What My Grief Has Taught Me About Life and COVID-19

Author: Denise Brownlee

The entire world has downshifted. COVID-19 and sheltering in place drastically changed how we live our lives. This has been a challenging time for many. It is important to acknowledge that each of our paths is unique. There has been a focus on people grieving the loss of their pre COVID-19 lives, but that doesn’t resonate with me. Instead, I began to realize that my grief journey has better prepared me for sheltering in place along with social and physical distancing.  

When my oldest son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Mitchell Brownlee, died by suicide in July of 2016, I brought my immediate family in closer. My husband and I both took several months off of work to be able to emotionally support ourselves and our children. We bought a house that we felt could be our sanctuary and we spent a lot of time here, a safe place from whatever happened outside. As family became the top priority, I began to evaluate many of my other relationships. Days, weeks, months and almost four years later, people show you who they are. My relationships have changed significantly. My circle is smaller, but tighter.  

My son’s death became a catalyst for evaluating what was important: slowing down, enjoying the small things and spending time with my family was paramount. I cut out a lot of social and emotional “noise” and sought things that helped me to feel happy and fulfilled. I made a decision to take a new approach to life. There was nothing I could do to bring my son back, but I could work harder to try and live my best life. I devoted time to learning to play an instrument, art, reading, sitting in the sun, gardening, coffee, playing with my dogs and traveling. Simple, yet joyful experiences. I decided to live my life with a little more adventure in honor of Mitchell, who loved a great adventure. 

Brownlee family photoPhoto courtesy of Denise Brownlee

Nothing can prepare you for the death of a child. Our family was devastated. In August of 2016 I was forced to reach out and find mental health resources for our family. Resources that we have continued to utilize during these challenging times. I have greatly appreciated the online TAPS Talks and meetings these past few weeks. I value the connections that I have made through survivor events and retreats. I know that I have people I can reach out to, as well as people I feel honored to check on. I am proud to be a TAPS peer mentor and to be able to give back to survivors in my area by facilitating a TAPS Care Group.  Virtually or in person, helping others helps me, and allows me to pay all that my family has received forward.  

Teaching from home and making sure my children are working on their school work has been an adjustment. Not being able to find everything at the store that we want has been annoying. Of course, the desire to travel, to have a family adventure has been prevalent. I sometimes worry about the impact that all of this will have on the world and my family. But the new me, the me after my son’s death, knows that I cannot control all of that. I remind myself to live in the moment. Honestly, right now, we are good. I don’t really feel like I am missing something. I know where my family is, they are gathered close. Unless I need a moment of quiet, I invite them to come outside and sit in the sunshine with me. 

We have all experienced darkness, but together we can emerge out into the sunshine. 

Denise Brownlee is the surviving mother of Petty Officer 3rd Class Mitchell Brownlee, United States Navy.

COVID-19 Resources

TAPS has partnered with national experts, international leaders and organizations to focus on global issues impacting everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic. The TAPS COVID-19 Resource Page includes information on coping with grief and loss; health and wellness; and tips for parenting and youth during the COVID-19 crisis.