How Do We Manage Our Collective Covid-19 Grief?
The emotional fallout from the pandemic will be enormous. One woman offers a creative start
Trauma is acute. But the fallout from trauma can become chronic. The COVID-19 pandemic will not disprove this truth: in 2021 we will have a vaccine and wear fewer masks, go back to our favorite coffee shops, and have nights out with friends (Huzzah!). However, millions of Americans will continue to deal with the fallout of the pandemic-imposed disruptions for months, years, and decades to come.
Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, which provide a close proxy for a pandemic-like disaster, have shown that 10-30% of the population suffer from elevated or severe PTSD for the months and even years after the event. If we translate these statistics to the national US population, it means that we can expect nearly 50 million Americans to suffer from post-COVID grief or PTSD.
And yet our health systems are not prepared to handle this secondary crisis. The Psychiatric Times notes that “The stress of the COVID-19 contagion, the civil strife and social disruption, and economic insecurity is causing an increased demand for mental health treatment. Yet, government agencies and health care institutions are incurring budget deficits, and without government funding to cover these losses, existing treatment programs are in jeopardy.” The writer adds: “we cannot remain idle in the anticipation of 75,000 excess deaths from the complications of mental disorders.”
While most trauma care requires intervention from professional medical health practitioners, we do know that PTSD can be abated through strong community and social support. And that is something in which each one of us can participate.
One Idea for Managing America’s Grief
In April of 2020 I sat in my Brooklyn apartment lamenting the mounting death tolls of those lost to COVID-19, wondering why there were no visualizations of those we had lost. In mass trauma incidents — like, say, 9/11 or a school shooting — there is often a visual outpouring of loss: the wall of post-it notes on the fences surrounding the World Trade Towers, parking lots of flowers and teddy bears left after Newtown, virtual photo montages on Facebook pages, built memorials. These visual symbols are important because they convey community support for and community connection to those lost. Visible community support helps bond citizens in times of trauma and reduce the long-term negative mental health impacts.
Weirdly, with this pandemic, there is none of this. People are forced to stay isolated alone and at home. We are forced to mourn without community. I started to worry more about the mounting grief, which I knew can be “treated,” than I did about the pandemic, which I know I personally can’t control. “I feel like no one cares and I am alone,” is a refrain I hear more and more from those who have experienced profound loss during this moment in time.
So, on a cloudy day in April, I went to the local florist, bought $500 worth of flowers (a traditional symbol of mourning), wove them onto a wire string that I shaped like a heart, and laid the wreath in the park near my house. I wanted to leave a very clear message that simply said, “I’m sorry for your loss; let me send you love.” Within a few minutes, several people stopped by to ask what I was doing. It started a conversation about the grief and mourning left by COVID-19.
Today, the Floral Heart Project has grown into a public campaign that has appeared primarily in NYC and my Instagram feed, and has now been generously furthered in partnership with 1800Flowers.com. I have hosted three candlelight vigils and am planning to bring the project to more cities soon, with installation pieces focused on community healing.
How Can You Participate?
To make the Floral Heart Project have significant impact, we need people around the country to participate. Create a floral heart using fresh flowers, found flowers, petals, or evergreen boughs. Pick an iconic location: a prominent park, a central town square, or even your own front yard. Post a small laminated sign sharing what the project is about and then leave it there until the flowers blow away, fade, or get picked up by the trashman. Check floralheartproject.com for more ways to get involved. And if flowers just aren’t your thing, find an expressive medium that is.
Helping your community to coalesce and heal is more important than ever. If that means sharing music, supporting local artists, or leaving a gift on a neighbor’s door, then just jump in. The only way through the pandemic is to wear a mask, wash our hands, and be careful about social distancing. But the only way through the battlefield of psychological damage ahead is through brave acts of compassion that forcefully knit us together.
Kristina Libby is a writer, artist, and technology executive living and working in New York City.