The Echo Chamber of Pandemic Grief

by | May 1, 2021 | 0 comments

  • Sami with a glass of bourbon in honor of her grandfather on the day of his virtual funeral service.

April 1, 2021 was the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death. He passed not from COVID directly, but perhaps indirectly because he refused to go to a doctor or hospital if my grandma couldn’t go in with him. So he didn’t go and he died on their porch, his body there for hours because the county coroner was so busy.

My grandfather did maintenance at the Catholic church and called the bingo in the basement. He was so well-known in my county that even as a little girl I would be asked if I was related to him when certain people heard my last name.

I wasn’t the first person I knew to have lost someone since the pandemic had started, and I knew a big Catholic mass was not possible. Even if the whole family and community could not attend, my grandmother insisted on a church funeral. So they allowed her and her nine living children to have a short service at the church where my grandparents attended every Sunday (and many other days) for more years than I know. Many of their children were married there, and many grandchildren (including me) were baptized there. All of their children and two of their grandchildren went to the K–8 school attached to the church. Their surprise 50th wedding anniversary party was there with nearly 100 extended family members and friends. My aunt, who died in 2011, is buried there. It was their second home. Of course my grandfather’s funeral would be there, pandemic or not—pandemic be damned.

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While my grandmother and her children attended the service with masks on inside, the rest of us watched the church’s Facebook livestream which they had set up not long before to broadcast masses to people in lockdown in rural Kentucky. Most of my extended family watched my grandfather’s Facebook Live funeral on phones and tablets in cars in the church parking lot. I watched on my iPad from 462 miles away in Madison. Those don’t feel like real sentences, but they are. And while I was the first person I knew to participate in mourning rituals virtually and alone, I was not the last.

In the days between my grandfather’s death and the funeral, I obsessively processed what it might mean for us culturally to have to adapt our grieving rituals—and what would happen if we did not. What would it mean for people to not process and mourn losses in the context of community and rituals (faith-based or otherwise)? How would we become numb as the numbers grew? And they did grow, beyond anything comprehensible: 554,000 and counting a year after my grandfather died. And those are just the COVID deaths, those don’t include the natural cause deaths and the accident deaths and the suicides and the people who died, like my grandfather, simply because they were afraid to go to a doctor or could not be provided a hospital bed or a ventilator. 

At this point I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know someone who died in the last year. We are all grieving or suppressing grief or trying to figure out how to grieve in this new world, this next context. In the absence of in-person grieving, we gather virtually to share stories of our loved ones, we watch funerals in empty rooms and attend digital memorial services as Zoom presentations. We post about those we have lost on social media, sometimes within minutes or hours of learning about someone’s death, flooded with condolences and prayers and virtual hugs and wishes of may their memory be a blessing. The COVID-19 global pandemic has created an echo chamber of grief. Our grief reverberates and bounces back against the grief of others, one loss sparking an echoing, fading memory of other losses. It is inescapable. And though I have been thinking about and processing it for a while, only now, a year after I first experienced pandemic grieving, am I able to coherently write about it.

In the days before the funeral, I posted on Facebook asking if anyone could help supply masks for my family. In my mind this was one act of care and support I could provide from afar. Someone I used to babysit when I was in high school said his mom might be able to, he’d ask. His parents still live down the street from my mom, all of them in the houses we grew up in. His mom and her niece rushed to make 20 cloth masks from a design on the internet. This was before any mask mandates or overcrowded hospitals or second waves. This was just a few weeks into something many people thought would be over by summer, fall at the latest. My mom promised me she would wear one. I texted all my cousins who planned to be there—well, the ones I had numbers for at least. I had been out of direct touch with most of them for years, just showing up once or twice a year at Christmas and a random summer Sunday to demonstrate I was still alive and doing ok for myself. I asked all of them to promise to wear a mask. I kept thinking about the stories of whole families getting sick and worried endlessly about what I would do if more of my family died in the same year, and I had to continue to stay away. How much grief can one person hold?

