On Jan. 19, as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris memorialized the 400,000 Americans who had died from COVID-19, I found tears streaming down my face. I hadn’t realized how many emotions I’d been holding in, or how badly I needed a sign that it was okay to let go for a moment.
“To heal, we must remember,” Biden said, standing beside the waters at the Lincoln Memorial. “And it’s hard, sometimes, to remember.”
Like many around the world, I’ve experienced the pandemic as a pervasive, slow-moving trauma that has left me separated from my full range of emotions. We live in fear of getting sick and dying, or of loved ones meeting a similar fate. Worldwide, 2.2 million people have died from COVID-19, leaving loss and grief in their wake. Many more have experienced frightening COVID-19 symptoms, or have lost jobs, homes and businesses because of the pandemic’s economic effects. Our sense of safety has been shaken, or even shattered.
“The whole country is in a state of numbness and denial because it is all too much to take in. It is too much to process,” Dr. Diane E. Meier, longtime director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, part of New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told the New York Times in March.
But in the coming months, as more of us become fully vaccinated and are able to reconnect with others and return to school and work, all of those pent-up emotions are likely to come flooding out. We should get ready for that, and make space to let it happen.
Trauma expert Peter Levine writes about how, in response to trauma, our bodies (like animals’ bodies) undergo a series of unconscious changes that make us more able to weather a threat. We may fight, flee, or freeze; think of an opossum or mouse “playing dead.” When we’re in danger, our emotions get turned off, because they would only slow us down. Only when the threat has passed do we have the opportunity to return to baseline and become able to feel and process what happened.
I’ve spent much of the past year vacillating between survival states. I’ve been grumpy and defensive; that’s the fight response. I’ve buried myself in sewing and writing projects, keeping myself too busy to soften into my emotions; that’s the flight response. And I’ve spent countless hours distracting myself with books, or bingeing TV and movies; that’s the freeze response. It has often felt like there’s a thick wall of glass between myself and my feelings. And I know I’m not alone.
For the first several months of the pandemic, my friend Daphne (not her real name) juggled full-time work at a major tech company, plus full-time parenting, while her husband started a new full-time job. She tried to cope by putting one foot in front of the other, not allowing herself to feel anything.
In August, during an online appointment, her doctor asked how she was doing. “I started crying and I couldn’t stop,” she says. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and a medical leave from work. Although Daphne felt much better, she still didn’t feel very much.
Particularly in the United States, we were rarely given a moment to rest, take stock, and grieve what we may have lost. Stimulus funds from the U.S. government came nowhere close to covering the cost of lost paychecks or missed rent and mortgage payments. The hustle didn’t stop; it intensified.
The Trump administration didn’t offer any moments of silence or ceremonies honoring those who’d died of COVID-19. We didn’t get any public memorials until the one Biden and Harris held the day before their inauguration. Biden led another one a month later, when U.S. deaths crossed the 500,000 threshold.
For many who’ve lost loved ones during the pandemic, either because of COVID-19 or something else, their grief has felt muffled by isolation and by funeral services carried out on the screen, instead of in person. When my friend Zachary Graham’s father lost his best friend — who was like a father figure to Graham — not being able to be with his dad in person was painful, he said.
“His pastor did a good job honoring him, but sitting there, crying in my kitchen, gave me very little closure,” Graham said. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to celebrate his love and grieve properly.”
Right now, millions of people in the U.S. are being vaccinated daily, which brings us closer and closer to feeling safe again. In the coming weeks and months, our bodies, our emotions, are likely to soften. A trickle or a flood of feelings — grief, terror, sadness — may come.
When Daphne got her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March, a wave of emotion — and relief — flooded through her body. The 48-year-old Californian has multiple health conditions that put her at higher risk of severe or fatal COVID, and she has spent the pandemic isolated at home with her husband and 4-year-old son.
“I feel like crying. I feel like cartwheeling,” Daphne said after the vaccination. “For a year, I couldn’t stop thinking about my son growing up without me. I’ve written him the letter every parent thinks about — the ‘here’s all the things I want you to know about life and I’m sorry I’m not there to tell you in person’ letter.”
After trauma, whether it’s a brief event or a year-long pandemic, one of the best ways for us to feel safe again is to be among other people. Humans are, by nature, a social species. Isolation, even without a pandemic at its back, is traumatic, according to Stephen Porges, director of the Trauma Research Center within the Kinsey Institute. Being with others, particularly others who are also feeling safe, and being able to look into each other’s eyes, hear each other’s friendly voices, and touch each other, is powerful medicine, Porges writes in his “Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory.”
“As we build a new sense of safety, it’s almost certain that we’ll fall apart more times than we can imagine,” mental-health coach Sam Dylan Finch wrote on Instagram in February. He was talking about trauma recovery in general, but it applies here, too. “If you’re breaking down, that doesn’t mean you’re doing recovery ‘wrong.’ In fact, we often break down only when we finally feel safe enough to do so.”
I got my first COVID-19 shot in mid-March. I was hoping for some sense of relief, but it didn’t come. Friends of mine have contracted the coronavirus after their first shot, and a family member was hospitalized with it following his initial vaccination. It still doesn’t feel safe, and probably won’t until my second vaccine takes effect — until I’m able to see my family and friends again, wrap my arms around them, and see their faces, no longer obscured by masks.
I’m grateful that this year has made trauma and mental health a mainstream conversation, but a year is a long, long time to feel numb and alone. I wouldn’t say I’m looking forward to the emotional deluge that’s on the horizon, but I’m making space, getting ready. To remember, and to heal.
Beth Winegarner is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She is a guest