By Maria Caspani
Fiana Tulip lost her mother to COVID-19 on the Fourth of July. Like so many others, she was not able to see her or say goodbye.
For Tulip, 41, that was the only beginning of an avalanche of personal and financial loss and hardship brought on by a pandemic that has now claimed the lives of nearly half a million people in the United States alone. The heavy emotional toll was just too much to process, short-circuiting her ability to grieve.
“There’s sometimes situations where people do have to delay their grief, there isn’t enough space, emotionally, to do it,” Sonya Lott, a psychologist who specializes in prolonged grief, said.
“If you can somehow keep moving, that helps you to survive for some time, but eventually that crashes,” she said. “The grief doesn’t go away.”
COVID-19 has now killed more Americans than World War II. January alone was the pandemic’s deadliest month – nearly 96,000 people lost their lives, according to a Reuters analysis of public health data.
Even for those Americans who have grown numb after a year of grim statistics, the 500,000-death milestone is a startling reminder of the monumental loss the pandemic is leaving in its trail. Even so, only stories like Tulip’s can reveal the full scope of the tragedy.
Shortly after the passing of her mother, a respiratory therapist in Texas, Tulip’s husband lost his job. She was getting sporadic work as a personal trainer but not nearly enough to support her family.
They suddenly had to worry about their finances and future job prospects in expensive New York City where they live in a one bedroom apartment with their 17-month-old daughter Lua.
In the following months, she suffered two miscarriages while the virus took her uncle and another relative. Tulip said that, tragedy after tragedy, she has not been able to find time and space to grieve everything she has lost.
“I was a pretty emotional person and since my mom died it is very hard to bring tears out,” Tulip, who has now regained full employment working as a communications professional and is supporting her family, told Reuters earlier this month. “I just don’t have time, and it sounds so heartless and callous. … I just don’t have time to sit with it.”
‘TSUNAMI’ OF GRIEF
Some experts are worried about the long-term consequences of delayed grief and, more broadly, about the long-lasting effects the pandemic is going to inflict on the nation.
“We need to be concerned,” said Lott. “We’re looking at a tsunami of not just grief but depression, anxiety… all types of physical conditions because of the amount of stress that people are under individually and collectively as a result of the pandemic.”
COVID-19 has affected the lives of Americans in myriad ways, whether it is the loss of loved ones, unemployment or childcare.
This “multitude” of losses not limited to death creates greater vulnerability for prolonged grief disorder, a condition in which grief continues to be persistent, intense, and interferes with an individual’s daily functioning a year after the death of a loved one, Lott said.
The pandemic also took away many of the resources that people typically tap into to deal with hardship. It made it difficult if not impossible to tend to a loved one in the hospital, to attend a funeral or to simply hug and find comfort in the presence of others.
The last correspondence Tulip had with her mother was a series of text messages. “I am super weak, I need to shower. The cough is hurting me,” her mother texted her the day before she succumbed to the virus.
“Just rest. No need to get up,” Tulip texted back.
For Veronica Espinosa, the sudden death of her father left her unable to fully process his loss.
Her father died of COVID-19 shortly after Thanksgiving last year in a Miami-area hospital. His condition deteriorated in a matter of days, and Espinosa, an only child whose mother does not speak English, was able to see him briefly before he died.
However, she was heartbroken she could not be by his side when he passed. “He died alone, we couldn’t be there,” she recalled tearfully during an interview earlier this month.
As she grieved, other worries weighed on the 37-year-old teacher. Her husband contracted COVID-19 and his home inspection business took a hit, putting on her the burden of providing for them and their young son.
Espinosa is looking ahead to the end of the pandemic with a mix of apprehension and hope.
“I think that once this starts to die down, it puts things into perspective and you’re going to be able to think more,” she said. “The bad thing is you’re going to be flooded with emotions.”
Tulip is also bracing for what lies ahead.
“I have no doubt that will hit me hard whenever it does,” she told Reuters. “So many things will but until then I’ll keep chugging.”