Grief is difficult to quantify.
Yes, researchers can measure how long Texans have spent in the coronavirus pandemic (almost two years); how many confirmed cases there have been in the state (more than 5.4 million); and how many Texans have died from the virus (more than 83,000), with more than 14,200 dead in the four major counties of North Texas.
They can measure days of lockdown, missing school days and the average time each person will spend in quarantine due to exposure to the virus.
They can even measure how many hospital beds are open, how many nurses we need, and how many health professionals will walk away from the profession due to COVID-related burnout.
What they cannot measure is the unimaginable amount of loss caused by coronavirus.
After four increases of several variants of COVID-19, the pandemic seems to ebb. Mask mandates have now been lifted for many of us and life goes on. But for those left behind by the victims of COVID, any sense of normalcy – any kind of pre-pandemic life – is still a long way off.
Another, silent pandemic known as grief has gripped many in Texas and beyond who have lost loved ones.
If we try to return to life as we knew it without confronting the trauma that such a loss inflicts, we risk detrimental effects on our mental, emotional and physical health, experts warn.
While resources are available for grieving families – mostly driven by private and non-profit organizations – some advocates say the government is not doing enough as we enter this grief pandemic.
Getting financial and emotional help first requires acknowledging the burden of grief. Unlike many other cultures, our Americans often ignore, rather than embrace, the fact that death is a natural, but extremely difficult, part of all of our lives.
“There is no definitive answer to grief, for our love has no end,” said Allison Gilbert, a journalist and author who writes about grief and resilience. “We need to remind ourselves that our friend or colleague is going to experience this loss as long as they live.”
Talking about loss is the first step in acknowledging its weight.
The impact of corona grief is far-reaching. In 2020, researchers came up with an indicator to measure the effect called COVID-19 death multiplier. For every COVID death in the United States, nine surviving Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child, according to the analysis.
It is estimated that more than 747,000 people have lost a close relative in Texas to the virus.
Among them is Kornitki Sledge of Dallas, who lost both her mother and grandmother in a matter of weeks, pushing her into the role of emotional caretaker for her entire family. She has a hard exterior for her relatives, while her interior feels like “a boat at sea with no sails.”
There’s Jennifer Garcia from Fort Worth who can not go into certain restaurants anymore because it reminds her of the last time she was there with her late father, Alex Arango. It hurts her to think of the music, snacks and memories he and his family enjoyed together.
And every night, Carmen Achee, from Fort Worth, sees herself looking at the clock and expects her daily call from her father-in-law, who died in August. Her phone never rings.
Despite all the heartache that COVID-19 has caused, the mourning pandemic has also proven the strength of human resilience. The pandemic could, experts say, change the way society thinks and treats death for the better.
“I have been remarkably inspired and humbled by the ways in which people have found ways to take care not only of their own well-being but also of supporting others,” said Adam Brown, associate professor of psychology at The New School of Social Research in New York. .
Celebrations of life, evolving
Grieving over a death during COVID-19 looks different than grieving during any other time in recent history. COVID patients often die alone in the hospital due to isolation protocols, forcing family members to let go of how they imagined saying goodbye to a loved one.
The last hugs and handshakes often turn into the last kiss blown through the screens of a video call.
That distance often continues through the grieving process. Orders of social distancing and closure delayed or stopped memorial ceremonies and religious gatherings, forcing societies to change the way they acknowledge and commemorate losses.
Rituals give the feeling of calm, the feeling of protection, the feeling of being able to refer to something familiar in many cases, if it is cultural or religious traditions. And it helps us understand what does not make sense, which is trying to come to terms with a loss that is so deep, ”Gilbert said.
There are, of course, creative solutions families have used to mourn collectively, from virtual memorials and religious services to socially distant funerals.
Most options for grief support for families grieving the death of a loved one are organized through private organizations, such as churches or grief-specific non-profit organizations.
In the wake of COVID, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is delivering funeral assistance to families who experienced a death of the virus after January 20, 2020.
But some groups, such as the mourning organization Evermore, say the government should do more to support grieving families.
The Family Sick Leave Act, which provides some protection for employees who need time off work for their or their family member’s medical care, does not broadly extend coverage to grief leave. That leaves little room for families to mourn properly or take care of responsibility after death, Evermore argues.
COVID deaths – particularly the physically traumatic and often violent end encountered by humans with the virus – could serve as a wake-up call for how American culture views dying, said Holly Prigerson, co-director of the Center for Research on End- of- Life Care at Cornell University.
Death is an inevitable fact of life, but it can be hard to accept, especially when it is sudden or unexpected. Few people who get COVID think they will die from the disease, even if it is not representative of reality. More than one in every 100 people in the United States who get the virus will die from it, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center data.
Families often push for life-saving measures for their loved ones, such as intubation, even when the chances of survival are small.
“It does not bode well for patient comfort or chances of surviving or benefiting from these heroic measures,” Prigerson said. “We have published data showing that family members of patients who die in [intensive care unit] have a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder six months later and a higher incidence of long-term grief disorder. “
New interventions are coming
Prigerson and others in end-of-life care are developing interventions to prepare family members in the intensive care unit for what they are likely to experience so they can make balanced decisions. Education about the reality of dying and death can help surviving family members cope better with loss.
“There needs to be some education about what vain, burdensome care looks like,” she said. “I think no one wants to be the person who says there is no hope. Especially a doctor. They will not say they can do nothing, but they know it is not useful to anyone “And it’s just such a sad, very tragic game.”
There is little consolation to be found when a loved one dies of COVID. Questions about whether more could have been done, or whether a decision led to someone getting the virus, will probably never be answered.
For some families, it has been difficult to find closure. COVID protocols prevented them from saying goodbye. In October 2020, Alex Arango died at the hospital without his loved ones by his side.
“I think one thing that still kills me is knowing I did not get to say goodbye,” said his wife Anita. “It’s just something that tears at me that I did not get to tell him it was okay. That I wanted to be okay.”
There is some comfort to be found in the large number of families dealing with the same issues and grief.
“There is community, and there is strength in numbers,” Gilbert said. “When you can come together and feel part of a community that also understands your pain, there is a sense of belonging and a sense of connection that can make some people feel stronger.”
Personnel researcher Naomi Kaskela contributed to this report.