As Sweatpants & Coffee’s favorite (/only) hospital chaplain, of course I wanted to write our National Grief Day piece. I’ve seen enough grief to last 10 lifetimes, studied its effects extensively, and experienced a lot of my own. I knew I would have a lot to write about.

But this isn’t a season just of personal griefs; it’s one of national and global griefs on a scale most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes. I don’t know about you, but this season has brought me to my knees on more occasions than I can count. I don’t have the right words for how I’ve been feeling. Perhaps none of us do.

And one of the strangest parts to me is how little collective grieving we’ve done in the United States. When the tragedy of 9/11 happened, we were able to congregate in communal settings to cry together. People attended religious services more consistently. We gathered for memorial services. We had story after story about the victims and their lives and legacies on television. We went through it together, and that’s a large part of how we have found some national healing over the past two decades. 

We do not have the same sense of collectiveness now as a nearly untamable virus rips through the world and burns so much of what we took for granted as “normalcy” and safety. There are some governors who post and share stories of people in their state who have died. There are tributes to celebrities who died of the virus. But we cannot congregate together in the ways we are used to, and primed to, when terrible things happen. In addition, there is so much contentiousness that surrounds the virus’ effects and methods of prevention, and this sense of divisiveness takes away from the national spirit we experienced after 9/11. The president of the United States has said that “it is what it is” rather than sharing messages of encouragement and dedication. So today, this piece is written to honor the collective grief that we haven’t taken much time to do (and often haven’t had the ability to do, even if we have wanted to). 

Grief, I think, is often a word only used in the context of death. There is so much death here in this season, and yet that is only one of many layers here that I believe are making us feel so weighed down. Covid-19 has shined lights on the darkest, most rotted places of our societal foundations. Instead of hiding from the realities around me, I want to name them as griefs. I want to name them as the kinds of griefs we often don’t talk about: loss of identity, loss of autonomy, loss of safety, loss of dreams. When I think about these realities, I find myself swimming in grief:

  • BIPOC are experiencing mortality rates up to 2.5 times higher than white Americans, highlighting centuries of healthcare inequity, cycles of poverty, and the jobs we consider “essential” and yet often fail to protect people when they are there, including from people who assault them when they try to enforce mask mandates
  • Tens of millions of people are out of jobs and struggling to put food on the table, highlighting how close many Americans were to poverty, if they weren’t already experiencing it. Many young people who were about to start college or internships now know even less about what their future holds, and they feel like they have been blocked from the economic opportunities that other generations have benefited from.
  • Hospitals sometimes haven’t been able to provide enough personal protective equipment (PPE), and more than a thousand healthcare workers in America have died because of that, highlighting America’s poor pandemic preparation. 
  • Many people are ignoring basic scientific guidelines for how to protect each other during this time, highlighting the worst of America’s rugged individualism in the name of “personal freedom” that has cost tens of thousands of lives unnecessarily
  • Children and other people with already vulnerable mental health are experiencing heavy effects on their emotions, highlighting a healthcare system that often prices people out of being able to afford therapy. (Not to name the wild and scary choices of whether children should go to school – and how to make childcare happen, highlighting how little our policies supported parents, especially working parents.) 
  • People who are fortunate enough to survive the virus are sharing their stories of how difficult and even debilitating the long-term symptoms are, and we don’t know the long-term effects of the virus well enough yet to offer assurance and paths forward.
  • Most of us are facing this without as much social support as we need. We’re not able to congregate (or, at least, we shouldn’t be congregating) to grieve these losses – the deaths, the loss of normalcy, the loss of trust in one another, the loss of senses of certainty and safety, the loss of little things that turn out not to be so little… going to the movies, eating at restaurants, being in person with friends for religious services or book clubs or dinner parties, getting hugs. 

Perhaps another layer of this collective grief is that we know that we could have done more – that we still can do more, and we need a group buy-in to do it – and we’re not sure if or when that will happen. 

So what do we do with these losses and griefs? We can look away from them, but we can’t numb them with distraction, apathy, drugs, alcohol, and busyness (to name a few) forever. We need to face them, and we face them together better than we do apart. 

  • Let yourself feel what you need to feel, and let the negative feelings become possibilities that can spark positive action.
    • Angry? See if there’s a charity you can donate to that is facing what you’re angry about. See if there’s a protest near you. Write to or call your government officials. Talk to friends. Use gallows humor sometimes to make sure you still feel a tiny bit of levity in your heart, even when everything feels so heavy.
    • Anxious? Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel anxious – this is a very anxiety-provoking time for many people. Learn what you can do to make yourself feel even a little bit better. I use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills, such as analyzing my automatic thoughts and replacing them with more helpful coping thoughts, and my bad moment bag when I need to.
    • Sad? Let yourself cry. A lot. Eat some coffee ice cream. And yet don’t write the whole day, week, month, or year off just yet. Try again – over and over and over again.
    • Happy? See if there’s anything you can do to help your friends find some happiness, too.
    • Numb? Take some time to pause, but refuse to disengage forever. Dialectical behavioral therapy, known as DBT, has some amazing distress tolerance skills.
  • Remember that each person’s grief looks different and deserves compassion.
  • Read some of the stories of people who have died. Let them become real people to you. Let their lives inspire yours as you press on.
  • As Mr. Rogers said, look for the helpers. Those are the people to focus on and let inspire you more than the people who continue to gather unsafely or be aggressive to essential employees.
  • Check in on your friends who are frontline workers. How are they doing, really? How can you support them?
  • Ask for support from your friends. Spend time with a trusted friend or two, people with whom you can unmask your griefs, even while wearing masks.
  • Sleep enough.
  • Seek counseling, free online support groups, or crisis hotlines
  • Try attending your normal activities virtually, even if it feels a bit strange. Virtual church isn’t the same, but I know that we’re keeping each other safe by being apart.
  • Offer to babysit friends’ children for a bit.
  • Pray. Meditate. Practice crisis self-care in general and do the things that we know are good for us, like walking, biking, and so on if you can.
  • Wear a mask and do everything you can to support other people’s safety so that we can collectively lower risk and not be smack dab in the middle of this grief for much longer than this. 

We can face the griefs and have them help guide our future in this. We must.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.


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