For months, we’ve watched the number of COVID-19 deaths tick upward, steadily and in spikes. Each figure representing a life and a community left behind to mourn.
Social distancing and quarantine gave people space. Some had time for quiet reflection to finally deal with deaths that occurred several years prior; some felt more distance than ever while grappling with tragedy. Others experienced loss over events canceled, relationships ending, and memories unmade.
Grief surrounds us.
As the pandemic persists two years later, some Washingtonians are turning to creative outlets, like artistic performances and other forms of self-expression, to process their feelings around death and grief. From death cafes to grief circles, people who’ve experienced the trauma of a loved one’s death say these rituals help them find peace and connect with others on an often touchy and taboo subject.
More than 1 million people have died from COVID across the United States in the last two years. As of May 27, Washington has seen nearly 13,000 deaths.
In the last year, society has started moving forward. Restaurants reopened. Students returned to in-person learning. Businesses began calling workers back into the office.
But for those grieving, the pain and sadness from death can swell and linger.
Sitting in front of her piano, with her computer’s camera broadcasting, Annie Jones sings about her daily melancholy.
“It’s an ordinary day, and I miss you. The trees are dancing high in the sky. And though the sun is sure to rise, I can’t seem to put on a smile.”
She’s one of a handful of participants Zooming in for Seattle-based artist Miranda Sheh’s regular grief circle.
Jones’ mom, Grace Chung, struggled with a rare form of cancer for two years. Because of her vulnerable condition, doctors said she was initially ineligible for the COVID vaccine.
Finally, she got an appointment. But a week before she was scheduled for her shot, in March of last year, she caught COVID and died.
Festering emotions finally erupted in December, when Jones celebrated her first Christmas without her mom.
“I was in denial about how I was feeling, and I didn’t process the emotions and weight of her passing,” she said. “Since December, I have allowed myself to be sad. It’s given me the strength to start moving forward.”
Friends have been supportive, but sometimes “it’s almost like they don’t know how to respond or what to say.” Jones joined the online grief circle to connect with other people who have experienced death and are processing their grief.
Sheh started grief circles in February 2021. They were born out of her work as an artist, specializing in digital memory art, and her personal experiences with childhood grief.
Usually five to 10 people participate in the circles, which last about an hour and a half, she said. Tickets are $45 and are available on a sliding scale. She has also hosted bilingual sessions in Filipino, Spanish and Cantonese.
“Grief is as universal as it is unique,” she said.
Everyone is welcome to share through poetry, art, music, memories or thoughts around the prompts. Guests can also come just to listen to others.
In opening the sessions, Sheh reminds guests she’s not a licensed therapist and the grief circles do not take the place of therapy. As she reads aloud a poem — “a poem doesn’t try to fix anything; it just expresses how you feel” — she invites guests to close their eyes and take some deep breaths to get comfortable in the space and feel calm.
Grief can feel overwhelming, especially for people who’ve been bottling heavy emotions. There’s no timeline for healing, and the stages of grief may overlap, skip, or repeat. But people often feel pressure to “get over” the pain and move on, she said. Sheh hopes her grief circles give permission to talk about those feelings they may not have expressed.
That grief may extend outside of death. Sheh said people have come who are grieving relationships, or loss of culture, identity or belonging.
“Grief is losing a sense of safety or what you thought was going to be a sense of home and not having that anymore,” she said.
To close, Sheh encourages people to take care of themselves and tend to any need sparked during the circle, whether it’s drinking water, talking to a friend or going to therapy.
Jones said she found it healing to be in a group where every person had experienced some kind of loss. “It’s like they were able to express things in a way I never would have thought.”
“Don’t be strong”
Elizabeth Coplan picked out a green Mylar balloon that read “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” for her cousin, Myra.
It wasn’t Myra’s birthday. “It’s a boy” didn’t fit. And given Myra’s condition with her terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis, “Get Well Soon!” seemed insincere.
