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How We Can Acknowledge And Recognize Pandemic Grief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is also Memorial Day weekend. And while many Americans, maybe most, are eager for the return of cookouts and beach trips and other get-togethers, there are some who say we still have not done enough to acknowledge the loss this country has experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of those people are Kristin Urquiza and Ari Eisen. They recently wrote a piece for NBC News called COVID is still here - as are those of us grieving. We can't move on without acknowledging that. In it, they say the country and, yes, the government should do more to acknowledge the loss of millions of American lives and support those still struggling.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've asked the co-authors to join us. Ari Eisen is the co-founder of the COVID Grief Network. That's a mutual aid group for young adults who suffered loss. Ari, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ARI EISEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Kristin Urquiza is the co-founder of Marked by COVID. Kristin, you may remember, lost her father to COVID. Kristin, it's good to have you back with us. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

KRISTIN URQUIZA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I do want to start by acknowledging your loss, Kristin, and all those who have lost loved ones. I just want to say I'm still so sorry. And thank you for being here and able to talk about this with us.

URQUIZA: Thank you.

MARTIN: So in the piece you authored, you write, quote, "during this transition from the nadir of the pandemic to a more positive path, our government should be helping those most impacted by COVID-19 and not focusing so entirely on those who have been spared." And I'm just thinking here that people may not have thought about grief as a public policy issue. So what does that look like? Can you just walk us through a little bit of what you're proposing? Kristin, maybe you want to start.

URQUIZA: What we're thinking about are solutions, such as recognition. And what does that mean? It's making sure that we have a concrete public memory of what happened and why so that we can learn, so that we can ensure that the next time a public health crisis comes along we don't actually make the same mistakes again. But then we also need things that allow us to collectively grieve, such as a COVID Memorial Day like we have Memorial Day to recognize victims lost to war, as well as concrete needs right here and now, such as mental health services, grief support, things that are in - unfortunately in short supply.

MARTIN: Ari, why don't you pick up the thread here? Because also, your work with helping people recover from grief predates COVID. A lot of people think about dealing with grief as a private process, but in your piece, as - I want to talk a little bit more about the call for public and national recognition. Why do you think something like that is important?

EISEN: You know, I think that, at least what we've seen through the COVID Grief Network, is that people are so hungry to have their stories witnessed. Often when young adults come to our network, this is the first time they've ever met someone else who had lost someone to COVID despite the fact that the numbers are so high on the news. Some of our young adults will just start their grief groups without even introducing themselves, just getting out the story of their loved one because they feel like it has not been heard on the personal level that they need publicly. And we need this on a national scale so that people don't feel alone.

MARTIN: And another of the proposals you mentioned - and this is a big one - is a restitution-based fund modeled after something like the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. You say the point of this would be to, quote, "make sure out-of-pocket medical expenses, mental health counseling, funerals and burial costs, loss of earnings and even pain and suffering are accounted for for COVID-19 victims and their families." But the extent of this pandemic I think would mean that this would be a rather expensive fund. I mean, do you envision the political will to create such a fund? Or do you just feel that it's more your responsibility to put the idea out there and let other people carry that?

URQUIZA: Every single person that I talk to, which is literally hundreds of people over the course of a month who've been impacted by the pandemic, share with me not only stories of loss but other complicated harms that have come from that loss or from the pandemic itself, people who are experiencing job insecurity, food insecurity because they've lost a breadwinner. And so I think that there are really important questions that we need to be asking ourself as a society of, can we actually build back better if we do not center the needs of the community that has really borne the brunt of this terrible crisis?

MARTIN: Ari, do you have thoughts about this? I mean, one of the questions that comes to mind for me is, does this need to be a specific fund for people who are specifically affected by COVID? I mean, I could imagine that some might argue, well, Social Security already offers benefits for survivors through existing sort of programs. I mean, is it your view that there needs to be a specific fund for people who are specifically affected by COVID?

EISEN: I would say yes. One of the biggest themes we see from our young adults is that they're just utterly overwhelmed by the logistical tasks that they have to do after the passing of their loved one. And so these are the people who are the least resourced to deal with the problem and who are facing the biggest brunt of it.

MARTIN: Kristin, I'm going to start with you on this. If you don't mind my asking, it - just as you said, a lot of people are ready to move on. And I just wonder, how are you handling this time when so many people are just ready to be over it and you're not? How are you doing?

URQUIZA: People in our community, myself included - it can be really hard seeing others ready to move on. And it feel - it can feel like we're ready to either brush the issue under the rug or stand on the tanker with a mission accomplished sign behind us. And while shots in arms is definitely an accomplishment, we can't - we just can't forget those that have really lost the most. And so it's complex, it's hard, and I'm continuing to take it day by day.

MARTIN: And, Ari, do you have, perhaps, some insights to share about - or for people who might be unsure about how to go through this right now, how to be right now, you know, knowing that, like, so many people are just - you know, and understandably so - just so happy to get back out there?

EISEN: I think what we try to encourage is just the knowing that it's OK. You know, the message to the greater community is that there are still so many people who are in grief right now. And what they can do is to be with those people exactly where they're at, knowing that these family barbecues, the first time they get to hug their grandma is exactly juxtaposed with the benchmarks with the one-year anniversary that someone's loved one was hospitalized and that someone's loved one had passed away. And just that knowing and that acknowledgement that there is this big contrast will be really helpful in reducing isolation that so many people are feeling right now.

MARTIN: That was Ari Eisen, co-founder of the COVID Grief Network, and Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of Marked by COVID. Thank you both so much for joining us.

EISEN: Thank you.

URQUIZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.