Emmett Patterson: Hi, Noah. I’m so honored to sit down with you and talk about grieving in this moment. I’d first love to hear how the COVID Grief Network started.
Noah Cochran: The seeds of the COVID Grief Network were planted through relationships my co-founders, Chloe Zelkha and Ari Eisen, and I had already with our core leadership team. In the past couple of years, we had met and begun facilitating immersion, weekend-long grief retreats for people in their 20s and 30s.
Chloe had initially sent out an email to her community wondering if there was a need for other young people experiencing grief to get and give support to one another. A friend forwarded that email to me because they know about my own loss history. Both of my parents died when I was a teenager—my dad when I was 11 and my mom when I was 20. They were spaced almost 10 years apart but in very different and important developmental milestones.
As a young adult who hadn’t just lost one parent, but both, I felt I was just starting to reach my young adulthood where I was going to meet other people who had lost a parent. Then my mom died—and suddenly I was an orphan by the time I turned 21.
I reached out to Chloe, saying, “Yes, this is what I want and need.” My background and training is as a clinical social worker. So, I was also telling her yes because I would love for this to happen for myself, and I’m really happy to offer my skills as a therapist. That launched a partnership between the two of us and other organizers, through The Dinner Party. From there, we created our first young adult grief retreat. It was amazing, beautiful, and powerful. For a lot of us, it was the first time we were in deep community with other young adults who had experienced loss.
We facilitated two more grief retreats and were in the middle of planning another for March 2020. We knew at that point it would not be safe to gather anytime soon. As people who know grief and the particular isolation that comes with it, we realized that a lot of people would be grieving in this pandemic. Given that we have experience facilitating grief spaces and as people ourselves who have grieved, how can we meet this moment and offer something to this world? The COVID Grief Network came as the answer to that question.
Patterson: With COVID-19 impacting so many of us, why focus exclusively on supporting young adults?
Cochran: Our leadership crew are mostly young adults in their 20s and 30s who have experienced loss themselves, some to COVID and some not. It’s a really beautiful mix of organizers, spiritual care providers, and mental health professionals. One of the reasons why this organization focuses on young-adult loss is because it’s what we get. It’s part of us wanting to offer something to the world that we ourselves would like to see.
Another reason is that grief services are generally geared towards older adults and children. There’s often something missing in the young adult range. We want to help bridge that gap.
Finally, there’s a particular isolation of young-adult loss, where people in their 20s and 30s are often grieving for the first time or may be the first person grieving in their friend group. They don’t often have people they can turn to in their circles who can say, “Oh I get this,” or “I’ve lived through this.” Some of that is emotional but also involves understanding how to be responsible for estates or figuring out how to sell homes. How do you know how to do that? The answer is that they don’t, and they don’t have people to turn to.
So, when we were thinking about the particular isolation of this pandemic, we saw that young adults wouldn’t have their community to turn to or resources. We knew we had to focus on meeting their needs.
We also know there is more need than we can meet. Hundreds of thousands of people are grieving in this county. There is no way we would be able to offer support to every person who had lost someone to COVID-19. We wanted to focus on a specific area where we felt like we could do a good job and help more people.
Patterson: I’ve experienced really unexpected deaths of friends and a partner myself, all before I was 20 years old. I can’t imagine how my grieving would have been different had I had the support of this type of network. Day to day, what does the COVID Grief Network do?
Cochran: We offer both individual and group grief support. Anyone in their 20s and 30s usually finds us through social media or through our outreach and communication team. They fill out an application letting us know who they are, who they’ve lost, any identities they want to share, and what type of support they are interested in.
Our individual grief support is based on a mutual-aid model—we bridge people who are requesting support and volunteers who are able to offer it. A lot of our volunteers are similar to our leadership team, where we have mental health professionals, spiritual care providers, and people who have experienced loss themselves. We have over 100 volunteers right now who are offering care.
So when a young adult applies, they are typically matched to a provider within a day.
Patterson: A day?!
