When I think about the COVID-19 pandemic, I recognize the great deal of hurt and pain of people not just in the United States, but around the world. The pandemic has impacted families, friends, and colleagues from all walks of life. As of the release of this article, over 935,000 Americans have lost their lives due to the COVID-19 virus. As a collective, our country has (rightfully) put into place practices that increase social distancing and limit contact in the name of public health and protection of one another. However, it is important to note that in addition to the loss of physical contact, there is also the loss of emotional connection and the difficulty of maintaining social connections and friendships. When recounting and lamenting the physical losses of loved ones, and the emotional toll of the pandemic, I remain concerned about what our country has lost over the past two years and what it would take to collectively mourn the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual loss that we have experienced, and what it will take to pursue a collective path towards healing.
The pandemic’s unbalanced impact on the Black community
When I think about the pandemic, I also think about the disproportionate impact it has had, especially on the Black community. According to research led by the National Cancer Institute, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, excess deaths (the number of measured deaths vs. expected number of deaths) for Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native men and women were more than double that of white men and women.
One in three Black Americans had a close friend of family member die from COVID-19, far higher than the overall average of one in five.
Non-COVID excess deaths were between two and four times higher, due to diabetes, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease (stroke), and Alzheimer disease. Especially looking at Black and American Indian/Alaska Native populations, the non-COVID excess deaths were three to four times higher compared with white men and women. One leader of the study was quoted as saying that “it is possible that fear of seeking out health care during the pandemic or misattribution of causes of death from COVID-19 are responsible for a majority of the excess non-COVID-19 deaths.”
According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press, one in three Black Americans had a close friend of family member die from COVID-19, far higher than the overall average of one in five.
Loss, grief, and traditions in the Black community
What are the impacts of loss? What are the cultural traditions that we hold on to when we grieve? When I think about grief in the Black community, there are certain cultural traditions such as bringing food over to the house of the family who has lost their loved one. I think about the wake and the service where friends and family gather in-person not just for a funeral, but for a Homegoing Service. I think about the repast after the service. The collective laughs, tears, and reminiscing that allows for the sharing of the burden of grief and the lighting of the load when bearing the loss of a beloved member of the community.
I think about the wake and the service where friends and family gather in-person not just for a funeral, but for a Homegoing Service.
In this time of the pandemic, visitation to loved ones is limited, physical contact is minimized, services are live streamed, and repasts may or may not happen in the same manner as pre-pandemic. Funeral homes have done their best to adapt to the current normal and still be supportive of families.
I certainly can understand how individuals may say all grief is the same and we should not separate grief by race. But I cannot help but wonder what impact does the pandemic have on grief and the cultural traditions that uniquely shape our responses to the loss of a loved one?
An elbow bump as a placeholder for a hug
When my grandmother passed away a few weeks ago, I was reminded of how our society has tried to adapt. I was grateful when people told me that they tuned into the live stream. I appreciated the elbow bumps and the words of support. And it was so comforting to get text messages and social media messages from people to let me know that they were praying for me and my family. I also appreciated how people valued their health and my health by wearing their masks and, as best we could, limiting the interactions that could have taken place.But looking back, I cannot help but think about what is missing by the loss of a hug, the loss of sharing a large meal, the loss of people bringing food over, and sitting and reminiscing about the memories of a loved one. It may not be quantifiable, but the absence of the collective is still felt.
As our country begins to emerge from the effects of the pandemic, my hope and prayer is that we give ourselves space to reflect on the enormous loss that we have experienced as a country.
As our country begins to emerge from the effects of the pandemic, my hope and prayer is that we give ourselves space to reflect on the enormous loss that we have experienced as a country collectively, as well as personal space to grieve. I also hope that this underlines the importance of culturally shaped experiences and the response to trauma. Let this be a reminder of how important it is to understand the importance of mental health and support, not just if we experienced the physical loss of a loved one, but the loss of a job, or the loss of a way of life due to the pandemic. Let us overcome the stigma associated with mental health, as well as recommit to systemically overcome barriers to mental health care. Let us emerge with a renewed commitment towards self-care and healing as we collectively head into the future.
 While this post focuses on the lives lost due to COVID, other authors have explored how Black Grief is amplified due to the national racial trauma associated with police violence, the loss of Black celebrities, and disparities in access to mental health care due to social determinants of health. For more, read: The Relentlessness of Black Grief – The Atlantic