Elizabeth and Myra laughed at the absurdity when she brought the balloon into the living room where Myra’s hospital bed was set up. It was a funny moment that felt poignant during the last 10 days of Myra’s life. Together, they found humor during a deeply difficult time.
Myra died in 2015, and within the span of a few months, Coplan lost two more friends.
“When you’re by someone’s side at the end, and you’re trying to make them comfortable, you have to live in the moment. You can’t think of the past because there’s nothing you can change. You can’t think of the future because the future means they’re not there,” she said. “I almost can’t explain it in words. I do better [writing it] in dialogue between characters.”
Coplan’s experiences with death inspired her to write her first work, “Grief Dialogues,” a collection of six miniplays that premiered in 2017 at the University of Washington. Performances were followed by discussions with grief therapists or social workers.
Coplan, who lives part time in Seattle and has her office based downtown, is in the process of updating the plays to include stories around suicide and COVID loss.
“It’s art, not just for the healing, but for giving people permission to open up and talk about death, dying and their fears and their grief,” she said.
Sometimes people need that permission. With time to reflect during the pandemic, some people realized they hadn’t ever grieved a loss they experienced.
“They just went on with life because it was easy to be normal. Then all of a sudden you’re isolated in quarantine,” she said. “You think about people losing their lives and then a memory comes up about someone you lost. It could be a long time ago, but you never really dealt with it.”
That brings up emotions that may have been idling for years.
“I’m very fond of telling people, ‘It’s normal, it’s part of life. Don’t be strong. Go ahead. Cry.’”
Coplan was commissioned to produce a second play, “Honoring Choices,” which has been adapted into a film of the same name and will premiere in Los Angeles in September. Coplan’s goal with the film is to encourage families to start planning decisions around death in advance.
In January, Coplan won a grant from the nonprofit Humanities Washington to support her continuing work creating art to express her grief. She’s using the money to launch a podcast, out this month, called “Out of Grief Comes Art,” where she and co-host Halle Williams will talk with people who have turned their grief into expressions of art.
Death and cake
Megan Mooney has long been fascinated by death — but not in a morbid way, she said.
At 12, she planned to become a mortician, but in college, she took a class on grief and loss and decided to go into long-term and hospice care.
While working on her master’s degree in social work, she heard about death cafes.
Death cafes, inspired by the work of sociologist Bernard Crettaz, were developed in London by Jon Underwood and run by him until his sudden death in 2017. They’re now operated by Underwood’s mother, Susan Barsky Reid, and his sister, Jools Barsky.
The cafes, hosted as pop-up events, have spread worldwide. Groups have been held in the Seattle area and can be found on Facebook, meetup.com and the Death Cafe website. Hosts provide tea, coffee, and cake because “while you’re eating and drinking, it’s life affirming, and you feel more comfortable to talk about death while you’re partaking in cake,” Mooney said. Since the pandemic began, most death cafes have been held online.
Mooney, the death cafe lead for the U.S. who lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, got involved after her uncle died in 2012.
The objective, she said, is to “increase awareness of death while helping people make the most of their finite lives.” It’s a discussion group rather than a grief support group, though chaplains or social workers, who often moderate, are trained to provide resources for those in need.
Death is a complex enough topic that it doesn’t take much prompting to get people talking, she said. A typical opening question is “What brought you here tonight to talk about death?” Conversation often centers around goals guests want to achieve by the end of their lives. “The number one thing people bring up,” Mooney said, is relationships — how important they are and how people want to reassess them.
Interest has increased in the last two years as more people have experienced loss or serious illness.
“People think it’s morbid but it’s not. It’s your everyday people,” she said. “There are tears, but it’s more laughter than anything.”
Mooney said a co-worker of hers was so inspired by his experiences with death cafes that he decided to “go live his dream” as a comedian, something he’d always wanted to pursue.
“One of the best ways to look at life is through the vantage point of death,” Mooney said. “Thinking about death can help you have a better life and can help you to be your more authentic self.”
At the end of each cafe, Mooney gives a survey asking, “Did your views on death change as a result of attending Death Cafe?” People will often say “My views on death didn’t change, but my views on life did.”