Grief in the Time of the Pandemic

The phone rang this morning. The news of my friend and old officer manager’s death did not come as a surprise. I had spoken to her only a week ago, and knew she was sick with Covid, thanks to the ubiquity of home tests and typical symptoms. Despite my urging to go to the hospital, she insisted on staying home until she could be seen in the office by her family doctor. On her way to his office, her daughter had to call paramedics. She ended up in the ICU to die two days later of complications of Covid pneumonia and acute kidney failure. Her loss is just one in the series of personal friends and acquaintances who have ended up as statistics in the growing pandemic of this disease.

Health care workers like me are often expected to know better than other people how to deal with grief. We don’t. There is no one-size-fits-all rule book for grief. People do their best.

A theory of grief popularized by Lois Tonkin brought me some relief. Tonkin says it’s a common misconception that grief gets smaller over time. What really happens is that your life grows bigger around it. I do not believe that the pain and grief of this pandemic will get smaller with the passage days or even years, especially for us in the medical field. We’ve lost too many people. We’ve had too great a burden placed on us. But I do believe that as we continue to grow, relief will come.

To confront grief is to confront the fact that each moment of life is uncertain. We doctors typically, and perhaps necessarily, prefer to feel in control.

Yet no amount of planning stops the inevitable or makes the unknowable knowable. You’ll get that call that knocks the wind out of you, whether it’s a patient who dies unexpectedly or someone close to you. You’ll feel like you are finally getting a handle on things again at work, and another variant will arise, overwhelming your hospital once again. Another phone call will announce that someone you’ve cared about is gone.

We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. Grief is the shadow love casts in the light of loss. The greater our caring for who we lost, the vaster the shadow.

Suffering my own losses over time helped me to understand how much of grief is about losing our idea of the future. We realize the things we planned for with another will now never happen.

As Joan Didion observed, “Grief is passive. Grief happens. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, requires attention.”

Joy and beauty returns to our life despite the sorrow of the moment; we only have to open our eyes and hearts to receive it. I continue to grow around the grief. The things I thought I could not do, I’ve done. We are the living, and life moves forward.

This entry was posted in America, Covid-19, Death and Dying, Grief, Health and wellness, Medicine, Thoughts & Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Grief in the Time of the Pandemic

  1. Ana Daksina says:

    Well balanced perspective, beautifully written

  2. I am so sorry; no one wants to receive those type of phone calls. You remind us all how important it is to protect those who might not have strong immunity to fight the virus.

    Your post is timely, as my test results returned as positive today.
    The worst seems over, but I remain diligent, as Covid plays a mean game of chess.
    Thank you for sharing your stories, and may everyone remain respectful of the vulnerable and wear masks when out in public.

  3. LaShelle says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I think everyone wants to feel a sense of control but there just isn’t any control to be had. I’ve lost friends to this pandemic too. It never gets easier

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