How ‘suspended grief’ during the pandemic can turn into a second wave of sorrow for some

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7:21How ‘suspended grief’ can turn into a second wave of sorrow for some people during the pandemic, expert says

Shawna Katz says she was “overrun with emotion” at Summerfolk music festival in Owen Sound, Ont., this August.

It’s the first community gathering of any kind Katz has been to since the pandemic began, and since losing her partner, Nathan Wagler, who died unexpectedly at 42 in September 2020 due to a heart condition related to a genetic disorder. 

“He was my best friend and longtime companion — sort of my ‘partner in crime,’ ” Katz said. “He was always really involved with Summerfolk and music — in many ways it’s what brought us together and kept us connected.”

Nathan Wagler is shown in his tie-dye "Happy Hippy Hat" hat at Summerfolk, 2013.
Nathan Wagler wears his tie-dye hat at Summerfolk music festival in 2013. When Wagler died unexpectedly at age 42 in September 2020, Katz says pandemic restrictions meant she and Wagler’s family and friends weren’t able to grieve together. (Submitted by Shawna Katz)

At that time of the pandemic, Ontario had imposed tighter restrictions on gatherings, greatly impacting the number of people allowed to attend funerals.

Katz says that meant she and all of Wagler’s family and friends were not given the chance to grieve together.

“I just wanted a hug,” she said.

Fast forward to Summerfolk 2022; now that many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, Katz says she’s found herself feeling emotionally vulnerable when reconnecting with people. One expert calls this phenomenon “suspended grief” and says it’s likely shared by people who have experienced tragedy during the pandemic.

“There were a number of people that I had met through Nathan that I hadn’t seen since 2019. He was our shared connection — especially playing music around the [Summerfolk] campfires at night,” Katz said. “It was clear to me that many festival-goers noticed the lack of his presence and drumbeat he brought to the jam.”

Some of those people came up to Katz to offer their condolences. In other cases, even small things could bring her loss flooding back.

“There was one time a person asked where my partner in crime was. They were referring to another good friend of mine. Whereas, if they had asked me that question in 2019, they would have been referring to Nathan. That was a really wrenching moment where I almost broke down.”

Picture of Nathan Wagler with his feet on an unlit campfire at a music festival.
Nathan Wagler relaxing at his last music festival, just days before he died in early September 2020. When Katz attended Summerfolk 2022, she found herself feeling emotionally vulnerable when reconnecting with people. (Submitted by Shawna Katz)

Suspended grief

Elaine Scharfe is a psychology professor at Trent University who refers to herself as a “relationship researcher.”

She believes people like Katz are dealing with “suspended grief” after enduring tragedy while living in their own bubbles during the pandemic.

If it’s the first time they’ve had interactions with friends or family from afar, it puts you right back into that very raw initial grief of losing the person.– Elaine Scharfe, psychology professor, Trent University

“A year or two later they are put in the position of having to do it all over again,” said Scharfe.

“If it’s the first time they’ve had interactions with friends or family from afar, it puts you right back into that very raw initial grief of losing the person.”

That’s an experience shared by the loved ones of the more than 44,000 Canadians who died of COVID during the crisis, as well as the hundreds of thousands of others who, like Katz’s partner, died of other causes during this time.

But Scharfe says people can also benefit from reconnections to help with sadness, and that can be a significant part of the healing process.

“It’s perfectly normal to feel that level of grief yet again, and could end up helping in the long run,” she said.

Scharfe said Katz may have suspended her grief until she was able to return to the folk festival and speak face-to-face with many of her and Nathan’s friends.

‘Grief sisters’

Courtney D’Arthenay met Katz at a Grey County, Ont., music festival a few years before the pandemic began, and the two quickly became friends.

D’Arthenay, who’s from Pembroke, Ont., also lost her partner in September 2020. That’s when Katz says their relationship went from friends to “grief sisters.” The two talk and text every day.

D’Arthenay says she has a deep social circle, but it’s not the same compared to what Katz has brought into her life.

“It’s like what I tell people, ‘I’m sorry, if my phone goes off and it’s her I have to answer no matter when it is, what we’re in the middle of doing, or who I’m with,’ ” she said.

'Grief sisters' Shawna Katz and Courtney D’Arthenay make heart symbols with their hands while on a Zoom call.
Katz and Courtney D’Arthenay, right, take screenshots of themselves making heart symbols with their hands during a video call. The two met before the pandemic, but when they both lost their partners in September 2020, they began to refer to themselves as ‘grief sisters.’ (Submitted by Courtney D’Arthenay)

“Regular things like showering are exhausting,” D’Arthenay said. “It can be a massive undertaking to shower, wash your hair and shave your legs. That might sound ridiculous, and like such a mundane thing, but having someone who understands what grief feels like is such a huge deal.”

D’Arthenay said the two haven’t seen each other in person since before the pandemic, but with so many COVID-19 restrictions now lifted she hopes it’s just a matter of time. 

“I’ll give her that hug she’s needed — I need one, too. We’ll hug and cry for a long time, I’m sure.”



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