Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’re going to talk today about what we’ve lost over the past year. If this is too much for you, I understand, and we’ll see you tomorrow. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have mourned a loved one in the past year who was taken from them by COVID-19. But we’ve lost more than that. Those Canadians who have lost a loved one have also been denied, as you surely know by now, even if you’re lucky enough to not be among them, anything resembling a normal grieving process. We have been coming together to mourn our dead for just about as long as we’ve been human. It is among the practices that stretch across centuries and cultures and religions. And this past year, we pretty much did not do that. So hundreds of thousands of Canadians, hundreds of millions of people across the world are now part of a unique cohort. One that we just don’t know much about. What has COVID cost us when it comes to processing our grief? Beyond the loss of our loved ones, what does it do to us when we also lose the natural way we cope with it? Most victims of COVID were not taken far too young, as we tend to think of tragic deaths. But they were taken from their families and friends without any of the goodbyes and final words and hand touches that we often use to ease their passing, but also to ease our own pain at letting them go. So when this pandemic is over, when vaccines arrive for everyone and we start to regain some sort of normalcy, we’ll have to grapple with this. Yes, it has been horrible to lose so many people to this virus, but we’ve lost more than just people. And how will we cope with what that does to us once the danger has passed? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Dr. Mary Fernando is retired now, but she studied and practiced medical psychotherapy. She has also studied and treated grief, and she writes about her own grief to help normalize it. Hello, Mary.
Dr. Mary Fernando: Hi Jordan. How are you?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m doing okay. As we’re speaking, it’s been officially one year since the pandemic began. So I guess I’d amend my answer to I’m doing as well as I can be, as well as could be expected?
Dr. Mary Fernando: It’s a long year. Huh?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It really has. And why we wanted to talk to you is because a lot of what people are feeling right now is a real sense of loss. And, you know, I think we could all use some help, now that it’s been a year, figuring out how we’ll process that going forward.
Dr. Mary Fernando: And there are a number of issues on loss. One being the things that we do that have changed. And there’s the other issue, which is we are losing family members. We’re losing people we love. Right? And that becomes a different thing, right? As well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’re going to talk about both of those aspects. Cause some people have experienced both of them. But can we start by just– in your studies, what is grief?
Dr. Mary Fernando: Grief is a sense of loss. And I know that sounds somewhat redundant, but if you have lost something, and most importantly, someone who is central to your life, then we grieve them. And as the pandemic moves forward, especially with these new variants, we are seeing more and more deaths. We will be seeing what they call now post-acute COVID. So you’ll be seeing people who have lost abilities, whether it’s through strokes, through heart problems. So they will have lost their hopes and dreams. So both of those are equivalent. Loss is loss. However, what we will have a huge problem with is right now, someone I love dies. I cannot be with them as they die from COVID. They die alone. And after they die, the normal rituals of, you know, hanging out, having a celebration of life, meeting with the people who are part of their lives, giving them hugs, talking, none of that is available anymore.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How have we been coping with loss in the absence of those things that we’d normally lean on? And what does that do to us?
Dr. Mary Fernando: We will have an answer in months from now. The history of this time will be written. But the preliminary reports on this suggest that it’s– it prolongs grief. Those rituals that we are so used to, we take for granted. Being able to hold someone’s hand when they die, being able to talk to those that love them. To do some kind of healing, I think, as we move forward in COVID and COVID deaths, we’re going to see a lot of prolonged grief. So those rituals are meant to heal and we will probably see people who haven’t healed.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What does it mean to those who are experiencing loss and grief, to have that publicly acknowledged? And have we done enough of that? And we’ll talk in a moment about, you know, some specific examples of when public officials do or don’t acknowledge it, but what is the intent behind simply marking the number of people that we’ve lost? And what does it accomplish?
