Taking time and taking stock of Covid-19’s mass grief and trauma
Imagine counting every second of every day for the next 11 days. That’s about 1 million seconds — a number that seems almost impossible to understand.
Human brains aren’t wired to count this high, according to a 2013 study published in Cognitive Science. Instead, our brains prefer comparing smaller numbers, for example, that six is more than four.
In May 2022, when the United States passed 1 million deaths from Covid-19, a lot of people’s brains simply couldn’t make sense of that, in the same way they couldn’t process 750,000 or 500,000. Some people ignored the event, ready to be done with anything Covid-related. Others were in the midst of grieving a lost loved one or other losses in their life. And some didn’t know how to react after two years of stress and sadness, fear and frustration. As a country, we’ve been living for more than two years now in a state of mass grief.
An unwanted milestone
One million deaths is hard to imagine, and each death leaves behind a web of people who love and remember the person behind the number. In Cook County, 15,000 people have died of Covid-19; in Illinois, nearly 40,000. Both numbers also feel overwhelming.
“I remember writing down 100,000 when our country reached that mark [for Covid-related deaths] because I thought it was important,” says trauma specialist Mia Rusev, LCSW, at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “When we hit 1 million deaths, I recognized that we hit a milestone. But I didn’t write it down. It was almost too much to take in.”
Reverend Michael Hayes, hospital chaplain at Loyola University Medical Center, says that while the number of Covid deaths is important, that statistical number doesn’t truly measure the impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives.
“That number doesn’t take into account the gravity of the reality so many families have had to live with,” he says. “I’ve been with families on one side of the ICU glass as they watched their loved one take their final breaths on the other side. All they wanted to do was touch their loved one’s forehead, but they couldn’t. That’s hard.”
Surviving in survival mode
Besides the impossibility of processing such high numbers, Covid-19 has also required our brains to adapt to a near-constant state of stress.
According to Rusev, Americans have been operating in survival mode since the start of the pandemic: keeping up with masking guidelines, socially distancing, getting vaccinated. Health officials used these measures to keep people safe and protected — to ensure their survival. However, rather than a short-term phenomenon, protective Covid measures have extended beyond an immediate fight-or-flight response.
An antelope, for instance, engages in a temporary fight-or-flight response when encountering a tiger. Assuming the antelope survives the confrontation, that survival response goes away. The antelope goes on its happy way.
Humans, on the other hand, have been trapped in a chronic stress response due to both Covid-19’s length and the constant bombardment of information about the pandemic. Unlike most other animals, humans are unable to turn off their survival responses; our memories and attachment to them leave us unable to differentiate between perceived threats from actual physical threats. As a result, post-traumatic stress can be diagnosed as a disorder if the intensity and persistence of that stress impacts our functioning for at least one month.
“As we move into [the] state of living with Covid, we are starting to see some of the emotional trauma show itself: an increase in suicide rates, depression and substance abuse,” Rusev says. “In effect, we are starting to experience PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from all of that constant vigilance.”
Hayes notes the difference between what we as a society want and the reality in which we find ourselves. “As much as we want the virus to go away, and as much as vaccines and masking have moved the needle on the pandemic’s course, Covid is still here,” Hayes says. “It’s hard to be vigilant for a couple of years. It’s stressful.”
The polarity of trauma
The ongoing grief and vigilance to protect oneself and loved ones has exacerbated an “us vs. them” reality, Rusev says. Referencing the work of William Haseltine, PhD, in his book Covid Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: What It Is and What To Do About It, Rusev says that widening social and political gaps are reflections of the ways in which the trauma from Covid has caused polarity in our society.
Covid-PTSD manifests daily in rising rates of depression, anxiety, and drug addiction, Rusev says, also noting the ongoing loss of academic opportunities for the young, as well as the widening political and cultural fissures within society. “These problems — social, emotional, economic, political — will not be remedied quickly. We will be living with the effects for many years to come.”
The problems are happening in part due to our responses to the state of the world. When the brain’s amygdala activates, sensing danger from threats real and perceived, survival takes priority. Reactions to situations become instinctive and less thoughtful.
Rusev says that it’s important for individuals to take a step back — and tap into higher brain functions — to gain clarity about what their lives look like living with Covid. Only then, can local communities and society at large become less polarized and begin to work through the past few years.
To help process the stress and loss, reduce media and social media consumption, which can stoke fears and emotions; eat well and hydrate to keep your body healthy; and spend time with people you love to build emotional support.
“We need to take care of and replenish ourselves first,” Rusev says. “Then we can start looking outward to work on building community and improving society at large.”
Perhaps then, as Rusev suggests, we can begin to untangle the impact of 1 million lives lost and how to move forward in a post-pandemic world.