Coping with grief prepared me for this pandemic long before it happened

Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide.

Something about this pandemic felt familiar from the start. It was the “too much too fast” feeling of it all, the lack of individual control, the helplessness, and the unending nature of it. After a few days of spending too many hours in bed and sinking further into a familiar depression, I realized the déjà vu I was experiencing in this unprecedented time was actually grief.

In 2015, just a couple weeks before my best friend, Sarah, and I headed off to separate colleges, her boyfriend died by suicide. He was her first true love and I was a frequent and proud third wheel when they hung out. I remember that, earlier that summer, I went over to Sarah’s, crying about a breakup I had just gone through. Sarah’s boyfriend was also there and invited me to watch The Office with the two of them. I declined, not wanting to be a downer, but I never expected that the next time I would be crying in front of him I’d be standing at his casket.  

The ripple his death sent out touched everyone that knew him and seemed to shake the world. The grief spread like a disease in our hometown—and no one was prepared for it. Much like right now, all of us (the adults as much as us kids) were plagued by questions with no answers.

How do you accept a death that makes no sense? How do you tell someone “It’s going to be okay” when you don’t know what’s to come? How do you start a brand-new life when another has just ended?

Sarah and I suddenly needed each other more than ever before, and we were about to move nearly a thousand miles apart. It was a situation where good timing just didn’t exist. Going to college was supposed to be our awakening to the real world, but the “real world” was no longer just a supervision-free playground with a bit of tough love mixed in. In the real world, suicide wasn’t a tragedy we heard about on the news; it was a reality attached to the face of a person we knew and loved. Navigating these emotions, we learned, meant carrying on when it felt like everything else was falling apart.

During our freshman year, many of our phone calls and text conversations were heavy. We shared our darkest moments and talked about the unexpected, everyday pains of losing someone to suicide. Sarah’s grief was different than mine, of course; it was closer to the center of the ripple. So, as a friend, I tried my best to offer light when everything was dark and to lessen the load without minimizing the hurt. When we talked, I asked her, “What are some things coming up that you’re excited about?” We would cling to little things, like a dinner planned with friends that weekend, trips to the farmers’ market, or a visit from a loved one in the month ahead. 

Grief can have a blinding effect, making everything seem insurmountable, with no clear timeline for when or if things will return to “normal.” For both Sarah and myself, checking in like this felt like a small but conscious effort to keep going. It gave us reasons to celebrate the present even when the sadness still felt so fresh. 

It’s not about hitting the off switch on grief and moving on. It’s about finding a way for the good to co-exist with the bad and giving ourselves permission to feel joy along with the sorrow.

My college years were marked by more deaths that I felt unprepared for. Freshman year, I lost my uncle. The summer after sophomore year, it was my childhood dog. Junior year, I got a pass, but senior year came and an old classmate died—another suicide that felt like it stopped everything in its place. In these times, I would always come back to the forward-focused mindset I had developed and force myself to anchor onto something on the other side. It helped me to stay positive when it was so much easier to sink into the negative.

Almost six years after that first death that changed the course of everything, Sarah and I were in our shared New York City apartment, realizing that our lives were drastically changing all over again. It was the beginning of March, the pandemic was escalating, and we had just been instructed to start working from home indefinitely. Our conversation brought me back to those times of grieving in college. I was lying on Sarah’s bed, feeling dramatic and stressed out, telling her that I didn’t know how to handle a future that was so uncertain. In college, when things were hard, I always relied on pointing to good things ahead. But with everything canceled, shut down, and forever changed, I didn’t know how to find a positive this time. The pandemic brought me its own form of grief—I just didn’t know how to cope with it yet.

But then Sarah said, “We can still find things to look forward to. It’ll just be different.” She suggested we plan at-home movie nights and schedule dates to paint our nails—small things in the near future that could make a difference. We could make arrangements to help ourselves feel better. After all, I remembered, we’d been getting by in this same way for years. 

Now, it’s been a little more than a month since Sarah and I had that conversation, and things have continued to change each day. Instead of staying in N.Y.C., we both decided to head back home to quarantine with our families—but the sentiment behind our unofficial pact remains, and we’re still checking in. Right now, the vague and distant future of “when all of this is over” feels overwhelmingly out of reach. So I’m choosing, instead, to intentionally place things in the foreground. I’m marking my calendar with little joys, like baking a cake with my sister on Saturday, watching a new episode of Little Fires Everywhere on Wednesday, and FaceTiming with my friends whenever we can. It’s normal to grieve the loss of life as we know it—but we can find small ways to keep that grief from becoming all-consuming. It’ll just be different.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can reach The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.

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