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The aftermath for a society preoccupied with COVID-19 death: Post-traumatic stress, or growth?

We're living in a society preoccupied with death. It can be awful, but there's an upside to understanding how precious life is.

COVID-19 means the end of the good American death, and forces us to face our mortality.
COVID-19 means the end of the good American death, and forces us to face our mortality.Read moreCynthia Greer

The doctors told Bernice Stein-O’Neill that COVID-19 took her husband, John O’Neill, from her on April 8.

But after 44 years together, there are things you know about a person that never show up in any medical test.

“He had the COVID in the nursing home, but John really died of a broken heart because of loneliness,” said Stein-O’Neill, 75, of Skippack, retired from working 35 years in accounts receivable at Kraft Foods. “Me being quarantined from seeing him was horrible for him. It made him give up the will to live."

O’Neill, 88, a retired salesman, was a victim of the new American way to die — ravaged by a virus caught as easily as a cold, devoid of loved ones in a hospital room where your end is closely monitored, and only remotely mourned.

“A dignified death may be compromised,” the Journal of Palliative Medicine declared in May, describing the sterile and solitary passage of so many of the nearly quarter-million people in the United States who’ve succumbed to COVID-19.

Social psychologist Sheldon Solomon put it a less bloodless way. “We have horror stories of thousands dying alone in hospitals detached from friends and family,” said Solomon, an expert on awareness of death at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “It’s harrowing to those who are dying, and it ripples with traumatizing consequences to the bereaved.

“We can see our loved ones in the hospital on Zoom, but it’s not the same as a physical embrace. It’s a hard way to die, and it’s a hard way to grieve."

That COVID-19 is edging out the good American death — expiring gracefully in a loving circle of dear ones — is forcing us to face mortality with greater openness.

Certainly, pandemics have raged throughout human history. But this one’s on social media and cable.

“Widespread death has never received this much coverage,” said Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “On a daily basis, we are exposed to people dying.

"Something as simple as a mask is a reminder of threat.”

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Told that they have much to fear from COVID-19, seniors worry they may die from consequences of the disease without ever contracting it, said Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

“ ‘'I can’t go shopping,’ they say. ‘Senior centers can’t serve meals in congregate settings. Where do I get food? How do I travel to the doctor if the bus isn’t safe?’ ” Glicksman said. Dreading COVID-19, patients postpone life-sustaining medical tests and treatments, allowing death to enter through another doorway.

Clinging to a belief system

Living in a society preoccupied with mortality has other repercussions.

In scientific experiments, Solomon discovered that even when people are unaware that death is on their minds, it kicks off “a panic rumbling beneath the surface of consciousness.”

Solomon would flash the word “Death” in front of subjects in laboratory settings for 42 milliseconds, without their knowledge. He was then able to ascertain the attitudes of individuals subliminally reminded of their mortality.

He learned that they sat farther from those who looked different, and that they smoked or drank much more. The obsessive-compulsive washed their hands more often; the socially anxious “blubbered more.”

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Asked before the 2016 election which candidate they preferred, lab subjects in psychologically benign states of mind said Hillary Clinton. But when “Death” flared in their heads, they were reminded of their mortality, and their opinions of Donald Trump elevated substantially.

“Existential anxieties make us more supportive of charismatic, larger-than-life individuals who proclaim themselves uniquely qualified to rid the world of evil,” Solomon concluded.

When such worries are aroused, people cling more desperately to their belief systems. “Death reminders make people more racist or xenophobic,” he said. “Some become proto-fascist Tweeters. It’s not a pretty picture.”

‘Not tranquilized by the trivial’

Not everything about facing our mortality is grave, however. The pandemic compelling us to deal more directly with death can be a good thing, said Christina Bicchieri, a philosophy and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Death is now in its rightful place, in front of us,” she said.

A hundred years ago, death was considered a more natural event because it was more common among younger people. So many more children perished in infancy, while mothers died in greater numbers by giving birth. Meanwhile, dangerous blue-collar jobs often led to fatalities.

Understanding more clearly that there’s an end to life “makes you want to use the time you have better,” Bicchieri said. “You’re more aware, life’s more precious, and there’s a duty to live well.”

Knowing that we are finite creatures who could expire not in some vaguely distant future but five minutes from now might be a blessing, Solomon said.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

Philosopher Albert Camus once intoned, “Come to terms with death. Thereafter, anything is possible.” We can face life with gratitude and humility, Solomon said, “not tranquilized by the trivial.”

In a time of pandemic, there’s post-traumatic stress, but there’s also post-traumatic growth, he said: “It’s being fully alive in recognition of one’s mortality.”

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Such self-awareness may be a dubious gift for Bernice Stein-O’Neill.

The last time she saw her husband, it was three days before his death, and it was unclear how much he comprehended. Dressed in safety gear and standing by his bed in the nursing home, Stein-O’Neill had only moments to communicate her fears, her thoughts, her love:

“ ‘John,’ I told him, ‘the world outside is not how you know it. We quarantine. It’s horrible.' "

An idea occurred to her. "He used to tease me, because I’m Jewish and he was Catholic, that we couldn’t be in heaven together.

“But that last day I told him, ‘The next time we’re together, we’ll be in heaven.'

"I think he heard me.”