The last 14 months of grief we have all experienced has at times felt insurmountable. People have lost loved ones, incomes, housing. And they’ve lost connection. Along with the pandemic, racial injustice and political tensions have escalated. Every day we expect to hear of another mass shooting. We’re all weary and our mental health has grown brittle and fractures easily under the weight of all these challenges.
Even as I write this, I am conflicted — 2021 has already brought its share of trauma. April means reliving the trauma of the public killing of George Floyd, on display all over again in the trial of Derek Chauvin, which has been broadcast on every major news network and on social media. Chauvin is the former Minneapolis Police officer who is on trial for kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds in response to his suspected use of a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. The same week as Chauvin’s trial, just 10 miles down the street, another Minneapolis police officer, Kim Potter, shot and killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop that was initiated over an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror and expired tags.
The amount of grief that surrounds us feels unreal — yet it is real.
The National Academy of Sciences recently published a study that puts numbers to the grief caused by COVID-19 through what they refer to as a “bereavement multiplier.”
The study projects that “each associated death will leave roughly nine times as many Americans bereaved....” So “if, for example, 1,000,000 eventually die from COVID-19 over a longer period, then 8.9 million would be bereaved, representing roughly 3 of every 100 Americans.”
Of course it stands to reason that that number will be amplified in communities experiencing a proportionately higher number of COVID deaths — those communities burdened by long-standing racial, ethnic and income inequities where the virus has done its worst.
Each death represents a family broken. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunties, grandparents, cousins. The shock and trauma left from this unprecedented death toll has rippled throughout America and the associated grief will likely lead to wave after wave of mental health crises.
I know that we are all eager to open up the world, and get back to “normal.” But, even if we all get vaccinated and the vaccines are effective against all of the COVID variants that are headed our way, things will never be like our old normal — because our experiences in this time of trial and our grief have changed us. We are different now.
But there is hope.
We will be stronger as a nation if we can hold on to the new understandings and positive changes from this time of pestilence that have made our society more just and equitable. Understandings that come from watching this plague hit greater numbers of Brown and Black people who have less access to healthy food and medical care than white Americans. Positive changes that came from citizens of all backgrounds sharing outrage over George Floyd’s death and all the others, and taking their anger to the streets.
Yes, our hearts mourn all of our losses, but hope is growing here. We have used our grief to ignite a movement for justice unseen in at least two generations and we need to feed these flames until our nation cares equally for all people, until we dismantle white supremacy and create a society where we can ALL thrive.
Until that day, we have to continue the hard work of building inclusion and deepening our hope, even if it feels impossible.