Few things are as painful as a memorial service—except, maybe, a Zoom memorial service. It was early May 2020, the middle of finals week, and about two dozen of my family members had gathered on Zoom to remember my grandfather, who had died two weeks prior. In some ways, it had been a long time coming: His dementia was severe and it had been a few years since he was really himself. To some degree, I had already grieved for him: I had gone to see him in the summer of 2019 while visiting my aunt on the West Coast and had left with the knowledge in the back of my mind that I was seeing him for what could have be the last time.
Still, when news came from the full–time care facility where he lived that he had gotten sick, it was jarring. I had prepared for my grandfather's death, but not for it to happen in the middle of a pandemic. Then, when my aunt called me early the next morning to tell me he had died in the night, the news rushed over my being in a wave of cathartic acceptance—part of me knew before I had even gotten the call. The world was in lockdown, COVID–19 cases were continuing to increase, and my grandfather’s death faded into the background of the overwhelming reality. The impossibility of a formal, in–person memorial service only made the loss feel more unreal; the painful part wasn’t seeing all of my family on a Zoom screen taking turns sharing memories of my grandfather, but more so the fact that we couldn’t all be together to do it.
The New York Times reports that one in three people have lost someone to COVID–19 this year. It is also estimated that for every one person who dies of COVID–19, nine people will bereave that loss. And with over half a million COVID–19–related deaths in the United States alone, we are in a period of collective mourning that has in one way or another touched all of us.
Still, there are the other deaths, like my grandfather’s, that weren’t COVID–19–related, but were nevertheless challenging in a time defined by separation and distance.
“Losing someone at any time is very difficult. But losing someone during a pandemic, when portions of our country are up in flames, we have racism and police brutality making daily headlines, and millions of Americans are facing food and housing insecurity, it makes that even harder,” says Dr. Laura Sinko, a mental health nurse and postdoctoral fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at Penn. Her expertise is in trauma and trauma recovery, but this year she has pivoted to working on pandemic–related trauma. She emphasizes that even if you’re privileged enough to be secure and more or less unaffected directly by this year’s political turmoil, it still amplifies the experience of grief and loss. “Recognizing that while we aren't all experiencing the same trauma, there is this collective trauma that we all are experiencing in different levels and in different shades. We're all in the same storm, but we all have different boats,” she says.
When Penn’s campus shut down last March, it was only the beginning of a series of losses for Rebecca Hennessy (C '23). With her family in the middle of a move, not only had she just been removed from the home she was beginning to build at Penn, but she wasn't returning to a home that felt safe, comfortable, or familiar either. “I just felt so stranded,” she says.
Then in May, in the middle of finals, there was news of a girl whom Rebecca knew from her high school theater department who died from COVID–19 complications.
“It was shocking. You weren't hearing about young people getting COVID–19, much less dying of it. And that just really shakes you up,” she says. As she struggled through the end of the remote semester, Rebecca was also dealing with being part of a community rocked by loss in a world still navigating how to make sense of the immensity of the pandemic’s death toll and getting used to the norm of being socially distant. “We couldn't be with each other—I'm sure there are memories that we shared that I forget about because there was never a chance to just be together and remember.”
But the losses just kept piling on. On top of the shock of losing a former classmate at the beginning of summer and learning that she would have to do the fall semester from home, Rebecca lost one of her closest friends from high school in a sudden accident over Labor Day weekend. “When COVID–19 happened, it all came on in a week, and then nothing was the same. It was the same thing with losing my friend: It just happened. Everything changed. That was it.” Major loss fundamentally changes the brain; just as we will come to view the COVID–19 pandemic as a turning point in global history, traumatic loss becomes a turning point in our lives.
With the amount of loss we’ve experienced this year, Dr. Sinko also sees room for paid bereavement time and policies that cater to grief. “We’re really in an age of disenfranchised grief. And it just builds up and festers, and it takes a toll on our mental health.” But in the middle of the semester, it can be particularly hard for college students to take time to really process grief; our losses—both big and small—become marginalized. While Rebecca shared old photos in her group chat with her high school friends and tried to commemorate her loss virtually, balancing grief on top of the isolation of asynchronous classes and life as a remote college student was an unprecedented challenge—she wasn’t able to fully mourn the loss. “In and of itself, COVID–19 is a lot to process. But then with personal death on top of that, it’s just so much. A couple of weeks after his death, it really hit me, and I just broke mid–semester.”
For so many people, especially young people, this is the first time in their lives that they lost something so major, whether it be a person, a graduation ceremony, or just a year of in–person school. “I've never really dealt with grief, if I'm being honest. And that has made the last year a lot more difficult. That's a blessing, but then [the loss] just hit me like a ton of bricks. That’s not the way you want to be introduced to grief,” says Rebecca. In a year so defined by grief and loss, it’s still taboo to talk about, especially among young people who may have no experience discussing death. Sinko emphasizes the importance of supporting people who are struggling with loss and talking about death more openly: “We have to look inward and be comfortable with our own loss and vulnerability to support the people who need us.”
But even if you haven’t experienced the direct loss of a close loved one this year, you have also endured trauma and are experiencing a form of grief.
