Grief in the Time of a Pandemic

Recently, I’ve found myself caught in inexplicable sadness. Somewhere along the way, I have gotten entangled. The things I used to use as an escape now feels like the same trap. I watched You’ve Got Mail the other night with my housemates and it shattered me. Seeing a young and ambitious woman working in a quaint bookstore in New York City broke my heart, whereas it used to inspire me. It used to be my dream. For whatever reason, I feel like that option, that life, has vanished before my eyes. Who knew Meg Ryan could make me face such an existential threat? 

I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I kept thinking about how lighthearted films like You’ve Got Mail used to comfort me, and now I feel...this. What was this exactly?

It was not an isolated incident. This feeling has crept into nearly every aspect of my life. Up until recently, I would escape from my sadness into a TV show, a movie, or one of my favorite novels. Those mediums felt like my only relief. Naturally, at the beginning of my state’s mandated lockdown in March, I turned to my TV. You can imagine how confused I was when I started crying at some stupid comment Nick Miller of New Girl made, instead of laughing hysterically. Suddenly, I was isolated (no pun intended). The reality I had spent my young life trying to obtain now felt so unattainable. Where do I turn now?

sad girl in blue sweater near window Anthony Tran By some grace of God, I stumbled upon this podcast last Sunday night. It’s called Therapy for Black Girls hosted by Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist from Atlanta. It is important to note that I have never been a fan of podcasts, with the sole exception of this one episode entitled “Processing our Collective Grief.” Dr. Bradford interviews a grief and trauma expert, Dr. Ajita Robinson, to help unpack some of the most common feelings surfacing during this pandemic. This is how I learned I was grieving. 

I listened to all forty minutes of the podcast, soaking up every word like it was the first breath of fresh air after a period of suffocation. It never dared to occur to me that this feeling of mine was grief. No one in my life had died. No significant loss had befallen me. What I learned is that grief comes in all shapes and sizes. So, it is understandable to mourn when normal life is suddenly snatched away by a global pandemic. Dr. Ajita Robinson explains in “Processing our Collective Grief” that the human body doesn’t know the difference between literal (i.e. loss of life) and symbolic (i.e. loss of identity) grief. When the body senses a wave of grief, it jumps to begin “grief work,” as Dr. Robinson calls it. Oftentimes, our bodies process grief as physical symptoms, such as stomach pain, headaches, loss of appetite, etc.. As the body processes our pain, so does the mind, and eventually (though it may be a while) the pain eases with time. What makes grieving during a pandemic infinitely more complex is that there is no end in sight (yet). What our world is currently experiencing is not an isolated incident. It has been months and months of prolonged fear, confusion, and sadness. To make it worse, our normal coping mechanisms of watching comfort movies, spending time with your friends, or taking a little vacation cannot be applied during a pandemic. Dr. Robinson elaborates on this problem: “There’s no escape. Even though we don’t typically want to use escapism as a coping mechanism, it does minimize that feeling of being overwhelmed because we’re not constantly having to encounter it and grapple with it.” For example, I can’t watch a movie without getting teary-eyed now because it reminds me of a life I always dreamed of and has been made impossible. Also, you can verify with anyone in my life that I used to never cry during movies.

Empty movie seats Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

I’m not going to lie, I thought it all sounded a little silly at first. A girl in an incredibly fortunate situation surrounded by supportive people and resources is grieving? What does she have to grieve? But that’s the thing about global pandemics: no one makes it out unscathed. Everyone has lost something, whether it was a family member or a routine or a sense of identity. No one knows what a post-pandemic life looks like and that is perhaps the scariest part. How do we mend our grievances when we don’t know what we’re mending for? 

Dr. Bradford and Dr. Robinson of Therapy for Black Girls say to start now. We don’t know what the future holds, yet we must trudge forward. Begin by pinpointing where your sadness stems from and try to recognize what you’ve lost. What do you want to restore or replace? How can you memorialize what you’ve lost? Day in and day out, honor that loss, but try to reimagine it. Get creative, because who thought we’d get to a point like this so soon? I’m not a licensed psychologist. So, I urge you to listen to “Processing Our Collective Grief” by Dr. Joy Harden Bradford anywhere you listen to podcasts. 

I just want to be able to watch You’ve Got Mail and dream again.