Bioethics Forum Essay
Unresolved Grief is Eating Away at Us
The start of a new year is a time for reflection. In most ways, 2023 was a return to normal. Schools were fully back in person; hybrid work was old hat; travel rebounded; and people ate in restaurants and went out to the movies and plays. One could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest pandemic of our lifetime had not even happened. Yet, I see people easily agitated and stressed, and nerves frayed. These behaviors show up in social interactions, on the road, and on social media. I think in our desire to regain a sense of normalcy we have not grieved properly for the losses and hardships of the past four years.
Grief is “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person,” according to the American Psychological Association. It can present in response to any event that disrupts or challenges our sense of normalcy or ourselves. Natural disasters, wars, and pandemics involve collective grief, loss experienced by a group, and traumatic grief is a response to loss that takes place under horrific and unpredictable circumstances. Grief is typically followed by a period of mourning. Avoiding this stage can lead to complicated grief, a disorder characterized by long-lasting, painful emotions and difficulty recovering from the loss. I think our collective, traumatic, and unresolved grief is seeping out in unhelpful and unhealthy ways. If we do not tend to it, it could affect us for years to come.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for identifying five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages don’t necessarily happen in this order, and I think as a society we are stuck in the anger stage. We experienced denial in the beginning of the pandemic and definitely depression during lockdown and beyond as mental health issues remain at higher levels than pre-pandemic. There may well have been lots of bargaining going on too, e.g. “If I don’t go to this social gathering, I can go to the next one safely.” We have lost so much. We lost the world as we knew it. We lost a sense of predictability in life and some degree of optimism about the future. We lost loved ones and colleagues; children lost educational, social, and emotional development. Many Americans lost trust in our leaders and experts.
Early in the pandemic, there was attention to those lost. The news media tracked the Covid deaths daily. Now, these deaths rarely make the news.
What we have lost needs to be acknowledged to process our grief and move toward acceptance, a process that will be uncomfortable, if not painful, for a while. There are many ways this can happen. Nationally, we could identify a day of remembrance for the over 1 million lives lost to the pandemic in the United States alone. States and local communities could join in and add their own services. The only such service we’ve had was attended by President Joe Biden on the eve of his inauguration in January 2021.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques could hold special services for their members annually helping to personalize the mourning within that community. It would also be worthwhile for individual institutions and employers to acknowledge their losses, recognizing the individuals who were known to them and who are missed. The health care profession, of course, was hit particularly hard.
Beyond acknowledging our losses, schools and parents need to help children understand their emotions and process them. Local communities, perhaps through the libraries or other civic and nonprofit organizations, could offer times and places for their members to share their experiences over the past few years. Ignoring what we have lost isn’t working. Waiting for the anger and frustration to dissipate isn’t wise. Only when we face our losses and the toll they have taken and grieve can we truly move on.
Katherine Wasson, PhD, MPH, HEC-C, is a professor in the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at Loyola University Chicago.