Grief is a teacher, and in the time of COVID-19, most people find themselves learning lessons they never intended to know.

COVID-19 grief is ambiguous and anticipatory and absent of any closure. 

It seems most everyone is grieving something, and some are grieving everything. Certainly, these losses can be catastrophic, but perhaps within this collective grief experience can be a unique opportunity for significant and lasting transformation for individuals, organizations, and society at large. 

Many people are directly experiencing crippling grief associated with the more than 253,000 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths worldwide from more than 3.6 million cases, including the families of five-year-old Skylar Herbert from Detroit, 49-year-old Chicago fire-fighter Maria Araujo and 79-year-old Miami Beach icon, Henrietta Robinson

Experts assume the number of persons who have died from coronavirus is  underestimated by as many as 25,000 deaths based on a review of mortality data in 11 countries. Wuhan, China recently released new figures showing their early estimates were off by more than 50%.

The enormous loss of life is shocking, and behind each statistic, a story. Those in mourning are not able to participate in regular grief rituals like funerals, visitation, and sitting shiva, at least in their traditional format

My relationship with grief has been intimate. 

When I was in high school, thirty-two years ago, my larger than life (seriously, he was 7 feet tall) dad died suddenly of a heart attack at 58-years-old. Then twenty-seven years ago, one month shy of my 21st birthday, my 24-year-old sister died suddenly of a heart attack. Thirteen years ago, my 33-year-old brother died suddenly of a heart attack. I still pretend he is just traveling.

In seasons of deep grief, the only time I could breathe was when I was running – so I ran eight miles a day. As I navigate the gravity of COVID-19, running is still my chief strategy for managing stress and grief. But now I have a heightened sensibility of the privilege of a deep breath.

My favorite place to sit as we shelter in place is in my front yard, shaded by a tree that was planted by some friends 13 years ago to honor my brother. It’s as if somehow being tethered to those I’ve lost, in such a tangible way, helps me feel connected to and supportive of the thousands of people each day that are entering into the worst moments of their lives.

I know the heart-wrenching, heart-expanding path they are embarking on well, and I know that life will not spare me from traveling it again either. I cry for them, and I cry for me.

Author Tara Mohr shared in a recent post, “Let the tears come. We have been so misled about tears. Tears are our bodies’ natural system for expressing and moving through emotions – especially grief. They are such a gift. They are one of the most exquisite parts of our design. And they have healing magic.”

In addition to the personal loss of loved ones, the loss of economic security has many people disoriented and grieving. According to the International Labour Organization, critically needed lockdown measures are affecting almost 2.7 billion workers – four out of every five in the world’s workforce. 

The Pew Research Center found that half of lower-income Americans report job or work loss due to COVID-19 and only 23% say they have emergency funds to cover three months of essential expenses.

It seems most everyone is experiencing the grief and loss that comes with the rapid disappearance of everything predictable from pre-COVID life. Many feel overwhelmed by the anxiety of what’s to come and the fear of the unknown – which psychologists believe is the fundamental fear.

Indeed, the world has endured trying times, like the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, but COVID-19’s extended, collective grief is unprecedented. In the digital age, everything is local – which intensifies the shared experience. Not only are people processing the news of their neighbors, but they are also processing news from around the globe resulting in grief overload and vicarious trauma

Without question, grief brings with it despair, loneliness, and raw vulnerability. But my experiences have taught me that with each unraveling comes an opportunity for transformation.

As author and co-founder of the Omega Institute, Elizabeth Lesser, puts it – grief doesn’t just break people, it breaks them open. 

“During times of transition, amid everyday stress, and even when we face seemingly insurmountable adversity,” Lesser writes, “life offers us a choice: to turn away from change or to embrace it; to shut down or to be broken open and transformed.”

Grief acts as a purifier and issues a compelling invitation toward texture and depth. By contrast, obsession with consumption and pathological busyness have normalized living in the shallows.

When grieving, defenses are down, and there is clarity about what one values. Grief can expand a person’s capacity for joy and compassion.  It can also intensify a person’s ability to connect to the universality of the human experience, and it can help people see one another more clearly.

Poet and author of I Am Her Tribe, Danielle Dolby writes, “The way out of the darkness is when we can look across the table and find our face in another’s.” 

Finding the way out of the darkness is just beginning.