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'Steamrolled Us In Every Direction': The Year Grief Hit From All Sides

Joel McLemore of Milwaukie, Ore., looks at the Willamette River near his home in suburban Portland, Ore. McLemore moved to Oregon in April to pursue new employment opportunities after his divorce.
Joel McLemore of Milwaukie, Ore., looks at the Willamette River near his home in suburban Portland, Ore. McLemore moved to Oregon in April to pursue new employment opportunities after his divorce.

A lot of us went into 2020 with the best intentions: to be more present, to read more, to stay healthy.

The universe, however, had other plans.

We won't tick through all that went wrong in 2020. But needless to say, the coronavirus single-handedly shaped pretty much everything — from the way we go about our daily routines and see loved ones to how we celebrate milestones and grieve losses.

Like any other year, there was plenty to celebrate in 2020. People graduated from high school and college, got married and had babies. We all found ways to mark those special moments — weddings and baby showers over Zoom, drive-by graduation parties and distanced pot luck Thanksgivings. Neighborhoods even found a way to do socially distanced trick-or-treating.

There's also been collective sorrow. More than 1.8 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide — 342,000 in the U.S. alone. And people have been losing jobs, with the weekly unemployment claims staying at high levels and nearly 20 million ongoing claims for various forms of assistance.

All the while, there have been break-ups, cancer diagnoses, miscarriages and deaths from things that have nothing to do with COVID-19. And for so many people, navigating grief from personal losses amid the drama of the pandemic has felt ... awkward.

"The pandemic is millions and millions of stories like those," says Nora McInerny, host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking. "It is my second grader lying in bed at night weeping that he doesn't get to go to school, doesn't get to make a friend, that he's lonely. It's all of these things that feel so personal, but those are the things that make this global. Those are the things that connect us."

She says the loneliness of grief is universal, but this year is especially hard for people: "[It's] compounded by their inability to have somebody sit on the couch and hold their hand."

McInerny started her podcast, which deals with grief and how to cope, after she endured her own unimaginable losses: she had a miscarriage and lost her father and husband to cancer all within several weeks in 2014. She says she hasn't set her hopes too high for 2021, and that's alright, because 2020 taught her a very important lesson. "It has taught me the joy of being OK. A good day is not a 10. A good day is a 5. A 10 is exceptional," she says.

Here, how four people have been grieving their own unique losses amid the collective grief of this pandemic.

Grieving what once was: The loss of a relationship

Joel McLemore says he feels like he's "on a long pause," with the isolation of the pandemic preventing him from truly starting over after his nearly 17-year marriage ended earlier this year.
/ Charlie Litchfield for NPR
Joel McLemore says he feels like he's "on a long pause," with the isolation of the pandemic preventing him from truly starting over after his nearly 17-year marriage ended earlier this year.

For Joel McLemore, 2020 has meant really big change. The 48-year-old federal accountant amicably ended a nearly 17-year marriage, landed a new job and moved from Sacramento, Calif., to Portland, Ore.

He feels like life is, he says, "on a long pause." That's because McLemore has been working from home since he moved in April and hasn't been able to meet new people or explore his new city.

"And I feel like I'm still trying to get kind of equilibrium on how things are going to be here," McLemore tells NPR.

The isolation has made McLemore even more aware of the end of his marriage and the loss of the life he once had. Even though he knows he and his ex were not meant to be married anymore, he does miss their common language and inside jokes.

Joel McLemore says the disarray he's endured during the pandemic has helped him in many ways, such as making him more mindful of others' grief.
/ Charlie Litchfield for NPR
Joel McLemore says the disarray he's endured during the pandemic has helped him in many ways, such as making him more mindful of others' grief.

"And those will kind of come up every so often and I would think, 'I would have said that'," but, he says, there's no one there to get the joke. "It's sort of like you're the last speaker of this language that no one knows anymore."

The disarray and disruption he's endured during the pandemic has also helped him in many ways, he says, such as making him more mindful of others' grief. McLemore's own parents were diagnosed with COVID19 in the spring and have since recovered.

So how does he separate his grief from that which the broader society is going through?

"In some ways I think it's been a little easier to adapt to being here just because no one seems to be on even keel right now. I feel like we're all kind of going through this together," he says. "I think it's helping to be a little more mindful and to think of others a little more because it is so obvious that everyone is going through things right now."

As for 2021, he's "cautiously optimistic" things will improve. He plans to continue to do creative things, like listening to and contributing to Nick Cave's YouTube channel. He's been connecting with Cave's thematic focus on grief, which the Australian musician has been experiencing after the loss of his teenage son in 2015.

"Maybe things will kind of start to, I guess, thaw, so to speak, to where I can get a better idea of how life is going to be for me going forward," McLemore says.

Grieving what could have been: the loss of a pregnancy

Erika Pohlman suffered a miscarriage in July, leaving her to grieve the loss of an unborn child in the midst of the pandemic.
/ Jessica Gallagher for NPR
Erika Pohlman suffered a miscarriage in July, leaving her to grieve the loss of an unborn child in the midst of the pandemic.