Cochran: [laughs] Yes, a day. Obviously, it sometimes takes longer to meet up for the first time, but our team is constantly pairing people off.
It’s really powerful and beautiful work. A young person will be connected to a volunteer, with whom they can meet up to six times. From a legal perspective, we are not providing therapy, even though some of our providers are licensed mental-health professionals. We are intended to be an urgent responder to a need knowing that COVID has overwhelmed a lot of social support systems, and it can take people a long time to get connected to longer-term support. Our goal is to be present and available for a short period of time and plan how we are going to connect folks to longer-term care.
We just launched our group support last month. They are groups of up to 12 young adults who are paired together. They meet for eight weeks as a group, which is facilitated by a provider who is well-versed in creating grief spaces.
Patterson: I’d like to pivot a bit and talk about what the hell is happening in the world. My biggest question is, “How are people expected to sustain this level of grief?” Maybe more clearly, I’d first like to ask you, what is unique to COVID grief?
Cochran: Well, for me, the biggest difference is that people aren’t able to be with their loved ones as they are dying. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories of people saying goodbye to their loved ones over the phone or FaceTime. Usually when someone is dying, they are with their loved ones, being comforted, and receiving touch. People are talking with them and are present as they die. That’s something that people who are dying and their loved ones don’t have right now.
I think this difference affects closure. There’s a trauma of thinking of your loved ones dying alone without anyone around them. It’s something that people [in the network] talk about a lot.
We also don’t have the same access to ritual and community to grieve in this moment. Even though no one knows how to “do grief,” because it’s messy and complicated, as a society and as a culture and as faith traditions, we have developed rituals that cannot happen right now. They may be funerals or sitting shiva, gathering together or bringing a casserole dish to your neighbor. There are endless grief connections and rituals that we don’t have access to right now.
So, young adults who are grieving for the first time don’t even have those stories of how grief is supposed to happen to fall back on. They are really trying to figure it out for the first time in a circumstance no one has really lived through in quite this way.
Right now, there isn’t a baseline sense of normalcy in our worlds. It’s hard to fit grief into this moment. It’s hard to imagine that their person still won’t be here after the pandemic is over. Some of our participants have talked about not seeing a loved one for months anyway due to social distancing. Now, that loved one has died and they can’t believe that it’s true because they were used to not seeing them. There may perhaps be a new wave of grief needing to happen as more things return to a normal baseline.
Another thing that feels different about grief right now is that COVID death is inundating all of us. I think it affects how we can feel connected to grief. I imagine people who have lived through mass waves of death like this in the past, including those who lived through the HIV and AIDS epidemic, may feel that it’s just numbers after a certain point. It’s so much that we can’t feel. I know I can’t feel the individual losses anymore. I’ve lost two community members to COVID, and there’s a way that they just feel like two of millions. It just feels different. I’m saying this as someone who holds grief work with such sacredness and really believes in the importance of really feeling each loss personally and politically. I’ve heard stories about Black folks who are killed by police and at a certain point the community just feels like, “Well, that’s just what happens.” There is an article I read that has stuck with me for years [about police violence against Black communities]. It said that it’s so important to feel every person who has died or been killed in the full grief of that and to not be desensitized. Unfortunately, that’s such a true feeling in COVID. We can’t feel the difference between 300,000 and 400,000. Our brains just can’t do that.
Patterson: As someone who has experienced so much loss, that idea of feeling it fully just feels close to impossible. It makes me wonder how you think about sustainability when it comes to grieving in this moment?
Cochran: I wish that I had answers! It’s hard, right? It’s hard work to stay in it. I think there is magic in connecting to other people who are grieving, too. That’s part of why the COVID Grief Network exists. We want to offer that space.
What I wish for is a world that recognized the toll of the pandemic and the immense grief it brings. Sometimes I feel like COVID has been seen as only a public health crisis. It’s so oriented towards medicalization, numbers, and statistics and doesn’t account for the stories of the lives lost. That all is informed by our political administration and their lack of response. I’m hopeful that in the future, with presidential administration coming in who is complicated but also having a leader who has experienced loss will make it different.
