Just a month after Kristin Torres, 32, found a new church to attend in Boston, her grandmother, Carmen, died suddenly. Carmen was a devout Catholic herself and in many ways, Torres considered her her best friend. Torres told her new friends at St. Peter’s she would see them in two weeks, after she got back from the funeral. Then, the pandemic hit, and for six months, Torres stayed in her hometown in California.”
But even from across the country, her church group became a lifeline: Many of her church friends were older, in their 60s and 70s, and generous with wisdom on everything from career issues to grief, loneliness, and insecurity. “They understood when I didn’t show up to meetings because I just didn’t have it in me. They never pushed me to be anything or give anything,” Torres said. The community offered a sense of rhythm in a year that otherwise seemed absent of one. “I’m learning how important it is to have a regular community and a commitment — something and someone to be accountable to and to be a friend to,” said Torres.
Capturing grief throughout the past year seems akin to catching a sunset and trying to hold it in your hands: Nothing is enough to grab hold of the lights going out, to understand what’s unfolding. But people I spoke to described religious services via Zoom, meditation, and practices they consider spiritual as creating space for grief and processing, while others named book clubs or organizing work. Connecting with people about where they bring grief to is one way of talking about it — something that feels necessary to acknowledging that so many of us are grieving.
‘Peer Communities’ For Grief
“In the midst of this crisis, our federal government largely chose denial,” said Chloe Zelkha, Co-Founder of the COVID Grief Network. “They cast some of us — the elderly, disabled folks, immigrants, and people of color — as disposable, and gaslit the grieving. One of the impacts of that choice is the mass death we’ve seen this year, and the countless preventable losses that folks suffered.”
Over 500,000 people in the United States have died of coronavirus. People keep going to work because, without a paid shutdown, what choice is there? People have longed for their communities; people have died alone. There is no “silver lining” to tragedy. Over the past year, racial justice protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others, and ongoing systemic racism, underscored the trauma, grief, and injustice Black people have endured for generations. Grief doesn’t impact everyone the same. For many, there has been no mourning period at all; for others, rituals have been disrupted. Some psychologists have said there is a “communal grief” as we watch systems of work, healthcare, education, and the economy destabilize — a feeling that is not novel to lots of people, but one that “upends our understanding of the world.”
As one of the first in her peer group to lose a parent, Zelkha felt isolated in her loss. Many of the grief spaces she showed up to were run by, and for, older adults, an experience she also had when she entered residency as a hospital chaplain. Alongside her co-founders and in collaboration with The Dinner Party, she began running “grief retreats” in the Bay Area for people in their 20s and 30s. When COVID hit, they saw an opportunity to mobilize support for young people experiencing loss through mutual aid. “One of the special things about the frame of mutual aid is that it centers our collective responsibility to each other,” Zelkha said. “Getting together to talk about it, feel it, and be seen is a core part of the path forward.”
Jody Slaughter, a Minister of Spiritual Care, leads a grief group focused on loss due to death. “I was once told, as a young minister in training, that I didn’t embrace my pain. I thought to myself ‘well, why the hell would anyone embrace their pain,’” Slaughter explained. Now, 30 years later, she has learned that if she suppresses the reality of pain and loss, it resurfaces. “I think we tend to deny or stay busy to numb the pain because we don’t have adequate support or understanding to feel, embrace, and move in and through it,” she added. “I am still trying to discern what and how we re-enter society this year with our collective grief, and how to tend to that in our work spaces, churches, schools, families,” Slaughter said.
Others found chances to grieve by creating space for themselves. Emily Kong, 26, joined Bad Bitch Book Club almost a month before the pandemic began. “When things get dark and I need space for myself, reading has always been there for me,” Kong explained. “Not only has this book club given me friends to lean on, but it’s also given me an outlet to hide in.” Beyond books, there’s conversation about the news, advice on negotiating salaries, and threads of pet pictures. “Finding a level of closeness with people I’ve never even met in real life is something I never imagined having, let alone during a global pandemic,” Kong said.
Kong has struggled with prioritizing her mental health, and is experiencing grief stemming from life being at a standstill. “Something that’s weighed heavily on me also is the rise in Asian hate,” Kong explained. Over a year ago, one of her family members was verbally assaulted after coughing on public transit, and her parents, who own a Chinese carryout restaurant, were asked racist questions. “The microaggressions started before the quarantine and lockdown began and it’s only increased,” Kong said.
She is a fan of space, finding something to do just for yourself. “Grief can creep up on you, no one knows how the pandemic will affect our mental health,” she added. “Taking actual care of ourselves is not selfish, but it’s necessary.”
Others described a similar sense of community through a common interest. Klaudia Amenábar, 26, joined a Discord group with Mandalorian fans, which led to Disney+ watch parties featuring the Star Wars films. Rewatching the films has become a community in and of itself, as is the opportunity to process loss and grief through it. “It’s like, when do I have time in my day to cry?” she asked. The films function like guardrails: You know tragedy is coming, and it’s a relief — a chance to feel without uncertainty.
“Whenever I am feeling down, frustrated, sad, angry and I feel like there is no one to voice my feelings to, I rely on poetry,” Fatima Cham, 19, explained. She has used poetry to talk about racism, climate change, poverty, and gender inequity. There have been times in her life, Cham said, when she felt her experiences were minimized because people couldn’t understand where she was coming from — especially in terms of microaggressions and racism. Poetry, which she considers part of her identity, has been a way to build community: It invites people into her world, Cham said, and builds space to visualize what’s going on.
How We Carry It
The trauma, grief, and loss of this year, is, for many, stacked on top of existing grief, inequities, and loss. And because grief doesn’t occur in silos, there is no timeline; no one-size-fits-all end-point.
Lindsey Boylan, candidate for Manhattan Borough President, said that, growing up, “I just observed a lot of multi-generational trauma.” She saw a lot of people — particularly women — being wronged, and thinks about it daily. Boylan brings her grief to work now. “Grief is not linear,” Boylan said. “I think that one of the most destructive things we do in this society, in this country specifically, is expect people to get over things that happen to them. And that’s just not how I see the world.” Stripping away those negative perceptions, she said, would help us as a society, including in responding to injustice.
And showing up for each other, responding to grief, takes different forms. Tré LaRosa, 26, dealt with survivor’s guilt when his sister passed away several years ago — they were both diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. When the pandemic hit, LaRosa felt terror about his health. “Due to a brand new drug, I was just granted a second opportunity in life, was it about to come to an end due to a once-in-a-generation pandemic?” But there was also a sense of relief in knowing he didn’t have to worry about his sister’s health during such an uncertain time, too. Now, LeRosa engages in direct action and mutual aid, trying to do local work to help others. “I sincerely believe that at our cores, most humans just want to experience love, support, and validation,” he added.
It was an echo across what people said: We’re reaching for a hand to grab, in our own ways, on our own time. It reminded me of something Torres shared: “Sometimes the impulse is to try and solve another person’s grief.” When her grandmother died, friends and her partner took turns sitting with her, letting her cry, letting her talk. “Their presence was enough.”