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What We've Lost: Intangibles

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new year begins this week, and most of us are all too happy to leave 2020 in the past. But with the pandemic still raging and the economy still struggling, we might not be quite in the mood to celebrate. We've been examining the nation's collective grieving process in our series What We've Lost. And today we mourn those little things which tend to add up quickly and amount to a sense of emotional limbo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The simple things that we may have taken for granted before the pandemic, like being able to dress up and go out or being able to dress up nice for work, even.

ELEANOR LINEBARRY: The days blend together. It feels like just the same day over and over again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Time doesn't have that much meaning anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've been kind of walking around in a fog.

ELEANOR: There's just a very big lack of motivation to do anything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just the simple things that boost one's morale - they have been absent this year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Every time you think you're getting your feet under you and you're developing a routine, something changes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It seems that logic has gone out the window.

KELLY: NPR's Lauren Hodges digs into those intangibles missing from our lives.

LAUREN HODGES, BYLINE: It might feel small to complain about something like a gutted social life or an upended routine right now, especially as the COVID death toll continues to climb. Millions have lost their jobs, and many face eviction. But after months of isolation, people's well-being - emotionally, mentally - it's deteriorating.

ELEANOR: I have personally - I've lost all of my friends during the pandemic.

HODGES: That's Eleanor Linebarry, a 15-year-old in Houston, Texas. She says at the beginning of quarantine, it was kind of fun to stay home from school and schedule FaceTimes or Zoom calls. But as the year dragged on, the calls dwindled.

ELEANOR: We all just sort of stopped talking to each other. And I tried to get in touch, and none of them really wanted to.

HODGES: She says her mental health is at an all-time low.

ELEANOR: It's really hard because, you know, you feel so lonely.

HODGES: But she feels bad even talking about that because it seems like there's always someone going through something worse.

THEMA BRYANT-DAVIS: It's important that people not get the idea of what we call toxic positivity.

HODGES: That's Dr. Thelma (ph) Bryant-Davis, a psychologist and author of the book "Thriving In The Wake Of Trauma." Toxic positivity is the impulse to compare yourself or others to those in less fortunate circumstances.

BRYANT-DAVIS: That's really silencing, and it doesn't really help.

HODGES: Bryant-Davis says grieving what we've lost this year, even if it's not a loved one or a livelihood, is crucial.

BRYANT-DAVIS: This is a trauma, and it shows up in different ways - so for some people, depression; for some people, feeling anxious, this loss of time or opportunity.

HODGES: And we might notice some physical side effects as well.

BRYANT-DAVIS: We carry a lot of stress in our bodies. And so sometimes we're saying, I'm not depressed. But you have migraines. We're saying, I'm not worried about it. But you're nauseous - or a big one is we have a lot of backache, right? And so in psychology, we call that a somatic complaint - when there's a physical symptom without necessarily a medical explanation.

HODGES: She wants people to stop feeling ashamed about mourning their old lives and acknowledge that they're going through something, too.

BRYANT-DAVIS: When there is a lack of structure or routine, it increases that feeling of loss, despair, disconnection and a sense of being out of control.

MARGIE WALKER: We are going through what we call the dimmer switch of depression. Different days, it's a different intensity.

HODGES: Margie Walker in Los Angeles says her two adult children had to move back home in the spring. They can't find work in their fields right now, so they're finding other ways to make money.

WALKER: They need to feel productive. They can get jobs, but they can't get a career job.

HODGES: The lack of direction has been stifling for Walker's family, especially in close quarters.

WALKER: We are almost exclusively at home. We just keep biding our time and saying the vaccine is coming. The idea that people don't want to get the vaccine, won't get the vaccine, is unbelievable to me.

HODGES: Loss of trust is also something Bryant-Davis has heard a lot about from her clients lately, whether it's a fading of trust in the government, in the media or in each other.

BRYANT-DAVIS: A lot of people are saying, I'm getting to see a side of people that I didn't know. Like, the people who I thought would stay in and be careful or be understanding have actually shamed people about, like, why aren't you coming to the family gathering?

HODGES: This is especially hard, she says, for those with preexisting conditions or who live in communities of color, where COVID has affected a disproportionate number of people.

BRYANT-DAVIS: Feeling like I didn't realize so many people didn't care or didn't value my life. And so that's been a painful piece for people that - to grieve and be aware of.

HODGES: She wants to remind everyone that humans are complex beings. We can be grateful for our health, our jobs or other parts of our lives while still mourning what we miss. Some losses are temporary, while others might not be, and they're all deserving of proper grief.

Lauren Hodges, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.