Covid-19 has changed how we mourn the deaths of public figures

The scars seem deeper and somehow more permanent this year

Candles are placed next to a picture of soccer legend Diego Maradona outside the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, Italy, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. Diego Maradona has died. The Argentine soccer great was among the best players ever and who led his country to the 1986 World Cup title before later struggling with cocaine use and obesity. He was 60. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
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There's a moment in The Frost Tapes, one of the best short podcast series of the year, when Joe Biden opens up about grief in a 1987 interview he gave to David Frost.

The discussion with Mr Biden, which was recorded for a 1988 TV series titled The Next President, was never broadcast because he pulled out of the presidential race shortly after the recording was made. The podcast series was collated by broadcaster Wilfred Frost using his late father's interview archive. The Biden sessions make for fascinating listening now, painting a picture of an empathetic, instinctive and grounded leader.

A few minutes in, Frost asks Mr Biden about the loss of his wife Neilia and his daughter Naomi in a car crash in December 1972, just weeks after being elected as a senator. Mr Biden tells him that the “sense of deprivation, anger and despair” he felt was overwhelming after the accident and that the grief only began to subside after he had experienced “one season of everything” without them.

“You must go through the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first snow,” he said, while also referencing a chain of everyday events that need to be lived through before the process of restoration can start.

“I think it is getting by those things once. Once you have done that, I think then you are able to begin to recover,” he added. It is a clip of genuine candour and grace delivered by the man who will move into the White House next month, one that was coaxed out of him by one of the all-time great broadcasters.

In this year of such great disruption and uncertainty, those words have such deep resonance more than 30 years later.

Mapping the coronavirus pandemic's progress, to date more than 68 million people have contracted Covid-19 worldwide and more than 1.5 million have died, most of us will find ourselves caught somewhere between the deprivation, anger and despair that Mr Biden referred to more than 30 years ago in his own grief.

The scale of our collective loss this year defies comprehension. For many it has meant the hard loss of livelihoods, friends and family or time not spent with those we care about. The loss of our old way of life has been devastating in one way or another. The process of finding new ways to live amid the chaos has been less rehabilitating than it would have been if the journey towards the so-called "new normal" had been voluntary rather than imposed upon us by circumstance. Echoing Mr Biden’s words, the road to true recovery may involve our own “one season of everything” to get past the pandemic, to restore shattered confidence and rebuild certainty.

Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who has been tipped for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, works on her computer at  a cafe in Tunis October 6, 2011. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize may recognise activists who helped unleash the revolutionary wave that swept through North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, and Lina Ben Mhenni may be among those in line for the award when announced on Oct. 7, one analyst said. 
ANNABERG-BUCHHOLZ, GERMANY - DECEMBER 07: Workers at a funeral home move coffins with bodies of Covid-19 victims during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the state of Saxony on  December 7, 2020 in Annaberg-Buchholz, Germany. Saxony currently has the highest concentration of high coronavirus infection rates nationwide, with 10 of its 12 counties recording infection rates of well over 200 per 100,000 over seven days. Its three eastern-most counties of Bautzen, Goerlitz and Saxon Switzerland/Eastern Ore Mountains are averaging over 450. Nationwide Germany is struggling to bring down infection rates that have been averaging around 18,000 per day since October, with daily death rates averaging around 380. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
A lot of those deaths have felt particularly poignant this year, because the sense of loss we have all experienced has been compounded by the fog and confusion of the pandemic

Like every year, this one has also been marked by the deaths of many public figures, celebrities and leaders, including Sultan Qaboos and Sheikh Sabah, Diego Maradona, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sean Connery, Magda Al Sabahi, Christo, Lina Ben Mhenni, Saeb Erekat … any such list could stretch on for page after page if space permitted. Any omissions on this very short list are due to compression not oversight.

The complexities of today mean that a lot of those deaths have felt particularly poignant this year, because the general sense of loss we have all experienced has been compounded by the fog and confusion of the pandemic. And because the scale of the disruption and the associated amount of information we have all had to deal with has been so abnormally huge, the scars these deaths leave behind seem deeper and somehow more permanent this year.

Dr Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and managing director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, told me this week that people are “saturated” by the pandemic’s information overload, meaning that there is much less room for most of us to properly process the unexpected.

Janis and Uri Segal celebrate Thanksgiving with a virtual zoom with their family before a small dinner together, as they try to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. November 26, 2020.  REUTERS/Emily Elconin

“We are all grieving the loss of so many things, but at the same time we are being bombarded by information,” she said.

Despite the physical disconnection that has been a feature of this year’s stay-at-home orders, we are all much more connected and plugged in than ever before, which may feed the overall sense of confusion we feel when we hear that another public figure has died.

“We probably have more opportunities to continue to read more and more, sustaining some of that grief and maybe perpetuating it, so it stays top of mind,” she said.

The narrative of catastrophe and loss brings something else, too.

One of the unexpected more positive consequences of this collective grief and heightened connection, Dr Rasmi said, is that we end up crossing socio-cultural divides and “people really bind together” in their loss.

Dr Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and managing director of Thrive wellbeing centre in Dubai, says that people are 'saturated' by the pandemic’s information overload. Thrive Wellbeing Centre
Dr Sarah Rasmi says due to this collective grief and heightened connection, we end up crossing socio-cultural divides and people bind together in their loss

“Being online and being in a position where we are connected to more people, we have had more opportunities to express and share in that grief, albeit virtually,” Dr Rasmi said.

Returning to The Frost Tapes, Mr Biden offered some further thoughts on his own journey back from grief: "You never forget, but in time, the memory brings a smile to your lips rather than a tear to your eye."

This year has been one we will never forget. The generally positive news about global vaccine delivery and effectiveness this week may mean the tears dry up soon and allow us all to move forward. Let's hope that in time the memories of 2020 will be less tinged with sadness than they currently are.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National