare their losses to the greater losses of others. Whereas being grateful for our relative good fortune is certainly important, we can still take time to honor our losses and share them with others. 

Richard is able to work from home during the pandemic. He suffers the loss of being able to go to the office and having casual in-person contact with his fellow workers. And yet, he tells himself that he is not entitled to lament his loss: “I shouldn’t complain. I should be grateful. At least I get to work. So many people out there are out of work. They have no income!” While gratitude is important, it helps no one for Richard to deny his own feelings.

Martina tried sharing with her mother how terribly anxious she was “sheltering in place” alone in her apartment. Her mother dismissed her feelings, saying, “You know everyone around the globe is going through the same thing.” Martina felt silly and selfish, “I am like a baby, making everything about me.” However, after having her anxiety validated in the session, she was able to appreciate the sense of security that she had lost. 

Mark's wife suffered a miscarriage at eight weeks while “sheltering in place.” After giving himself a week to grieve, he stopped talking to friends about what he was going through. “How can I take up space talking about my loss? It wasn’t even a person yet; it was just an embryo. People are dying. My friend works in a hospital—what is my suffering compared to what he is going through every day?” Believing that he had no right to share his loss complicated Mark's grief. He lost his characteristically positive spirit and sank into bleak hopelessness. He didn’t recognize himself.

Loss in Isolation

Other losses during the pandemic are lonely due to the social isolation and inability to congregate. The loss of rituals—of saying goodbye to a loved one at their bedside or of sharing losses with close family and friends at a funeral—has left mourners feeling stuck in their grief.

Michelle was devastated at not being able to see her father after he entered hospice. Having been exposed to the virus, she saw no choice but to self-quarantine. Unable to hold his hand as she said goodbye, she contented herself with FaceTime calls. It broke her heart to know that he was suffering the pain and fear of his last breaths in the company of anonymous doctors and nurses in masks. To feel that her father was just one of the hundreds who would die that day in her city led her to feel the greater humanitarian loss eclipsed her feelings about the loss of her own father.

Marianne’s husband died of complications related to COVID 19. “At any other time, I would be surrounded by loved ones. Those hugs are so important. It almost doesn’t feel real, sitting in my apartment talking on the phone and reading emails.” To be with others when you can no longer be with a loved one is an important part of mourning. That others set aside time to bear witness to and share our loss helps us to recognize the extent of the loss we sustained. But more importantly, it allows us not to be alone with the loss.

Making room to grieve

Regardless of how minor or devastating our losses, each loss has a psychological impact. We feel depleted. Our lives are less full. We long for the past—the way things were back when. 

Mourning allows us time:

  • To bear witness to our loss
  • To feel the sadness and, often, anger and guilt
  • To acknowledge that what was lost was loved
  • To share our loss with others 

The mourning process—attending to and then letting go of lost loves—frees us to love again. It prepares us to embrace new people, appreciate new opportunities, and grapple with new challenges. If the mourning process is hindered by minimizing our personal losses or suffering them in isolation, we risk masking our grief—disconnecting from our feelings, giving rise to a deep sense of hopelessness, emptiness, and alienation.

Though it is challenging to feel that there is the space and time to appreciate our personal losses during this time, we must take the time to acknowledge our loss, feel our feelings about it, and have others bear witness to our grief in whatever way possible.