Dr. Mary Fernando: I suspect you’re speaking about Dr. Jennifer Kwan, who every day posts the number of people who die, for example, in Ontario from COVID. Imagine yourself– I always try to come at this with empathy, and empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes that you may not be in or know what that feels like. Imagine if someone you love died. To have them even mentioned as part of the number matters. And I know when I read Dr. Kwan’s daily update on COVID, every time I read the deaths, I take a deep breath, right? I think of these people. I don’t know them. Their names are not given. But I think of the people I have lost, think of the people I loved who I haven’t lost, and imagine what that must feel like. So acknowledging their deaths is very important.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What do we lose without that acknowledgement from those in power? And here I’d like to just explain, for listeners who aren’t familiar, that you thanked Dr. Kwan for including the number of deaths in her daily update. And then your tweet was replied to, by somebody in the provincial government’s communications department. Can you tell me a little bit about that interaction and what happened?
Dr. Mary Fernando: He had responded by saying that this information was from government websites, which is true. Dr. Kwan is an amazing family doctor. No one thought that she went around the province counting hospitalizations and COVID deaths. She has a busy practice. She’s using government statistics and charting them in a way that’s more recognizable. But as you said, acknowledging deaths, right? And so she did that. And I just thanked her. And his response was this is from government statistics, which is quite true. However, from our Ontario government daily updates, we don’t hear about deaths. And I want to make it quite clear, this isn’t political. I believe that our premier who has gone through his own grief, and that was the article– I wrote about that, and our Minister of Health who has suffered tremendous grief that we have all seen as well, know what loss is. This is probably a communication decision, which is that it may feel– and let’s pull out of Ontario– for every government, we are losing people. COVID is relentless. And it’s a virus. It’s not political, it’s a virus. And it’s killing people. So in every jurisdiction, for every government, they’re going to have to deal with the fact that we’re losing people. Politically, people must worry about this, because it may look like a failure on their government’s part. Right? But it is not. A virus does not say, you know, I’m not going to kill people because we liked this government, et cetera. It’s a relentless, horrible beast, this virus. So I suspect that governments like perhaps the one in Ontario, but certainly throughout the world, are worried about how to deal with these deaths, how to talk about them, without getting attacked for the existence of these deaths. And I have huge empathy for them. I would hate to be in government right now. I would hate to have, you know, this massive responsibility.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s really interesting, and what I found interesting in the government’s response, was, to your point, you know, it’s not political, the deaths just aren’t included. And I guess what I’m struggling with, and what I’m hoping you can help me with, is figuring out what we’re going to do to begin to deal with some of this grief as vaccinations, hopefully arrive, and better weather comes, and, you know, knock on wood, the numbers go down and we get through this, we’re going to be left with hundreds of thousands of traumatized people who have lost loved ones. And from small things like acknowledging the daily death counts in the government updates, to– what else could help on such a massive scale? You know, I think people know how to comfort someone close to them who’s suffering from loss, but when you have this number of people who have all lost somebody close to them, with no contact with that person in one year, like where do you begin? You know what I mean?
Dr. Mary Fernando: Your question is absolutely crucial. And I would actually question one of your points. You said we all know how to comfort people who have suffered loss. The thing is that we really don’t. There are those who will listen to our grief, because grief is a lifetime. You know, you miss them at birthdays. You miss them at Christmas. You miss them when you just want to call them up and say hello. It’s a lifetime, it just happens. Right? But generally people allow others to grieve at funerals. Often allow them for a little bit. And then we want them to get over it. This is a societal response. It is not a lack of caring. If you really love someone, you worry if they’re grieving and you kind of want them to be better. So as a society, I think we generally do poorly with managing grief. And one beautiful description is that grief hits you sideways. So for example, I lost my very best friend. We’d been friends since we were seven. And it was terrible initially. And even to this day, something will happen, and all of a sudden, it’s like a tidal wave of missing her. You know, memories, et cetera. I’m extraordinarily fortunate because my family loved her dearly and I can talk to them, or I can just sit with my own feelings. But there are many people who, when they lose someone they dearly loved, if they turn to someone years later and say, “Gosh, I’m missing Bill,” or “Jenny,” people would say just, it’s fine. It’s been a while, you should be fine. And again, it’s not lack of caring. It’s just, they want you to be okay. They worry about you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do you change that on the kind of scale that we’re going to need in the coming months? You know, what has to change about how we deal with this in the workplace, in extended families, in schools?