Over the summer, Emily* got news of the death of a the facilitator of a meditation group she used to attend on campus, one of the things she misses most about in–person semesters. “There was a virtual funeral and I wrote a small paragraph expressing my gratitude for her work.” Although the loss affected her, Emily didn’t feel comfortable going to the funeral. “It was on Zoom and it didn’t feel real.”
Everyone has lost something this year—even if it’s just the idea of a college experience you were going to have that has now been defined by masks, Zoom screens, and COVID–19 tests. But it can be hard to call it that. “My brain is often saying, ‘It could be so much worse. Don't be selfish because there are people who have lost parents and family members.’ But no one talks about the loss of experiences, and the trauma, and confusion. That’s real,” says Maya** on the grief of losing so much of her college experience.
Maya is missing an in–person Holi festival for the second year in the row, sorority formals, and the in–person experience of her dream internship in San Francisco. At the beginning, it was so overwhelming that she was struggling to cope. “I was kind of trying to block everything out. I think the first several months I was just so angry and sad,” she says. Both of Maya’s parents are physicians, so that was also an added source of stress that took a toll on her mental health. Then, Penn canceled the reopening of campus for the fall semester. “The fall semester was just very jarring,” she says. To deal with the mental health strain caused by the stress of the pandemic, Maya got rid of her social media accounts. “I didn’t want to see people returning to Philly off campus. I didn’t want to think about what I was missing.” Maya is back on campus now, and she’s trying to make the most of it: She goes on runs into Rittenhouse Square and makes the most of socially distanced gatherings with friends.
But Emily hasn’t had the same experience. “It feels like I don't even go to Penn anymore,” she says. She’s lost the comfort of studying in the library, the weekly Russian teas she used to attend, the sweet feeling of campus. Emily is a senior, but she’s also a non–traditional student. Though she lives in the Philly area, because she hasn’t been participating in campus COVID–19 testing, she has now lost something else: an on–campus graduation. On top of that, Penn is phasing out the College of Liberal and Professional Studies bachelor's degree program that allowed Emily to have the meaningful on–campus experience that she is now missing due to COVID–19. “It feels like they're pushing us out. I am a member of the Philadelphia area community. Doesn't it benefit everybody for members of this surrounding area to be educated by Penn and then give back to the community? I'm not moving to New York. I'm not moving to San Francisco—I'm going to stay here. And I'm going to contribute to this economy right here.” That frustration, too, is a form of grief and deprivation that has been perpetuated by institutions like Penn in the past year in their sudden policy changes as a result of the changing pandemic situation. But in times of such global turmoil, it can be hard to label those feelings as a form of grief, especially when they feel so intangible and out of our control.
Sinko encourages students not to minimize their grief, even if it feels less important than that of others. “We're all—in some ways—sort of grieving. Try to hold space for that and connect with others during this time of loss and uncertainty,” she says. Naming your trauma does not in any way devalue anyone else’s. Acknowledging the trauma of a lost semester, canceled trip, or just the news every day in no way undermines the major traumas occurring across the world both as a direct result of the pandemic and otherwise. “Your feelings are valid, so really name them and claim them. Your grief is not small because it's not the grief of other people—it's uniquely yours," says Sinko.
“I think, these days, I’m just kind of tired. I’m not upset or angry about the things that I’m missing—I’m just kind of resigned to it,” says Maya. That sort of resignation, or pandemic fatigue, is also a symptom of grief. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the trauma of the past year can also spur a sort of surreal denial and disbelief, something Rebecca has felt in light of her grief this year. “All I could think was ‘Why did this have to happen now?’ I don't know if everything happens for a reason. Sometimes I like to try to think that way, but I don't know if it's true. I don't know,” says Rebecca.
I’ve felt that, too. Last week I was walking down the street back toward my dorm after getting coffee with a friend. The sun was out, things felt vaguely ‘normal,’ and I got to thinking about the vaccine’s promise of a summer resembling that of one before COVID–19. For a second, I daydreamed of the possibility of planning a trip to the West Coast to visit my aunt and to see my grandfather. Then, I suddenly stopped, all the breath escaping from me. “Wait, he’s dead,” I sighed aloud, reminding myself of the reality of the past year. Everything about his death seemed so unreal and unmarked that, for a moment, I had completely forgotten that he was gone. Tears came to my eyes. Grief creeps up on you like that—even when you’ve reached a state of acceptance, it never fully dissipates.
The trauma of this year will linger whether we are grieving loved ones, missed experiences, or simply a future we had once imagined where COVID–19 did not exist. We are all perpetually mourning a world where the pandemic did not exist and coming to terms with the new reality that will never quite be the same as the one before COVID-19. The future still feels like a gaping hole of uncertainty, and we are only slowly coming out of the state of underlying anxiety that was our ‘normal’ for much of the past year. We can mourn the inconceivable number of lives lost, the time missed with family and friends, and a world where we didn’t live in fear of a virus. We can also mourn the loss of being young and carefree, the loss of the thrill of finding an empty seat in a crowded Stommons, and the death of the DFMO that wasn’t a major breach of the Student Campus Compact.
We have all lost something to the pandemic—no matter how small. This, too, is grief, and you can give yourself permission to call it that.
*indicates name changed for anonymity
**indicates last name omitted for anonymity
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