Now that we’re well into the third year of living with Covid, many advancements are allowing life to return to something that feels familiar, if not yet completely normal. Vaccines offer protection against hospitalization and death, variants have become less likely to cause severe illness, and antiviral medications drastically improve outcomes for at-risk populations. While the journey from March 2020 until now has been different for everyone, most no longer face life or death when they decide how to negotiate exposure to Covid.
At the start of the pandemic I would frequently see memes on social media claiming, “Unlike previous generations that went to war, you are being asked to stay home, so stop complaining!” While such messaging may have helped some, putting into perspective past sacrifices that seemed much more difficult than the ones we were being asked to make, I found this oversimplification to be problematic. We are, by nature, social beings, and the fact that our loved ones, neighbors, and friends could be dangerous to us without our knowing, or us to them, came at a great cost.
Now at least one million lives have been recorded as lost to the disease in this country alone, and many suffer from long Covid or other complications. The impact on our communities has been profound. However, as the immediate threats become less significant, the secondary losses and their impacts emerge more clearly.
Time has passed, and space has opened up for many individuals to begin to appreciate the effect of the pandemic on their lives. Graduations missed, weddings postponed, vacations cancelled, milestones and celebrations of all kinds have been lost or changed in ways that cannot be recovered. In addition, there are the less obvious consequences: young children who haven’t acquired certain skills they would usually have mastered because of the need for masks and the lack of physical connection; romances that might have flourished and instead fizzled because couples didn’t feel safe to be together; and irrecoverable time spent away from parents, grandparents, and other at-risk loved ones to keep them safe. Losses have touched teenagers who may have looked forward to high school and its various rites of passage–senior events, proms, class trips—that never happened. Losses have affected young adults whose college experiences were nothing like they imagined; some who anticipated promising career trajectories have been derailed.
None of these losses involve death, but they can still have a profound impact on a person’s wellbeing. As a society, acknowledging that these are losses that may need to be mourned will be an important piece of our journey out of the pandemic.
The media is full of reports confirming this idea. Therapists have long wait lists, and counseling departments at schools and hospitals are frequently overwhelmed with requests for services.
There is reason to be hopeful. As a result of the pandemic, some people are reshuffling their priorities, spending more time with family and forging quiet connections with those closest to them. For some, the possibility of hybrid work allows for more balance. However, to really move forward, it will be valuable to process and make peace with all that has been lost.
Many traditional ways of grieving loss and seeking comfort were restricted during the acute waves of the pandemic. Rituals around illness and death that might have included bringing flowers or food to the sick or bereaved, participating in religious ceremonies, sitting shiva or attending wakes, and providing help around the home were not available to us. When we couldn’t do these things, some of us got stuck in mourning, unable to process our grief. As a society, we have even fewer traditions that might show us how to come to grips with losses that are less tangible than illness and death.
If a loved one appears to be struggling or disconnecting, it can be helpful to reach out, ask questions, and assist them in naming their grief. It is powerful to recognize and validate the impact of losses, especially for a person who is minimizing the reality of what they are feeling.
If you are struggling with your own feelings, talking to friends or family about what you are experiencing can bring comfort. Making sure to get plenty of physical activity, sleep, and good nutrition can also enable wellbeing.
The loss of control many experienced during Covid led to feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed; finding agency can be deeply beneficial. Creating routine can also help, particularly if there has been a loss of structure or routine as a result of recent changes. If the previous suggestions have not produced the desired result or are too difficult to achieve given the level of distress, the support of a therapist and/or a psychiatrist can also provide an avenue for moving forward.
As we experience the joys of rituals and connectedness returning, I hope we can make space for those who are just beginning the journey towards healing, especially from wounds that might be less obvious but are no less real.
The Counseling Center is a nonprofit group of therapists located in Bronxville and serving its surrounding communities. Learn more at https://counselingcenter.org/. Or, if at any time you feel in need of comfort and support, please call 914-793-3388.