The collective grief we must face

Columns representing victims of coronavirus are lit as they are displayed along the sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. (Getty)

I have known grief all my life. My baby sister died when I was a toddler, and I know what it did to my family. We couldn’t grieve her death properly because the family ethos was not to talk about our losses. Now, as a clinician, I treat bereaved patients. And I also wrote a book that describes what happens to the human self after the death of a loved one. I’ve become an expert on grief.

Yet I was unprepared for the challenges that COVID-19 and its massive death toll brought us as a nation. Death is different now. COVID patients die alone, without family. Funeral services are virtual; we can’t hold each other to grieve and cry. Grief is hard enough under normal circumstances. This feels impossible.

So how are we as a country to deal with our collective grief? And since we are likely to lose another one to two hundred thousand people or more before this is over, how are we to manage our anticipatory grief?

Our national sorrow needs to be recognized and expressed. To ignore the colossal toll of COVID-19 only makes things worse. Grief that is ignored and pushed aside finds another outlet, like depression or anxiety or even physical symptoms. I once had a patient whose father forbade her ever to speak of her mother’s suicide that happened when she was 10 years old. For years she experienced sudden bursts of anger and frequent headaches. Only after facing these issues in therapy did she make the connection between this inability to grieve her mother and these lingering emotional and physical issues. The memory of her mother and her death was like a wound that wouldn’t heal. Similarly, to ignore COVID-19 deaths or push aside our collective sorrow doesn’t work. To hear the virus “will magically disappear one day” only makes the impact of its devastation worse. We need to own our massive losses and feel our grief, so that we can begin to heal and move on with our lives.

We also need to acknowledge the impact of being denied traditional services after a death. We miss the public sharing of funeral rites – being together with family and friends to grieve together after the loss of a loved one. Many cultures have communal rituals that surround the bereaved to provide support and comfort, moments that are the last time to spend with the deceased to say goodbye. No longer, we’ve been cheated out of the closure that funeral services provide for the living. This is the reality that the virus has foisted on us.

So what happens now? Art will help us to express our grief. Not only by processing and contextualizing our pain, not only by honoring the victims of the pandemic, but also by attesting to the fragility of life and of the health of a nation. We can think of how Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, helped us to process enormous human suffering in necessary and therapeutic ways. President Biden knew this on January 19 when he and Vice-President Kamala Harris lit 400 lights in a COVID-19 Memorial at the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. Each light represented 1,000 victims of the virus. Illuminating those lights brought us together as a nation to honor and remember those killed by the virus. I have faith, and I hope that artists and their art will help us to confront this tragic pandemic just as art has every time before.

I also propose we establish a National Day of Mourning— for this year, at least, if not in perpetuity. Like the lights at the Reflecting Pool, it would give the nation a way to focus on the significance of our losses and the importance of our collective grief. A day when the nation can pause and remember all we’ve lost and all those who died of COVID-19. Because we need to remember collectively how a novel virus killed hundreds of thousands of our citizens. We are a country of many different kinds of people, and we must begin by sharing our sorrow together, healing together.

As President Biden, who has experienced gut-wrenching losses in his own life, said at that memorial: “To heal is to remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”

America needs, and has been aching for, a Consoler-in-Chief to help us through. President Biden knows grief. And he understands that, while it never goes away, grief can calm, sorrow does become quiet.
We’ll get there.

Dorothy P. Holinger, Ph.D., is the author of THE ANATOMY OF GRIEF. She is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and was an Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School for over twenty-three years. Her website is dorothypholinger.com