Isolation has undercut the human need for collective mourning

With more than 500,000 dead, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a nation touched by grief, compounded by the trauma of job loss, financial trouble, and everyday confusion, a mix that a Harvard psychologist said creates a complex and troubling picture of the country’s emotional landscape.

Christy Denckla, a research fellow at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, said that with so many having died from the pandemic, few Americans at this point haven’t either lost a loved one to COVID-19 or at least know someone who has. Those losses amid an infectious disease mean the practices that society has developed over centuries — vigils for the dying, wakes, funerals, and other end-of-life rituals — that bring people together to mourn and support those closest to the deceased, are disrupted or suspended entirely.

Such rituals, she said, were created to help those involved acknowledge and process their loss, while giving and gaining support from loved ones. The rituals provide a language through which to talk about pain and sadness and provide strength and hope when needed most. Those facing pandemic-enforced isolation instead may have trouble processing what has happened, particularly if it occurs together with job loss or other displacements.


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