The idea of losing half a million citizens to Covid was incomprehensible when the pandemic started a year ago. I remember when our Sanibel vacation ended abruptly, store shelves emptied, every cough brought paralyzed fear and we were left with that sinking feeling of needing to be prepared. But for what? We had no idea what was to come – but in a matter of a year our lives were forever altered.
In the early stages of Covid, many of us felt anticipatory grief. The pandemic impacted our lives in myriad ways. The illness affected nearly every aspect of our lives – from work and school to everyday activities like getting groceries, visiting with friends and family, attending social events and even our wardrobes. Plans were disrupted, celebrations postponed, everything — dating, vacations, just a dinner out came to a screeching halt. We went from a social society to social isolation. COVID-19, and its social and economic fallout, suddenly left many, if not most of us, simultaneously facing abrupt changes to our identities. The pandemic changed all of the indicators of ‘self.’
Three years ago I lost my entire family and support system when my mother passed away. When the pandemic started, I lost my last support system. School doors across the country swiftly closed their doors. My only support system crumbled when I needed it the most. I was forced to leave my 11 year old daughters at home to navigate a new way of learning while I was forced to return to work. l had no comfort knowing my children were in a supervised, nurturing and supportive environment while I was at work. And my children were left to grieve the loss of normalcy, friends, after-school activities, sports and the rite of passage into middle school. As I reflect back now, their loss was immeasurable and incomprehensible for their age.
As a frontline healthcare worker and single mother, I have spent the past year in a constant state of fear. In the midst of a global pandemic, healthcare workers have risked their lives protecting the lives of others. Prior to being vaccinated, I worried every day if the flimsy face shield and medical mask would spare me from the virus. Working in healthcare during a pandemic has been challenging, frustrating, gut-wrenching, scary and taxing. The new norm at work now has become telehealth appointments, mandatory screenings, protective gear, isolated lunches far removed from colleagues, and an environment of constant change and fear.
When the pandemic started, most of us were not directly affected by the virus. Very few people knew someone who had Covid. In the early stages, I could count on both hands the number of people I knew who had and/or were affected by Covid. A year later, I have stopped counting as the numbers continue to grow. I have known former & current colleagues, neighbors, former classmates, beloved college professors, parents of my children’s friends, coaches, priests and friends in my inner circle who have had Covid.
As a healthcare worker in oncology, my patients have been greatly impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought new losses to the terminally ill, who now grieve for what stay-at-home orders have taken away. There’s no “back to normal” for people with terminal illnesses; time lost to Covid can’t be made up. Terminal patients will not get their bittersweet final swim in the warm Caribbean or one last check on their bucket list. The mother with a rare aggressive cancer will not get one last trip to Disney with her ten-year-old son. For people with life-limiting illnesses, time is less a nebulous concept than a pressing constraint; there are fewer chances for do-overs. When you’re told that you have a cap on your life, a switch flips that you need to make the most of the time you have left. A pandemic doesn’t allow you to pack in the experiences like you had planned. And the pandemic has been cruel and unfair to cancer patients who have fought with every fiber of their being to beat cancer, only to succumb to Covid. The stories are endless: the school counselor, the grandfather, the grandmother, the 70-year-old patient in remission for two years. I still struggle to wrap my head around it.
The pandemic has taught me to let go of a lot of ideas about what my life should look like. I don’t plan ahead as much. I appreciate the little things so much more. I’ve learned to slow down and put less pressure on myself. I’ve spent years rushing through life, pressuring myself to get the “right” job and attend the “right” events, even if all that status-chasing was making me miserable. Quarantine has forced me to slow down in ways I haven’t since I was a kid. From high school and college, through my 20s and a master’s program, I have been on the go constantly for half my life. I always said I was one who liked to be busy, but the last year of forced slowdown has really called on me to think about what I want my life to look like moving forward. I’m trying to figure out what it would look like to intentionally build space in my life to breathe, reflect, and focus on the most important aspects of life — the people around me who make it all worth it.
Getting outdoors has been, for many of us, a crucial way to maintain our sanity during lockdown. I have spent time reconnecting and grounding with nature. I’ve learned to sit in my own silence and enjoy solitude; this once felt like an uneasy practice.
I miss hugging, going to coffee houses, and simply going out to eat, but I’ve learned to appreciate friends and my family of choice. After spending time on the Covid unit and watching people left to face death alone, I’ve learned how important it is to tell people exactly how I feel about them. I’ve learned how important it is to say, “I love you.”
The world changed immensely in 2020. Even with all the unexpected pain, confusion and loss, I learned to sit with my feelings in a way I hadn’t before. I focused on what it is that I really want, and what is really important to me. So many people have lost their lives; it makes sense that I am thinking about mine in a different way.