Post-Pandemic Grief Is Real.

A preview of what you can expect to feel in a normal-ish world.

Photo by Marcus Ganahl on Unsplash

We are about to round the corner on the one year anniversary of when lockdowns started worldwide, aka the week our old lives ended.

Fittingly for many, the day shit-finally-hit-the-fan and the pandemic became real was Friday the 13th, in March 2020. It was for me. My Timehop is almost embarrassing to look at this week as I galavant around without a care in the world. This time last year I was out partying in London, hugging friends, and getting a tattoo.

On that Friday 13th March 2020, as borders cascaded shut and cases exploded, I had to choose between riding out the rest of a two year UK visa in London, or return to New Zealand where I am a citizen. I made the right choice in terms of avoiding prolonged lockdowns, but it doesn’t make uprooting your life any easier.

The Covid-19 anniversary signals a year of what we went without. We place so much power in the passing of a year. Just like New Years Eve provides a time to reflect on the year before and set goals for the next — many will be reflecting on the lack of the last year. Missed birthdays, weddings, celebrations, friends, family, death, loss of income, lack of productivity, decrease in physical and mental health — the anniversary triggers a reflection on the small horrors that have compounded in the last twelve months.

In countries like Australia and New Zealand, we returned to a new normal quicker than most, and citizens have a unique insight into the emotions surrounding a post-pandemic future.

In New Zealand, after our first lockdown ended in May the streets hummed with cars, the sidewalks with people. I felt quiet anxiety take hold, as if I was witnessing a crime. On 16th May I dined indoors for the first time since lockdown began in March. I ate creamy gnocchi, drank a glass of Pinot Noir, and sat next to my immunocompromised father. I rested my hand on his arm. Dining out didn’t pose a moral question, or a health risk. We didn’t have to weigh our options. Our actions weren’t defying social distancing guidelines. Scientists knew what we were doing. It felt euphoric, yet uncanny.

That feeling has long dissipated, apart from the twinge of guilt and sadness on remembering.

Yet our new normal is still foreign. We have our lives back, but they are in temporary limbo. We are still in the midst of a pandemic.

In New Zealand, the emergence of cases in the community send us into emergency lockdowns that last anywhere from three days, to a week. We go from normal to nothing overnight. Emotionally, these sudden lockdowns are beginning to wane public patience after such a long reign of complete freedom. We whisper to each other how annoying a week long pause is, and how disruptive a complete lockdown is, only to restart normal after seven days.

Just as abruptly, we gush over how grateful we are in comparison to most. There is a pressure for us to not complain, for others have it worse, and of course they do. Most do. However the mental toll of this disruption is still triggering and reminds us that again, there is a pandemic raging outside our shores. Paired with the anniversary, emotions run high.

It’s frustratingly easy to get complacent and forget how lucky we are. It also brings an unnerving sense of guilt.

In lockdown I remember watching the news in horror as global coronavirus cases hit one million. I remember the shock of seeing total cases edge towards 5 million. The population of New Zealand. The next time I checked, worldwide cases were over 50 million. Our new normal made me briefly ignorant to the rest of the world. I continue to feel selfish in my ease.

Hindsight is a strange, complex emotion everyone has struggled to grapple with in the last twelve months. We’re all struggling to decipher just how long-lasting the effects of the pandemic will be, not just globally, but locally and personally. A huge part of that change is grief. We’re not great at grieving.

Anne Helen Petersen wrote in Culture Study about how even with hope in sight, we’re still going to feel awful for a while, and that’s okay.

The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. And yet few people are actually making room for an actual strategy. Americans in particular are very, very bad at grieving. We don’t allocate space for personal tragedy and we don’t allocate space for national tragedy, other than brief displays of televised political grief theater, generally with lots of flags.

I think this grief, as Anne discusses above, is in store for many people who are still in the lockdown stages of the pandemic. Yes, the arrival of gatherings and a version of old lives is exciting, but it doesn’t erase the personal and collective grief of the pandemic experience.

As someone who rode out the pandemic in a country that returned to ‘normality’ quicker than most, the cascading grief that arrived month after month despite ‘normal’ freedoms was surprising to me.

Grief over lost plans, lost friendships, lost opportunities. Grief over those who have lost more than myself. Grief over the collective grief felt in the world which at times is suffocating if you delve too far in. The guilt over feeling luckier than most, the grief of said guilt. The guilt over grief. It never ends.

Once you emerge, the reality of what you just survived will hit you like a truck. It did for me.

Once we survive, we need to grieve, before we thrive.

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