Grieving all we've lost: a look at the unconsidered effects of Covid

Image: 123RF/9nong

Around the world, Covid-19 has been tracked through numbers. In South Africa, we’ve seen its movement through the country from the first confirmed case on 5 March 2020 to its 1 337 926 cases at 17 January 2021. And we’ve been tracking its ripple effects too. According to Statistics SA, an estimated 1.5-million people have lost their jobs as a result of the initial five-month-long lockdown.

While these numbers are harrowing, the impact of the pandemic cannot always be measured, and there are countless losses that we can’t account for. From loss of income to loss of community, and connection with friends and family, the full impact of the pandemic has shaken us in ways we may never have expected. Unlike the 2 000 000+ deaths around the globe, we’re facing dispossessions that fall under the term “shadowlosses” that continue to impact millions more people.

Shadowlosses (a word coined by American thanatology founder Cole Imperi) are events that “impact a person’s social connections, status in the community, overall wellbeing, and family relationships”.

Thanatology is the description or study of death and dying, and the psychological mechanisms of dealing with them. The shadowlosses that Imperi refers to include unemployment, not making enough money, loss or reduction in social support, and other changes in lifestyle. And we can grieve these experiences even if no death has occurred. This, according to Imperi, is because our brains grieve shadowlosses in the same way that we grieve the death of a loved one.

These losses are leaving us with grief that seems misplaced when considered against the backdrop of the “real” loss of life. According to Imperi, grief is a mix of cognitive, behavioural, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social symptoms that we need to learn to process.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, considered one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, says, “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesnt feel that way.” He goes on to explain that, “We’re also feeling anticipatory grief … that feeling we get about what the future holds when were uncertain. I dont think weve [ever] collectively lost our sense of general safety like this… We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”

Working through the grief

Dealing with that grief can be a complicated process, especially because it is such a foreign concept to many of us. South African performer Lynelle Kenned says she discovered death companioning while trying to make sense of this new reality, “as a tool to guide you through this process”.

“Not having knowledge of how to do that is what scares us,” Kenned says. Imperi, who created the online pandemic-focused crash course that Kenned took, outlines death companions as having two roles: “to serve their communities as educators, and to serve individuals, families, and other small groups who are navigating a significant loss”. They are knowledgeable about the process of dying, death, grief, and bereavement—and serve communities with that knowledge.

For Kenned, it became an introspective experience. The course taught her “to engage with our own mortality and the mental health challenges that come with navigating the pandemic,” she says. “It was about getting real and not avoiding the grieving that needs to happen.”

The scope of our losses

“There hasnt been a night since I realised that I might fall into this category where I havent worried or wondered if my life will change in some way forever,” says 36-year-old writer Haji Mohamed Dawjee.

The category she refers to is of people around the world living with the symptoms of what is now termed “post-Covid syndrome” or “long-haul Covid”. According to a July 2020 report from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Covid-19 can result in prolonged illness, even among young adults without underlying chronic medical conditions.”

Dawjee started experiencing symptoms on 23 June. At the time of writing, more than 60 days had passed, and she was still experiencing them. “Its haunting,” she says, explaining that the threat of new symptoms is “just constantly there”. “You never know when the loss is going to take over your body and render you useless. It feels like my bones are filled with cement, my skull is filled with mush. My eyesight gets blurry, and the best way I can explain it is that I feel like a zombie,” she says. She also experiences tinnitus and can’t get proper rest because she has lucid dreams and struggles to sleep.

“The projects I work on need a lot of creative detail. I cant afford not to work, because I am a freelancer, so I have tried to meet every deadline, but it takes me really long to get things done because of the confusion, general tardiness, and fatigue and brain fog,” she says.

The notion of long-haul Covid is adding a new kind of shadowloss to the list brought on by the pandemic. “I think my greatest loss thus far has been having no control over my body and brain,” Dawjee says. Because the symptoms are varied and random, the experience has been debilitating.

Along with her loss of control of her own body, Dawjee describes the knock-on impact it has had on her relationships. “I am grieving the joy and fun in my relationship with my wife because I have become this heavy energy in the house. She has had to fill in so many of the gaps that I usually fill in our daily lives, and I really feel grief stricken about the wear and tear in her life as well.”

She describes Covid-19 as a lonely illness, a sense that even those who have not had it can attest to. We are collectively feeling further apart from each other than we might ever have felt before and, according to Kenned, this experience is foreign to us because it is not what we are designed to do.

“We are geared to human touch,” Kenned says. “We also went into lockdown in winter, and our bodies need sunlight and connection to nature to stimulate endorphins. We are cooped up and stressed all the time, which has a negative effect on our wellbeing.”

Finding different tools for coping

Presented over three weeks via Zoom, the Death Companioning crash course gave Kenned tools to help her manage her mental health through the pandemic. “I think the course has brought me face-to-face with difficult things to work through. There was a lightness that came with that,” she says.

It also gave her a sense of community in difficult times. Kenned says the communal identity she was always able to rely on as an artist has been stripped away by the pandemic and lockdown. “If you’re a performer, a big part of that experience comes from the audience and getting that sense of communion, which we have lost.” But she says she found a new, virtual sense of community with her classmates. “There was a feeling of solidarity with people who had the same interest,” she says.

For Dawjee, online forums with other long-haulers has provided a sense of sanity and compensated for some of the lost connection she has experienced in her offline life. “I worry that people think I am making it up or don’t believe me. I keep a lot of the symptoms and feelings to myself, but I know there are people out there going through the same stuff,” she says.

Grief is a transition

While there is much to worry about — and much to grieve — Kenned says that it is only by acknowledging and talking about the losses we are experiencing that we navigate our way through this uncertain time. “We need to be cultivating a society that is not afraid of these subjects,” she says.

“Talking is the first step. You cannot change anything if you cannot acknowledge it in the first place.” It gives us a chance to find empathy, resilience, and presence in a way that we may not have had before. Much like the long-haulers who are coming to grips with their new reality, the pandemic is giving us all a chance to reset.

“Long after the pandemic has passed, we will be left with all of these losses. The deeper the introspection you put into this time, the greater the outcome. Life will never be the same, and the process of grief is about coming through that,” Kenned says.

This article was adapted from one in the March 2020 edition of S Mag.