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The day of the funeral I woke up early to account for the time difference and to treat the day as one of mourning—in my own way. I made a “Catholic Shit” playlist on my phone (so much John Michael Talbot), which I played on repeat while I showered, put on a black dress, did my hair and makeup, and poured myself a glass of bourbon in honor of my grandfather who taught me that drinking strong whiskey makes hair grow on your chest. I snapped a photo and posted on Facebook saying: “Hey folks. So I’m gonna be drinking whiskey and listening to some combination of Catholic hymns and 90s/00s country music to remind me of family and home today from quarantine. If you want to ‘join’ me at any point, please hit me up. Particularly interested in folks who want to talk about mourning during a pandemic, mourning when estranged from family, relationships to religion as non-practicing people raised in faith communities, and developing modern mourning practices outside of religion. Academic queer former Catholics who left home at 18 have to mourn in their own ways, too. Raise a real or virtual glass of Kentucky bourbon today for me please.” In retrospect, this post was when I began to make the connections between how grieving during the pandemic was reopening old wounds, echoing other forms of grief I still held: grief for the loss of family connections as a queer person which I felt even more heavily as one of the only people in my family to leave the Kentucky/Ohio area, who now literally could not return because it was (again) unsafe for me to be there; grief for my younger self who suffered so much shame in the context of my religious community, yet as an adult found deep nostalgic comfort in listening to the songs I used to sing in church even as I no longer believed in any of it. Everywhere I turned this new grief found ways to stir up old ones, all of them bouncing around loudly inside my chest.

My grandfather’s funeral service was hard to process. I watched in a sort of surreal, out of body way, saying the prayers I had said so many times as a kid along with my aunts and uncles on the screen, crying at moments, but also laughing as random parishioners commented on the Facebook live asking who’s funeral it was or confusing this stream with another scheduled for the following week. It was the virtual equivalent of people repeatedly walking into the middle of the funeral and shouting “Who died?!” But the more absurd it got, the easier it was to handle. Nothing felt real and in that moment, I was grateful that the world was already so upside down because I wasn’t ready to deal with the reality of this particular loss. I had been alone in my house without any human contact or touch for weeks. I didn’t know when I would see anyone in my family again. I still haven’t seen any of them a year later. I am sort of afraid, now that the grief has quieted, that when I go back, when I step into my grandparents’ home, the grief may meet me there louder than ever, shouting at me from my grandfather’s recliner, from his pictures on the walls, from my grandmother’s face.

After the funeral my entire extended family, except me in Wisconsin and my youngest cousins, went to the gravesite for the burial. My mom, whom I taught how to FaceTime just a few days before, video-called me into the cemetery. Most people declined to wear the masks I had gotten made for them. It felt…personal. Not because I thought they weren’t wearing masks because they came from me or because people were specifically rejecting my attempt at care, but because it felt like another clear signal of the way who I am and how I operate in the world does not align with my family of origin. More grief refracting. Although this was before anyone had uttered the term anti-masker, it was clear most of my family members were not concerned about COVID-19 in the way I was. I’m a fat, Black, queer, disabled woman with many fat, Black and/or disabled friends and loved ones, all of us at high risk for dying from COVID and more likely to be denied care or provided less care because of our identities. I was wearing masks long before it was required, and I knew to get N95s when possible thanks to my disabled friends in California who used them during the wildfires. I wanted to share this crip knowledge, this disabled survival tactic with them because I wanted us to all survive.

While I am Black and queer and believe in the need for radical change for liberation, I was raised by conservative white Catholics and Christians who considered the small town where my single white mother raised me “the city.” I want to say I never fit in, but I think for a while I did—when I insisted on being called mixed race or biracial instead of Black and suppressed my same-sex desires and overachieved myself into feeling valuable. I had been pulling away from the homogeneity of my family of origin for years but watching them standing maskless, marginally distant from each other in a cemetery felt like a new kind of break. For so long I wanted to feel close to them and be one of them, but this experience of pandemic grieving made the loss of that closeness hurt deeply even as I knew in the moment and know even more so now after the uprisings last summer, that it is better for me, emotionally and spiritually, to keep my distance. The grief of realizing as a mixed-race (or transracially adopted) person that your white family who raised you and claims to love you is racist deserves its own essay.

