Dealing with Grief During a Pandemic

By now, everyone knows that isolation and loneliness come with the pandemic. Although we’re no longer in an official quarantine, society as a whole hasn’t quite reconnected in the way that it used to; there are still restrictions with travel and precautions that are held up in order to ensure the safety of loved ones.  We’re still expected to do most of our comforting, caring, and coping virtually.

But what do you do when you have to deal with death, despite all of these precautions?

On Sep. 11, my uncle died suddenly from a heart attack. Nothing we could have prepared for or prevented, no warning before it happened. I was told the news the next morning, my dad only partially holding it together. Seeing him tear up as he said “he was like a brother to me,” made my stomach drop harder than I would’ve ever imagined.

I was supposed to be studying for the SATs with a friend that day; instead, I drove up to Pennsylvania to break the news to my sister, so she didn’t have to find out through a text or call. Honestly, I was in shock: I didn’t know how to process the information, so I just…didn’t. I spent the day trying to keep my sister and my dad preoccupied and sane, but also distracting myself.

It wasn’t until the next day that it began to hit me. It was a Monday, and my brain had too much to handle. I attempted to intake what my teachers were telling me, but I was finally alone with my thoughts. And against my own will, I was somewhat processing his death. Arguably one of the worst places to have to deal with it, too. There was too much going on at school, too many people around to potentially see my breaking down. I couldn’t eat much. I had to go home early and just cry without any eyes on me.

I was able to function without too many issues for the next couple of days, going through the motions of my daily routines without any enthusiasm. When Thursday came around, my dad and I drove up to New Jersey for the viewing. Although I was able to actually, physically, see him in his casket, hear people crying throughout the funeral home, feel my cousins and my aunt shaking when I hugged them, it still didn’t feel real. One of my other cousins was running around, crying, telling people how much she loves and missed them, trying to make sure we understood how much she appreciates us, something that we haven’t had an opportunity to do in about two years.

It was really eerie seeing everyone again. My family does large gatherings, usually at one of my cousins’ houses, at least three times a year. We haven’t been able to do that because of COVID, but we were finally able to get together at my cousin’s wedding in late July. It had been postponed from 2020, but COVID cases were down enough that everyone was comfortable attending. The wedding was already special in the sense that it was the first time we could see everyone together in forever, but now it’s remembered as the last time most of us saw my uncle.

The amount of times I heard “It’s nice to see you again, but not under these circumstances,” was suffocating. The same phrases were thrown around: “It’s too soon,” “It’s unfair,” “It was never supposed to be like this.” Of course we as a family wanted to see everyone again, in a healthy, large gathering; it’s what we Filipinos do. But not like this.

By the time the funeral came around the following day, I couldn’t hold it together. I was bawling throughout the entire service—something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Sobbing into a mask has to be one of the worst (physical) feelings ever: it’s snotty, damp, filled to the brim with tears and sorrow.

The funeral was the first time it all felt real to me. Mantras of I wish I had and I’ll never see him again were on repeat in my head. I’ve never dealt with death before. The amount of regret that comes with the death of a loved one is overwhelming, and it’s amplified when you couldn’t spend time with them for the past two years.

Granted, I’m beyond thankful that we’re far enough into the pandemic that I was able to attend the viewing and funeral in person; I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for people who could only attend a virtual funeral for their loved ones. Being able to have that revelation of “He’s really gone,” while surrounded by my family was very helpful for processing my emotions. I have a feeling that if I wasn’t able to physically go to the funeral, I would still have a lingering doubt that it never happened and that I’d just see my uncle at the next family gathering.

Anyone can tell you that dealing with grief is a process. Actually going through that process is another story. I’m still dealing with his death, and I imagine I’ll be doing so for a long time. He pops up in my mind all the time now, and that alone is something I’m guilty for. Why didn’t I think of him more often when he was alive? Why didn’t I call? Why didn’t I talk to him more? Anything that makes me think of him is able to get me in tears at the drop of a hat.

There’s this one song that I listen to sometimes that I’ve involuntarily started to associate with him and my aunt. It’s heart-wrenching to listen to now, but sometimes it just helps me get out my emotions of grief. I’ve been told to focus more on what I enjoyed doing with him while he was alive, rather than how awful I feel now that he’s gone. He always made his chili super spicy, even though he couldn’t handle it, and got super sweaty and gross in the process. He was the uncle that took naps on the couch during our gatherings, and sometimes his dog joined him. He was the uncle that would call everyone over, one by one, and sit them down next to him as he tried remembering what grade you were in, doing that Filipino speaking pattern where he doesn’t quite finish his sentences, pointing and snapping like that’ll jumpstart his memory.

As time goes on, it’s easier to celebrate his life rather than grieve the loss of it. It’s still hard to deal with the time I lost with him within these past two years, but I’ll take it as a lesson to continue reaching out to and appreciating my family while I can, despite any circumstances. Dealing with grief and loss for the first time, and during this pandemic, contributed to one of the most difficult months of my life—but as all things do, it gets better.