I’d like to share some information with you about delayed or postponed grief, because it’ll be helpful to know about in the coming weeks.
First, as many of us know, grief occurs in cycles. We can mourn to the best of our ability at any point in time, but months later — or years or even decades after the loss — those feelings can be reactivated. It can happen because of a date on the calendar, an anniversary event, a life milestone, or even the scent of a particular perfume. That’s a completely normal experience, but often leaves us feeling that we should be “over it” by now.
Second, we grieve only when we feel safe enough to do so. If we’re overwhelmed by the tasks of school, work, child care, or survival needs, or if we’re worried about the responses of those around us, we might postpone the emotional pain until a time when we feel more stable and supported. It’s not unusual for someone thrust into a bunch of new responsibilities to wait to grieve for a year or more after a loved one dies.
And third, even under the most optimal circumstances, a majority of mourners experience a dip in functioning at the one-year point after a death. I believe that’s in part because we steel ourselves against getting through the “year of firsts” — first birthday, first Mother’s Day, first holiday season without a loved one — only to discover that the reward for making it through a full year is … another year.
This spring of 2021 is offering up a perfect convergence of all three factors. With the one-year anniversary of the first surge of Covid deaths here now, as well as the first anniversary of lockdowns, job losses, and school closures, we should be prepared for individual and collective grief responses to occur. Those of us who were on survival mode last year, trying to adjust to massive changes in real time, may finally feel safe enough to grieve some of 2020’s losses. And those of us who lost loved ones in 2020, especially to Covid, may have a predictable anniversary reaction at the one-year point.
Let’s support each other through this time. To do so is an important investment in the nation’s future. To not do so risks contributing to a public health crisis. In fact, I feel so strongly about spreading this message that I wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post, available online now or in print Sunday.
You can read the op-ed, “Pandemic Grief Could Become Its Own Health Crisis” here. And please feel free to share it with anyone you know who might find it helpful. Together, we can create a more grief-literate society.
Yours in solidarity,