Dr. Mary Fernando: I think the first thing, and I’ve written about grief extensively, the first thing is to recognize it’s a lifetime. You will feel this forever. And so therefore, if you have someone who’s lost someone, be there for them. If they need to talk as if it were yesterday, let them talk as if it were yesterday. And don’t try to save them or pull them out of it. They will be fine. They just need to talk and then they’ll move forward. And speaking of they will be fine, what’s very important as we move forward, is there’s grief. There’s missing that person. And at times we sort of slowly get back to our lives, but there will be always times that we will be hit by this wave. There’s that. And there’s when grief turns to depression. And knowing that also matters. And we should make that a public health thing where, I mean, there are various categories, and I don’t want to get clinical about it, but you know, some people say six months, some people will say whatever. But, and there’s, you know, psychiatric definitions, there’s psychological definitions, but bottom line, ultimately, if you find yourself wishing you too were dead, if you find yourself not wanting to live, if you find yourself incapable of loving the people you have left, you should get help. Because it may have moved from normal grief into depression. And I’ve treated people who are suicidal from this cascade from grief into depression, into suicidal. So we need to educate people.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do we have any research or any knowledge about how grief changes based on, you know, to your description of saying goodbye to your friend, when you’re able to be with your loved one and you’re able to have a proper celebration of their life, versus when you just can’t. I mean, I think of people, you know, who die young in car accidents or something like that, where it’s totally unexpected and how that changes the grieving process. I feel like we’re about to learn a whole lot of unprecedented stuff here.
Dr. Mary Fernando: Your last point is key. If you die in a car accident, you still have a funeral, pre-COVID. What we have now is people who cannot even hold someone’s hand when they die, they cannot get together with their family and friends to talk. So you’re absolutely right. One point, the history of this time will be written, and we will have a lot more data. I suspect that we will see an elongation of grief. You know, we will see that the normal rituals that heal us are missing and we have more trouble.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I also want to ask you, lastly, because I know it’s probably not as awful on the scale of things, if you want to consider a scale, but, you know, you mentioned that loss also covers things that we can’t do anymore. And, you know, I, and others that I know have been lucky enough not to have lost someone during this pandemic, but I still feel this overwhelming sense of having just lost a year of my life, and a year of my daughter’s life and a year of all the things that make it worth living. And I wonder if we’re going to find that there’s trauma for millions of people in that as well?
Dr. Mary Fernando: Yes. I don’t know if you know her. I spoke before this interview with Jill Promoli, who is an advocate for loss. She lost her twin child at two, and he would have been seven. But we were talking and I said, you know, you lost your son. That’s bigger than my loss of my friend. And she said– and she’s just really wise, she said, loss is loss. And your loss and your children’s loss of their lives, their growing up under normal circumstances, it’s still a loss. Right? So, yes, I think there’ll be a lot to reconcile with as we move forward. The difference is, if you lose the ability to go out, you can regain that. If you lose the ability to go to school, you can regain that. You can make things better as you move forward. Death is ultimately something you can never make up. Right? So if you lose someone because they died, there’s no way out of that. You can’t have the next year with them. And I think that does make it different.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It absolutely does. I just wanted to ask the question because I do think that one year into this, everybody’s lost something, even if hopefully many of us can get parts of it back. Mary, thank you so much for talking to us about this today.
Dr. Mary Fernando: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That was Dr. Mary Fernando. And that was The Big Story. If you have lost a loved one to COVID, I am so sorry. You can talk to us and tell us about them, if you’d like on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always find us in every podcast player, doesn’t matter which one, Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify. We’re always here. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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