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After I hung up the burial site video call with my mom, I drove to a random cemetery here in Madison with a flask of bourbon and wandered around. I stopped at the first tombstone I found with the name Charles. I asked that Charles if he wouldn’t mind me honoring my grandfather there, and I said a few words. There wasn’t much to say. My grandfather and I weren’t close. He wasn’t a talker or a feelings person. But he did show up to all the awards dinners and grandparent’s day events and theater productions I invited my grandma and him to attend growing up. He taught me to drive when it was clear my mother doing it wasn’t going to work for either one of us. That was something. And I often think about how he dropped out of school in eighth grade, joined the Army at 18, spent time in Europe during the Korean War, then came home and married my 19-year-old grandma at age 21, going on to raise 10 kids in a four-bedroom, one-bathroom country home on a modest salary working for Goodyear tire. When I was little and he was still working full time, his fingernails seemed permanently dark with motor oil. So at some other Charles’ grave, I talked about these things I knew about my grandpa Charlie and poured out some bourbon for him and sang a Catholic hymn. Then I drove home and ate too much of an edible and cried about feeling so distant from my family yet absolutely, unquestionably happier and freer without them regularly in my life anymore. Then I felt guilty in the way Catholics are trained to do and cried about that too. I don’t recommend getting too high after your grandfather’s Facebook live funeral while in lockdown during a global pandemic, in case you were considering it.

It’s been a year, and his death still doesn’t feel real. Maybe it would still feel unreal without a pandemic, but I think that grieving rituals happen for a reason. They help us process the reality of death and to crystalize memories of people we loved. When my aunt died in 2011, the first person in my life I really loved to die, I was with her in hospice for days leading up to her death. I held her son when he cried. I made a photo board for the memorial service and helped my mom clean out her home for weeks after so it could be sold. That death was real and tangible. I lived it and lived in the aftermath of it until it stopped hurting. This time, I didn’t even remember that it was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death until I saw a Facebook memory about it the next day. Time was such a blur last spring that the date of his death never registered in my head—an April Fool’s Day death during a global pandemic lockdown. I certainly won’t forget now that I’ve thought of it that way. When I realized I had missed the anniversary I thought about calling my grandmother, but I don’t know what to say. She, too, is sitting in this unfinished mourning, this echo chamber of grief. She’s in her 80s, and so many of her friends have died in the last year—seven the last time I asked. Likely more now. When I had talked to my grandma in the late summer, she was hopeful we could hold a memorial service for the whole community around my grandfather’s birthday in October. That didn’t happen. First family Christmas without him didn’t happen either. Now we’re a year in, and we still don’t know when a memorial will be possible.

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If my family does ever organize a memorial service, I’ll go back—that is, if I’m welcome; I was neither invited to nor told about one cousin’s outdoor, Fall 2020 wedding where (I’m told by one of the few cousins I still talk to) almost no one wore masks. But I would go back if invited, because I think participating in a mourning ritual in the flesh would help quiet the grief, slow the echo. I’d go with my partner of six years whom my mom still calls my friend, and we’d sit with my youngest cousins, the only ones I still talk to for real. And I’d be there in my spectacular queerness and beautiful Blackness, no longer afraid of losing my family because the family I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore; not exclusively because of my grandfather’s death course, but his passing certainly marked a significant, irrevocable change that we cannot yet know how to repair from, collectively or individually, when we cannot yet come together still. A year later, the multiple griefs opened up by the loss of my grandfather still echo when my students tell me about loved ones they’ve lost in the last year, when I think about calling my mother, but don’t, when I drink a bourbon neat, when I drive down winding country roads like the one you use to get to my grandparents’ house. I know that all grief is slow and non-linear, but the pandemic has put a pause on certain kinds of mourning practices while keeping us in an echo chamber of collective grief. It is exhausting. I am exhausted. I feel like I am waiting for something to happen first for me to fully mourn, but I don’t know what that something is—the end of the pandemic? Seeing my family again? Going to my grandfather’s actual grave? I don’t know. I don’t know.

This essay is one way I am trying to mourn safely. I started writing it for myself on my phone while in bed the day I realized I had missed the anniversary of his death, but as my reflection on how I had to figure out how to grieve in a pandemic got longer, I thought maybe it would be helpful to others, too. And if my story helps someone else quiet their grief, perhaps that healing will echo among us as well. We could use it.

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