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How The Pandemic Has Changed The Way We Grieve


Every day, we see the numbers tick up as more people die of COVID-19. Fifteen hundred people a day are still losing their lives to the coronavirus in the United States. Behind every death, there is a family that's broken, friends who grieve, a community that mourns. There are so many cracks and empty spaces in this country now and so much pain. COVID-19 has killed more than 540,000 Americans. And for their families and friends, all that will live on are their memories. As part of our series on how this pandemic has changed us, today we're going to talk about loss. And here is just one story. Rhonda Brashear (ph) of Richmond, Ky., was able to hug her mother in an assisted living home for the first time recently, but that hug carried extra weight.

RHONDA BRASHEAR: Both of my parents contracted COVID and they continued to get worse and worse. My mom does not remember it to this day. My dad got to the point that his oxygen level was bottoming out every day. Finally, the nurse just told my sister - she said, your parents need more care than we can give them in here. My dad was taken to the E.R. My mom could not go because she had COVID, but we were allowed to go in all costumed up and spend several hours with him. He passed away on December 6. But my mom did not get to talk to him. She didn't get to say goodbye to her husband of 65 years, and she still is grieving so much about that. The hug - the very first hug, we didn't want to turn loose of each other. We just held on and on. And nothing like it - holding your mom, holding her hand, looking into her eyes and seeing her smile, that's the best gift in the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do we deal with all this grief, both personal and collective? We checked in with Imam Suhaib Webb. He's a scholar in residence at New York University's Islamic Center. We spoke to him a year ago, preparing for Ramadan in lockdown. He's since had to learn how to give spiritual guidance to those who are grieving from a distance.

SUHAIB WEBB: To make sure that people know that we're there, even though we're not physically there, right? So you have to turn it up more. So people on even, like, Instagram and Facebook would say to me, can you just ask people to pray for my parents? No one even knows these people, but I have no problem, like, sharing that because I know that there's not a mosque they can go to. Even some people who aren't Muslim ask me - I know they don't have a church maybe that they're going to or a synagogue or a temple. But they do have this human capacity through social media and through online presence. There is still, like, a light and hope within the human spirit in very different ways, and I think one is that people are asking people in social media to pray for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you counsel people who have been through the absolute worst, who have seen the people they care about most in the world lose their lives to this disease?

WEBB: I think it's important that we support each other through trauma by recognizing that it's OK to feel this way. Like, it's not religiously wrong to feel like you've been through very difficult experiences. I walk in trying to be a really good listener and not pushing people to like, oh, just get over it or it'll be fine. And then, ultimately, I don't think we will ever fully recover from losing people dear to us, but one of the things that I try to encourage people to think about after some time is, like, how now can you transfer the empathy through the challenges you faced towards people around you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wonder about how forgiveness needs to enter into this because there are people who didn't believe the pandemic was real, may have put their neighbors, their family at risk. Especially since this pandemic has been so unequal, certain communities or age groups were hugely impacted, others less so. Is this something you think about?

WEBB: I think that this is where faith leaders, community organizers, activists - I think this is going to be an all-hands-on-deck moment where we need, like, facilitation, right? America needs a facilitator - right? - amongst our own citizenry where we can come back together. And not everyone will come to that table, and that's just how life is. But can we create a critical mass of people who not only agree with one another, but can also disagree with one another? I feel like we've forgotten that in this age and it's led to, like, this dismissal, cynicism, which then is extended through the lack of redemption. I think one of the challenges of the secular postmodern age is that it creates the day of judgment now. Religions believe that the day of judgment is yet to come, so there is the idea of redemption and forgiveness and change and improvement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wonder if you have a prayer possibly right now that you could give us for those grieving and for those we have lost.

WEBB: Yeah, there's this really powerful prayer in the Quran. My wife had COVID. It's perhaps one of the most vulnerable, terrifying moments in my life because I had to leave. I felt so vulnerable because I wasn't able to even be there to, like, serve her, to look after things, right? I was told to get away. And there's a prayer in the Quran where Moses, after being forced to leave Egypt, he sits and he says, to you, God, I am - any good that you can give me, I am faqr - and faqr means actually impoverished. Like, I don't see any good. So, like, I stand in front of you with nothing in need of good. So that prayer is one that, like, I would say enriched me - right? - the irony of it. And we have a beautiful statement in our tradition that says you find God through being impoverished. So that prayer that, my lord, to any good that you can offer me, I'm poor - I'm in need of that handout.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Imam Suhaib Webb, a scholar in residence at New York University's Islamic Center. Thank you so much for telling your story.

WEBB: Lulu, thank you so much for having me. And I hope to see you a year from now actually in person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inshallah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.