Mourning in a Pandemic

New Orleans is known for its rituals around death, from second lines featuring brass bands and dancing, to embalming traditions that prop up the dead in their best garb, enjoying the pleasures they loved in life. It’s the exuberance of these mourning rituals, a way of celebrating a person’s life during a time of heartbreak, that captivates outsiders. There is so much intrigue around this city’s relationship to death that the dead themselves have become tourist attractions. Usually, tour busses are lined up at cemeteries throughout the week; but with tourism on hold for now, maybe the dead can finally rest for a while. And while the stay-at-home order demands that all collective mourning rituals stop—death, however, marches forth, disrupting the day-to-day process of letting go of loved ones and precipitating a situation of massive collective loss. 

My patients often tell me they remember their lost loved ones too well, with a tone of impatience or irritation: “Why do I reach for the phone to call my mom when something terrible happens? She’s been gone for a whole year.” “Why do I keep dreaming that we are together, only to wake up devastated to know that this can’t be?” I remind them that we don’t let go of the people we love easily. Death is an abrupt interruption. Our beloveds linger so we can let them go slowly. Dead parents visit our dreams to chat about their passing; we see our departed dog curled up in our periphery; songs remind us of our exes (yes—I think some breakups qualify as losses of this caliber). I have family members who can see dead relatives so vividly, as if in the flesh, sitting on a chair in the backyard enjoying a beer or standing by the bed at night. Whether or not you believe in a metaphysical afterlife, you have probably experienced the psychic afterlife of someone who is gone. The stubbornness of letting go is why grief isn’t linear. It’s cyclical and seasonal, resurfacing with the smells of an autumn marred by loss or the birth of a child. 

If grief time is recursive, then what does it mean to lose someone in this strange time of social distancing? It might mean that loss in pandemic season suspends mourning, untethered from the sensory objects and rituals of ordinary life that mark the passage of time. Familiar things are usually made strange by the absence of a lost person. Those of us who are grieving right now might have to wait to confront the everyday moments marked by our losses: grief on delay. The familiar world may very well be lost along with the person who has died, which will complicate mourning even after the pandemic has ended, the past more difficult to conjure in our unfamiliar post-pandemic lives. 

As a therapist, a lot of the work I do—and not just with people who come to process grief—involves revisiting some kind of loss. Whether they have lost a person, a relationship, or a fantasy for the future, people easily get stuck in a state of loss when they avoid their pain or conflicting feelings. When a lost person lingers in the psyche, but the mourner tries too hard to bury their grief or deny the devastation, they can end up in a state of perpetual mourning. In Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud famously described this situation as one in which “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego.” In other words, the mourner’s internal representation of the lost person starts to engulf a portion of their being, and grief becomes depression. Even for the elusive mentally well and for those grieving supportive, loving relationships, loss gets complicated. Confronting someone’s absence over and over helps us to let go slowly, even when a death is unexpected or violent. Paradoxically, a long, painful goodbye eases us into the process of letting go. 

The upheaval of COVID-19 will undoubtedly add layers of complication to already-complicated grief. So, how does this change our response to it? For one, I think this situation will require communities to step in and aid in the task of remembering, responding to both the collective loss of the familiar and the individual losses of those community members who are without the people they love. We can’t just pick up where we left off, resuscitating our old ways of commemorating death. The healing ahead will be a process of witnessing the pain of the mourners among us long after the initial wound has calloused. This will require us not only to offer understanding or company, but more importantly to not shy away from the uncomfortable, to lend our ears to help them provoke and tolerate their own dark memories and painful feelings. 

Unlike the muddled process of mourning, formal rituals constructed around the event of death itself do have a predictable structure. They push mourners into community with others, force us to get dressed and eat when all we want to do is stay in bed. Even the bureaucratic hassles of death, like getting a death certificate, can be an unwanted and morose form of behavioral activation, a term therapists use to describe tasks they assign their patients to activate the nervous system as a band-aid for symptoms of depression. At a time when we all have to stay home, there is very little to push people into the uncomfortable light of connection when they need it most but are least likely to seek it out. 

Rites of passage also help to deflect from the disturbing realities of death. A funeral, a headstone, and a casket are attempts to screen out more grisly images from our memories. At times when our social fabric is torn or loosened, when we are unable to organize our rituals, we are more easily reminded that death involves a body. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have watched or will watch their loved ones die at home. This will involve some period of waiting to have a body picked up by the proper authority. In hospitals, health care workers are figuring out the morbid logistics of where to put all of the bodies, resorting to refrigerated trucks waiting curbside. There are some things that no burial shroud is opaque enough to protect us from, and right now they are in short supply. 

Staying sane requires that we constantly manage the horrors of life, but the cultural forces of U.S. colonialism and racial capitalism tend to pervert people’s ability to do it well. These powers tell us that if we buy into the illusion of being independent from our bodies—free from menstrual blood, from odor, from aging—then we are more human. I’m not saying that the pandemic is some kind of transcendent opportunity to confront existential dread. In fact, these confrontations will almost certainly be stratified, with low-wage laborers doing the dirty work of caring for the dead, and those who are afraid to seek help in hospitals being more likely to die at home. Our communities will need to support those who have confronted the horrific particulars of COVID-19 without flinching. We might prefer to hide the unpleasant imagery from view, but a just response requires that we help everyone carry this burden—particularly those essential workers who are deployed in lieu of PPE, hazard pay, and other material compensation. 

Much commentary on the pandemic reflects on how a collective, undefined “we” are going through a period of grief. What it really means to be grieving a collective loss, however, is still unclear to me. Collective losses, like collective traumas, are almost always contested. What has been lost depends on what you had in the first place. Efforts to commemorate and repair those losses are too often triumphal and exclusionary, and any response to collective loss needs to account for the ways in which COVID-19 has harmed our societies unevenly. My hope is that, as we comfort those who have lost someone from a distance and when we eventually come together to mourn, we can all keep this in mind. 

Need urgent help? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat or find resources. Visit ready.nola.gov for a list of local mental health resources. General questions or comments, email Jessica at jchavezphd@gmail.com. This article does not constitute medical advice and is not intended as a substitute for medical care.

illustration by Kallie Tiffau