Disenfranchised Grief in a Year of Pandemic Losses

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Lockdowns had an immediate financial impact on Annabelle Gurwitch, a Los Angeles writer who lost assignments and speaking engagements. The promotion for her new book, “You’re Leaving When?: Adventures in Downward Mobility,” has gone virtual. But it was when her child’s graduation from Bard College moved online that she found herself weeping in her backyard. Her child had worked hard and even started a sobriety club on campus.

“I was so proud of them for graduating college in four years,” she said. “David Byrne was supposed to be the speaker. There’s so much suffering going on, and I felt like such a terrible person being upset that I couldn’t go to my kid’s graduation and see David Byrne. That’s low on the suffering level. But damn, we got our kid through four years. The kid got sober during college. Am I allowed to say we were disappointed?”

Around the same time as the graduation, Ms. Gurwitch developed a cough. She got a coronavirus test and a chest X-ray, which eventually led to a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. After her cancer diagnosis, Ms. Gurwitch started to notice that her friends began to downplay their own struggles and grief. One friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, but didn’t want to tell her because she felt like breast cancer was not as bad as lung cancer.

“I had out-cancered her,” said Ms. Gurwitch. “It’s terrible to not feel like your suffering has a place.”

Erin, 38, who asked that her full name not be used to protect her privacy, said she lost another year of fertility during the pandemic lockdowns. After suffering a miscarriage a few years ago, she had been trying to conceive, but her husband didn’t think it was wise to start a pregnancy during a pandemic. “Mother’s Day came, and I was about to turn 38, and it became clear that I don’t have a lot of time left,” she said. “That biological clock — the tick is very loud, and it’s a very real thing.”

Erin said her marriage began to fall apart, and she realized that if she wanted to become a mother, she likely would have to pursue it on her own. She and her husband are now getting a divorce, she’s taking steps to freeze her eggs, and she’s exploring adoption and foster parenting. She said the grief of infertility and miscarriage has only been amplified by pandemic life, as she gets glimpses into people’s family lives via video calls.

“A co-worker, every time we talk, she talks about Lamaze class,” she said. “That’s great for them, but it’s not an OK space for me to say I’m struggling with this. I lost a child. I lost my fertile years. This is an area where I’m really struggling. It’s not something we as a society openly talk about.”

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