As U.S. shatters death record, trauma and grief grow unrecognized

grief-150x150Death has not taken a holiday in this country. It has, instead, had a field day, with 2021 breaking records, recording 3.465 million American lives lost — 80,000 more than in history-setting 2020, federal statisticians say.

The coronavirus pandemic gets much of the blame for the nation’s grim toll, which was made all the worse because many of the deaths last year, as opposed to the year before, were preventable because safe, effective vaccines became widely available and could have averted debilitating and deadly illnesses for so many.

But Covid-19 was not alone as a killer that rose up to take American lives and to slash a fundamental measure of public health — life expectancy rates. The Associated Press reported, citing information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Preliminary CDC data also shows the crude death rate for cancer rose slightly, and rates continued to increase for diabetes, chronic liver disease and stroke. Drug overdose deaths also continued to rise. The CDC does not yet have a tally for 2021 overdose deaths, because it can take weeks of lab work and investigation to identify them. But provisional data through October suggests the nation is on track to see at least 105,000 overdose deaths in 2021 — up from 93,000 the year before.”

The AP and other news organizations also have reported that the nation’s road toll spiked in 2020 and 2021 in concerning fashion.

While deaths due to the pandemic remain at relatively low levels — hundreds daily on average, as opposed to thousands — the news about the coronavirus remains concerning, and perhaps more, as this summary from the New York Times reported:

“Coronavirus cases have begun to rise again in the United States after a precipitous fall from their January peak. Rising cases on the East Coast have driven much of the country’s increase. Cases have more than doubled since the start of the month in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., and the prevalence of home tests, which often go unreported in official tallies, suggests that the true volume of cases may be far higher. Experts believe that two new subvariants may be contributing to this growth. Both evolved from the BA.2 subvariant, which is already responsible for a majority of cases in the Northeast. New case reports have also begun to increase in other regions, particularly the Midwest. In Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, cases are up by more than 40% in the past two weeks. Still, the number of new cases announced per day nationwide remains at its lowest level since the summer of 2021. Hospitalizations also remain low. On average, fewer than 15,000 people are in American hospitals with the coronavirus each day — a figure comparable only to the earliest weeks of the pandemic.”

Still, the country officially soon will hit a milestone that no would want, and few expected even months ago, the newspaper added: The U.S. in weeks will see its pandemic toll reach 1 million deaths.

Experts say this threshold was reached long ago, with many pandemic metrics, especially infections, skewed by under reporting — a challenge that has increased with the surge in availability of home test kits. While hospitalizations have offered a more reliable gauge of the coronavirus’ damage, many viral fatalities likely were not added to the running Covid tally, blamed, instead, on patients’ age or underlying conditions.

Which does not mean that the losses — combined with medium and long Covid — have not traumatized a significant number of Americans. Experts estimate that every coronavirus death has left an average of nine close relatives bereaved. Their shattered lives and continuing, lonely grief are so little recognized and has not been given any healing assistance, such that this constitutes a national betrayal, argues Ed Yong, an Atlantic magazine reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the pandemic. He wrote this, also talking about a subject in his article who lost her husband, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law in quick fashion to the virus:

“Deaths from Covid have been unexpected, untimely, particularly painful, and, in many cases, preventable. The pandemic has replaced community with isolation, empathy with judgment, and opportunities for healing with relentless triggers. Some of these features accompany other causes of death, but Covid has woven them together and inflicted them at scale. In 1 million instants, the disease has torn wounds in 9 million worlds, while creating the perfect conditions for those wounds to fester. It has opened up private grief to public scrutiny, all while depriving grievers of the collective support they need to recover. The U.S. seems intent on brushing aside its losses in its desire to move past the crisis. But the grief of millions of people is not going away. ‘There’s no end to the grief,’ Lucy Esparza-Casarez told me. ‘It changes. It morphs into something different. But it’s ongoing.’”

As many as 200,000 children have lost parents in the pandemic, leading their grandparents to step in and to step up to take over their care, the New York Times has reported. This has added to the unexpected, major challenges seniors confront:

“Grandparents have always been the first line of defense in the wake of such tragedies. The nonprofit Generations United reports that pre-pandemic, 2.6 million American children already lived in ‘grand families,’ raised by relatives for reasons ranging from military deployment and incarceration to deaths from substance abuse, other illnesses, or accidents. Many more grandparents provide other kinds of support — childcare, transportation, financial help — when a parent dies … Such an abrupt change in roles can stress both generations. The children are destabilized by loss, and ‘the grandparents’ lives are suddenly not what they expected when they retired,’ said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. ‘Their dreams go into the closet.’”

We are not done with pandemic, and we all would be wise to recognize this, including sustaining the money to battle the disease. Regular folks appear to be having varied reactions to health officials easing coronavirus measures. But those with heightened vulnerability to the virus — those who are older, immunocompromised, overweight, and with underlying conditions, or individuals from hard-hit communities of color — still may be staying careful, including by keeping on their masks. Those using public transportation also must keep their masks on for a while longer.

A word to the wise: Don’t toss out those masks yet. The savvy will want to build up their supply, nabbing test kits, too (free from the federal government, including a second round of them, and delivered to your door). Just in case.

The vaccines remain life changers and life savers. If you have not gotten your shots, please do so, boosters and all, pronto. If you haven’t chatted with your doctor for a bit, you should — especially about whether your individual health would benefit from an additional dose of vaccine and when might be the time to get it. Parents should discuss potential booster shots for their kids with their pediatricians. If you have been exposed or think you have gotten infected, please get tested — and quarantine or isolate to protect yourself and others.

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