Grief is a complex emotion.
Everyone grieves at different points in their lives. Each one of us feels it differently. Nonetheless, during COVID–19, we all went through a collective experience of loss. The sentiment of grief rang true in every household. We felt sorrow for different reasons: worry about our loved ones, feeling trapped inside the house, Zoom fatigue, and the pang of missed milestones.
Grief was a major part of my life during the pandemic. Initially, I mourned my college experience. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it felt like a minimal issue. However, I couldn’t help but think about the experiences I missed out on, the "best four years" of my life that I wouldn’t get to live to their fullest extent. I missed spending time with my friends, studying in campus buildings, and walking around Philly. Even when I had the chance to come back during the fall 2020 semester, I wished I could engage with my professors and have an in–person education once again.
Looking back, some of these concerns seem frivolous, especially as my experience with grief would evolve about a year into the pandemic. By late 2020, I felt resigned that COVID–19 was part of everyday life. And even then, it felt like things were looking up—at least in part.
That was until January 2021, when my grandparents tested positive for COVID-19. I was terrified. Throughout the pandemic, my grandparents getting sick was my biggest fear. Overall, not being able to spend time with them due to their high risk was the hardest part of those early months. When they tested positive, I told my parents I wanted to stay home until they got better, just in case. They told me everything should be fine and sent me out to school again.
At first, the symptoms were minimal. A cough here. A sniffle here and there. I talked to them over the phone often. Seemingly overnight, however, it felt like the situation turned around completely. My grandpa—my Guelis, as I called him—was taken to the hospital. I felt powerless; I was more than 2,000 miles away and an already–uncertain situation was getting even worse.
Soon, my grandpa was able to go home, but the virus had already weakened him. A couple of days later, he passed away in his house peacefully, surrounded by some of the people who loved him the most. He passed at sunset, a moment that he and I would usually spend together. He loved watching the birds fly in flocks at that time. My dad says that soon after that moment, they all went outside, and, sure enough, the birds were flying about.
I would say the way I mourn is expected, maybe even “traditional.” I usually let it all out; I cry. More than anything, I spend time with my family and people I love, seeking their comfort. At that time, however, what caused my grief also prevented me from mourning properly.
A couple of days before my grandpa passed away, my roommates and I were forced to isolate ourselves in our apartment due to an unexpected COVID–19 exposure. When my mom broke the news, it was impossible for me to leave my apartment at all, much less travel to Mexico to mourn with my family.
COVID-19 transformed everyone’s grieving experiences, especially after the loss of a loved one. In the moment when we needed the most comfort, gathering with loved ones conferred greater risk. I, like many others, had to learn to adapt my mourning, which felt like no small feat.
I listened to “marjorie” by Taylor Swift a lot at the time; a song had never felt more relatable to me. The track is about everything Swift learned from her grandmother Marjorie—who was also a singer—and how she can still feel her presence so many years later. Even as she remembers their moments together and is thankful for them, she acknowledges that she wishes she could've had more time with her grandmother.
Similarly, I felt like I hadn't learned much about who my grandfather was, not as my grandpa, but as Pablo Brizuela. I read about his accomplishments, his leadership, his legacy—he was a pioneer of the radio in my hometown, Mexicali. I knew little of his passion for communications and media, something I now know I take from him.
I had the opportunity to listen to a radio special in which people who had worked with him talked about who he was as a leader. I certainly knew my grandpa as a man who was hardworking, kind, and honest, someone who used to sing to me and sneak me apple pie when no one was looking. Nonetheless, I was learning about a side of him I didn’t personally know. It was devastating not to be with my family, but it felt like I was sharing a special moment just with him, like every single piece of information I learned was meant for me to find.
Although it had been months since he had passed, I continued to grieve. I eventually had the chance to go home and spend time with my family. But it was different. It wasn't the crying and hugging I had expected. More than anything, we celebrated his life. We looked back at funny moments, talked about his favorite restaurant, watched the birds fly at sunset, and observed my grandma's wrist, adorned with a bracelet he used to wear.
Almost a year into his passing, I still think about him and how much I wish he could have personally taught me how to be more like him, a person I aspire to be, every day. Sometimes, I recognize attributes of him in myself. Other times, I see him in my dad. But mostly, I find little bits and pieces in his house that make it seem like he never left.