Many people in my community who have experienced loss are really touched by the fact that [President-elect] Joe Biden is someone who has experienced significant loss, of children in particular. I remember that after [Biden] has given speeches or in debates where he has referenced the people in his life who have died, we were all just like, “Wow. Someone in leadership and authority is speaking about death and speaking about their grief.” When we think about sustainability, we have to think about the structures and society we are living in. What I hope for is a world that centers, recognizes, honors, and holds space for grief and mourning.
We can’t do it on our own. People should be allowed to not be OK right now. It’s hard for people to offer themselves that space when everywhere around us, the message we are receiving doesn’t say that that’s OK.
Patterson: I totally hear you on that. It’s so profound to have anyone at that level of leadership grieving in public. We’ve mostly been talking about death and losing a loved one, but I do want to talk a bit about disenfranchised grief—people who are grieving lost opportunities, job loss, the change of norms, or the piling on of grief in communities who are experiencing profound loss on top of COVID. I would love to hear your thoughts on how people make sense of this kind of grief as well.
Cochran: For sure. There is a universal experience of grief and loss, not just due to death. Everyone has lost a sense of normalcy, or some part of their life has been affected. For folks who have experienced historical and systemic oppressions, COVID falls disproportionately on them. That’s with COVID death itself, especially for people of color, low-income people, immigrants and refugees, as well as those without citizenship: They are most likely to be in frontline working environments, because that’s how our labor system is built. They are the most likely to be confronted with the possibility of exposure to COVID. Then if they are sick, they are the most likely to face barriers in receiving medical attention. Even if they do receive medical attention, they are the most likely not to receive proper medical attention.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about students and people going through the immigration process. Those systems have been profoundly impacted by COVID, and people can’t move around. That’s another aspect of disenfranchised grief that, again, is falling on marginalized communities.
Patterson: It definitely feels like there is a hierarchy in grieving. Like, these are the “right” people to be grieving or these are the “right” kinds of losses, and everything else is trivial. But can’t we also center the grief of not knowing when this will all end and all the potential grief that will come up?
Cochran: Yeah, definitely.
Patterson: You’ve mentioned some parallels between grieving during the HIV and AIDS pandemic and this current pandemic. Is there anything you feel that is particularly important to highlight [about] what it means to grieve in the midst of a pandemic?
Cochran: Grief feels like such a core part of my identity and lineage. Especially being a queer and trans person who didn’t live through the AIDS epidemic but holds how much loss there was in our community. [There are] parallels and the differences between then and now, with both AIDS and COVID-related deaths being preventable deaths and political deaths.
Government response and lack of response is particularly a key connection. Although I haven’t lived through those years, I have experienced my own reckoning with it at moments in thinking about the lost queer and trans lineage I come from. There is something powerfully evocative of being with loved ones who are dying and not being able to do anything about it. There is a rage that comes at the systems and the powerlessness. Something that I wonder if it might be a parallel for people living through COVID is that, people get really sick, they die, and we can’t figure out how to stop that from happening. That decline is on a different time table now. I’m really thinking of loving a person who is killed by something we don’t quite understand or know how to help. And then we are rageful towards a government that isn’t doing enough to try and prevent, stop, or cure it mostly because the people who are most inclined to get sick and die are seen as the most “disposable” in our society.
The early rhetoric around COVID-19 really set up the expectation of disposability of elders, disabled people, and people of color. So, of course there’s a particular anger and rage in our grief, loving people and watching people die who our society has decided are disposable.
Patterson: In closing, what would you say to someone who is grieving for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Cochran: I would tell someone that they’re not supposed to know how to do this. However it unfolds is OK. It might not feel OK, but there is no one right way to grieve. There is no magic thing that they have to figure out, that somehow will fix everything. People aren’t supposed to know how to grieve until we live through doing it when we lose someone. Certainly, we don’t know how to do it when living in a pandemic.
If you are interested in offering support for the COVID Grief Network, or if you need support, visit their website.