“The first thing I want to do when I’m vaccinated is to go see my parents,” a close friend told me over FaceTime. With the U.S. ramping up vaccination efforts, it was around the fifth time I’d heard that sentence in a month. It was worded differently in every iteration. But each time it happens, I feel a pang for the post-pandemic event I know is waiting for me: returning to New Zealand to see my family, and realizing in a new way that I'll never see my dad again.
The COVID pandemic has been marked by immense grief and loss, with nearly 3 million deaths worldwide as a result of the virus and funerals severely impacted by social distancing precautions. For my family, this also meant that the dementia care facility where my dad lived closed to visitors in the months before he died. Based in New York, I found out about his passing last August from a phone call from my mom. “He’s gone,” she told me, while I was attempting to work from home. Most of my grieving took place alone in my bedroom; trying to distract myself by seeing friends would have been irresponsible, and I couldn’t fly home to join my family for his funeral because of border restrictions.
Like other people over the age of 16 in New York, I qualified for the vaccine recently and have received my first dose, something I’m immensely grateful for. Unlike many of my 20-something-year old friends, however, entering this next stage of the pandemic has left me with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Being fully vaccinated will never provide me the opportunity to say good-bye to my father and attend his funeral. Instead, the world’s beginning to re-open has become a painful reminder of the loss I’ll have to adjust to in the “new normal.”
I was acutely aware that I was not the only one feeling this way, considering the amount of global loss. To get a better sense of how others were processing their grief in the re-opening, I spoke to 29-year-old Veronica del Rosario, whose brother died of the virus last April. For her, this time has been a mental health minefield. “With the world starting to open up, it always feels like I’m looking around like ‘Did you forget?’ Did everyone forget?’” she told VICE. “I’m on my way to close on a house today and it feels like I shouldn’t be allowed to be OK in this time, much less thrive.”
Her brother died unexpectedly during a time where they weren’t on speaking terms. He spent nearly three weeks on a ventilator; the family was unable to visit him, and del Rosario feels guilty that she didn’t have a chance to repair their relationship. After he died, none of her family members were able to see his body (because of COVID restrictions). “My family is Filipino and, in our culture, a significant part of the grieving process is the funeral,” she said. “We’re so family-oriented and not being allowed to be in the same vicinity as each other was so brutal.”
Ajita Robinson, a grief and trauma expert and author of The Gift of Grief, said that circumstances like del Rosario’s can cause a delayed grief response, meaning this next stage will be a period of re-grieving, or even grieving for the first time.
“For those that lost loved ones during this time, they didn’t have to face the reality of the physical absence because we haven't been able to physically be together,” Robinson told VICE. “That creates a disruption between accepting the reality and finality of the loss that’s only just now coming full circle. It’s expected that folks will regress once they’re physically together when they haven’t had the physical cues of loss, which means seeing the body or even going to the funeral.”
For 25-year-old Marisa Bach, the past year has been marked with jealousy of the normalcy of some of her friends’ lives. Bach was studying in London in September when her father had a heart attack; she flew back to New York to help her mom decide when to turn off life support. Since then, she said, her life has felt “completely upended.”
“On the way to my mom’s house, I had a freak out because I was so incredibly jealous seeing everyone just like living normally,” she said. “The process of COVID becoming ‘over’ here is a really big source of jealousy for me, which is a feeling that I really didn't anticipate having.”
Bach said that February proved the most difficult month in her grieving process. Part of this, she explained, was grappling with the general consensus that things are going “back to normal.” “I’m really not sure what normal will look like anymore, as being able to see more people only reminds me of losing my dad,” she said. “When we were more locked down, I was aware, but it wasn’t in my face every day with third parties bringing it up.” This frustration can often stem from a lack of understanding from her peers; Bach said a friend from high school compared Bach’s loss to the experience of losing her dog.
As many people have noted throughout this pandemic, there's no going “back to normal.” The reality is that for most people, and especially those who’ve lost someone, day-to-day life has forever changed. Because of this, those that are re-grieving or experiencing a delayed grief response may feel frustrated that they can’t match the excitement of their peers—and their peers might not understand why that might be. People who are still grieving “may not be pleasant to be around in those spurts in which the grief is more present, because they’re constantly toggling between those realities,” Robinson said. “So even though we have the ability to be together again and we're vaccinated, we still may have a heightened need to take additional precautions that other people in our circle may not feel that to do.”
In addition to grief, del Rosario had been dealing with the fear of another family member or herself dying due to COVID. She was eager to get vaccinated, as she’s at high-risk of complications, and feels a sense of relief now that every adult in her family is vaccinated. But she still feels frustrated with the people who are able to get vaccinated and choosing not to. “It’s actually the people who aren’t eager to get it that I feel somewhat upset with,” she said. “I have these feelings of ‘you have the opportunity and you're not taking it’ or ‘you have this safety measure that he [her brother] didn't get and you're taking it for granted.’”
Damien Bryant, a photographer based in Alabama whose great-grandfather died of the virus last year, said he senses a general lack of care about COVID deaths in his state, noting a dearth of local news coverage. “I feel like the majority of people that are just so excited for family reunions are people that have been seeing their family throughout it,” Bryant told VICE. “That's probably what's upset me the most—the fact that so many people have lost this year and I don't think that people are really taking the time to sit back and think about that.”
Kathy Shear, founder and director of the Center for Complicated Grief, said an acknowledgement from society at large is important for those feeling isolated. “We need to raise awareness of the fact that this is going to be a very hard time for people who have lost someone,” she told VICE. “We all need to support people and not expect them to be overjoyed in the same way the rest of us are.” To ensure friends who are grieving feel supported, Robinson said to start by acknowledging that this might be a difficult time for them, and asking “What do you need right now?” or “How can I best support you?”
For those still grieving, Robinson suggested communicating your needs and concerns to friends and loved ones to better navigate what “whatever the next part of the journey looks like.” Shear recommended that people get help from a mental health professional if, after 6–12 months, they are still experiencing persistent pervasive grief because it could be something called complicated grief, which is when feelings of loss are debilitating and don't improve even after time passes.
With my second vaccine appointment approaching, I know more pangs of jealousy, hopelessness, or even despair are inevitable, but acknowledging this provides those of us that are still grieving the permission to re-grieve. There will also be a day, perhaps this year or maybe next, where I’ll be able to return to New Zealand to see my family and face my new reality: dad’s empty chair, his clothes cleared out of closets, and his ashes sitting in his office. Until then, I’m in no rush to return to a normal that no longer even exists.
Follow Laura Pitcher on Twitter.