Last week, I found myself standing in the hallway of the unit in my hospital which had been housing our COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began. At the height of the pandemic, I could recall all the rooms being filled with sick patients as nurses and doctors went in and out of rooms donned in PPE gear. And now with only about a dozen or so patients left, I found myself hoping that what I was seeing would be the beginning of the end.

As we find ourselves perhaps reaching the beginning of the end of this pandemic, I feel as if we have not even begun to emotionally process what we have experienced in this past year. For the loved ones of the 500,000 and more lives lost in this country, deep pain is carried as they grieve the loss of loved ones who died from a virus that 15 months ago, we never knew existed. And while many have been spared the loss of loved ones, millions also lost jobs and never saw their anticipated life plans come to be. Unyielding exhaustion lays deep within our emotional and spiritual souls.

In my work as a hospital chaplain, serving the spiritual needs of patients and their families has been a challenging experience. Certainly, in my work, I have been trained to help families validate their feelings of shock, anger, sadness, and despair upon the news of learning of a terminal diagnosis or a sudden death of a loved one. But perhaps the most challenging aspect which I have witnessed families struggle with (which did not exist before) is their inability to be physically present with their loved one as they took their last breath because of isolation restrictions.

“You don’t know what this is like,” I remember a young man saying to me over the telephone as his nurse and I watched his mother take her last few breaths. “This is not how I imagined that I would say goodbye to her.”

This young man was certainly correct. As I found myself recalling watching my own mother die from lung cancer when I was 23, I remember having the ability, along with my father and sister, to hold her hand in the last few moments of her life. And while I am not sure in those final few months my mother could hear or see us, I like to think she certainly could feel our presence as she left us.

In the span of a year, we have lost so much because of this pandemic. And as our world is slowly finding a way out of the wilderness which we have been in, what will be with us forever is not only the grief of lost loved ones who died, but also the time we might have been physically present with those we love but couldn’t because of restrictions, isolations, and quarantines.

Certainly, this includes those who lost loved ones who died in the hospital in isolation rooms unable to be present in their final moments. But for the millions of elderly who were isolated in nursing and care facilities unable to see their families, as well as those who lived alone and were unable to feel the hug of a loved one or even a handshake from a stranger, the time we lost being physically present is a grief we always will carry.

As we are seeing perhaps the beginning of the end of the pandemic, it is my hope that our society will make the time and space for us to grieve this experience and those we’ve lost, before we get back to any sense of real normalcy. But it is also my hope that we learn never to take for granted the opportunity to be physically present with those whom we love.

From taking the time to visit our elderly parents or grandparents in care facilities and ending the visit with a hug to attending family and neighborhood celebrations even when we have so much work to do, even to offering awkward handshakes during the passing of the peace in worship services, even after this tragedy truly ends: may we not only come out with a stronger understanding of the preciousness of life but a stronger understanding of the preciousness of presence in each other lives.