Erika Pohlman, 29, began Googling furiously the moment she found out she was pregnant.

It was July 22. She was working as a general manager at two hotels in nearby Iowa City. She was short-staffed due to pandemic-related layoffs, and she was working 16 hour days. So when she started to miscarry two days later, she hadn't had a chance to tell her husband she was even pregnant yet.

She called him.

"All that I remember saying was 'I just need you to know that I was pregnant, and now I'm losing it,' " Pohlman tells NPR. "We weren't trying for another baby, my son was only eight months old at the time. But that doesn't change the fact that I still built that space in my heart."

Erika Pohlman holds her son Orion Davis, 14 months, on the front stairs of their home in Solon, Iowa.
/ Jessica Gallagher for NPR
Erika Pohlman holds her son Orion Davis, 14 months, on the front stairs of their home in Solon, Iowa.

More than five months later, Pohlman is a stay-at-home mom with her son, Orion, who's now 14 months old. They're preparing for a move from Solon, Iowa to Hot Springs, Ark., where her husband got a new job.

Pohlman still takes quiet moments to reflect on her family's loss. "I still think about our baby every day. I would be about six months pregnant now if it hadn't happened," she says. "We would be planning a baby shower even if it had to be over Zoom, we would be getting all the new little baby clothes and washing them and folding them and just getting ready. But we're not, because there's nothing to get ready for."

Pohlman's was an intimate loss amid the collective grief of the nation and the world. She says that while all grief is connected and everyone feels some sort of loss right now, there is a unique isolation to experiencing a miscarriage.

"I think miscarriage is kind of a solitary loss to begin with. You know, nobody else has ever held that baby. No one has seen a picture of that baby. That baby has never smiled at anyone. There's nobody who has memories of that baby but me. There's nobody who ever held or carried that baby but me," she says.

The isolation of the pandemic hasn't helped. "To put that on top of not being able to see my friends, not being able to hug my parents, it's been incredibly lonely," Pohlman says.

The new year, she says, is a chance for a fresh start. "[I'm] hoping to leave some of the heartache in 2020," she says. "It just has to be better."

Grieving the loss of a wife and mother

Scott Williams (left) and his son, Andy Williams, stand outside Scott Williams' home in Lebanon, Ind. Scott Williams lost his wife, Debbie, in April to hypothyroidism. The family has yet to have a proper funeral due to the pandemic.
/ Lee Klafczynski for NPR
Scott Williams (left) and his son, Andy Williams, stand outside Scott Williams' home in Lebanon, Ind. Scott Williams lost his wife, Debbie, in April to hypothyroidism. The family has yet to have a proper funeral due to the pandemic.

Scott Williams, 67, lost his wife of 40 years, Debbie, in April to hypothyroidism in April.

They haven't been able to have a proper in-person funeral, and that's made Williams and his son, Andy, feel like they've been "in limbo."

"There's a reason why we have that gathering of people to mourn together," Scott tells NPR. "So that you can move along on the next step and we haven't done that."

Scott Williams holds a favorite photo of his late wife, Debbie, outside his home in Lebanon, Ind. Debbie died in April of hypothyroidism. The family has yet to have a proper funeral due to the pandemic.
/ Lee Klafczynski for NPR
Scott Williams holds a favorite photo of his late wife, Debbie, outside his home in Lebanon, Ind. Debbie died in April of hypothyroidism. The family has yet to have a proper funeral due to the pandemic.

While a Zoom funeral would have given them a quick sense of closure, it just wasn't the route Andy, 34, wanted to go — something his father, Scott, supports.

"Although I do hope that once we do have a funeral, whenever that is, we'll be further along the path of processing this and we'll be able to kind of have more of a celebration of life," Scott says.

So for now they wait and try to get along in their separate lives.

Andy stays busy as a father of two young children and a transaction lawyer in St. Louis, while his father, a retired public school principal, has a new cat and occasionally visits his 95-year-old mother in Indianapolis. Scott says although he and his son are dealing with the constant trickle of grief over the loss of Debbie, it's made them both realize that things are hard for everyone right now.

"So I don't think of it as my story. I think of it as 'I'm so sorry that Andy lost his mother without even saying goodbye', but I see it in this bigger picture of how this pandemic has just steamrolled us in every direction," he says.

"There's only so much stress and pain and grief that you can experience," Andy says. "And we're all kind of experiencing a collective stress, and pain and grief and it crowds out a little bit of the room you have for your own personal thoughts."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Williams (right) and his son, Andy Williams, stand outside Scott Williams' home in Lebanon, Ind. Scott Williams lost his wife Debbie in April to hypothyroidism. The family has yet to have a proper funeral due to the pandemic.
/ Lee Klafczynski for NPR
Scott Williams (right) and his son, Andy Williams, stand outside Scott Williams' home in Lebanon, Ind. Scott Williams lost his wife Debbie in April to hypothyroidism. The family has yet to have a proper funeral due to the pandemic.