How to Deal With Grief and Loss During COVID-19 Pandemic
Over the past several months, the global COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all in many ways. Many changes have been imposed upon us, resulting in a myriad of losses, which, when accumulated has brought about a pandemic of grief.
Why are we all grieving?
Grief is a natural response to an unnatural circumstance. It is common to grieve during this pandemic.
Because many of the losses are unusual, they may appear more difficult to navigate. Social distancing has forced us to be apart from friends, family, and colleagues for months. While thanks to technology we were and still are able to stay in constant contact with one another remotely, we are learning the limitations of digital love and care. Personal events have been postponed or called off, so we were unable to gather for life’s most meaningful celebrations and rituals, from graduations and birthdays to weddings, anniversary parties, and funerals.
Public activities and experiences that brought us together have also been cancelled. Workplaces have shuffled and moved to many working-from-home scenarios, layoffs, and even closure. Schools moved to online classes and many businesses, including restaurants, museums, and theatres were closed. Sporting events were shut down, and many public recreation spaces and parks stood empty for many months.
The world is collectively grieving the accumulation of many types of losses, such as:
- Loss of ability to follow our daily routines
- Loss of health (fear of contracting COVID)
- Loss of identity surrounding work (work often defines part of who we are and having to shift to a different way of working can leave us uneasy)
- Loss of human physical connections with friends and loved ones (change in relationship)
- Loss of jobs or financial security
- Loss of sense of personal freedom (feeling like a prisoner in ones’ own home)
- Loss of opportunity to participate in activities
- Loss of celebrating milestones or traditions (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, graduations, etc.)
- Loss of control over our lives
- Loss of future dreams
- Loss of loved one’s death and not being able to say goodbye or support family or a friend
- …the list is endless.
It is important to remember that regardless of what kind of loss one experiences, ALL GRIEF is REAL.
What is grief?
It is common to feel more than one kind of grief. Much of what is being felt during COVID is called “anticipatory grief”.
Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain, our mind often goes to the worst. Imagine there is a storm coming, and we brace for the effects. Our primitive mind goes into survival mode and knows something bad is happening, but can’t see it.
This kind of grief is so confusing. This has potential to break our sense of safety and, in many ways, we are feeling that loss of safety now. As human beings, whenever our attachments are threatened, harmed, or severed, we naturally grieve.
Grief is everything we think and feel inside of us when this happens. We experience shock and disbelief, we worry, which is a form of fear. We become sad and possibly lonely. We get angry. We feel guilty or regretful. The sum total of all these and any other thoughts and feelings we are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is our grief.
Our pandemic grief will change from day to day and week to week. As we have collectively been taking action to “flatten the curve,” new rules and limitations have popped up every day for months, with restrictions mounting and growing. As circumstances ebb and flow, our grief will change. And as with the virus itself, it will likely get worse before it gets better.
Grief is different for everyone. It brings along with it an array of feelings that are often difficult and confusing. Grief is a journey, a process, not a race, that takes time with no time limit. There are days when it is hard to concentrate to make it through the next 10 minutes and other days when you feel pretty good.
By finding different ways to do what we did, we incorporate new patterns, new routines, and new ways of thinking. Most people have an innate ability to adapt and adjust, accommodating, and blending the changes into our life to find a “new normal”. Grieving helps us navigate these changes and losses in the way things were.
We may feel like Humpty Dumpty and compare ourselves to eggs: we feel raw, cracked, scrambled, and then hard-boiled. There is a hope that someday we will get sunny side up once again.
How do we respond to grief?
Some common grief responses are sadness, shock, anger, denial, guilt, fear, or feeling depressed. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks, everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally, there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.
We also carry grief in our bodies. Physical symptoms can be headaches, feeling “heavy”, low energy, and just an overall feeling of doom and gloom. The winding path of grief is definitely not a linear one. The grieving process is fluid. It is okay not to feel okay – feelings may come unexpectedly and often appear on the surface.
How can you deal with grief?
One particularly troubling aspect of this pandemic is the open-endness of it. After several months into this pandemic, there are still many worries and questions. Where are we now? How do we cope with the impending return to work and all the uncertainties surrounding it?
In the beginning, there were clear guidelines (isolate if ill or symptomatic, wash hands, stay at home). We were ALL lost at sea together. Now, as things have started opening up; it is not clear cut and with it fear and anxiety are heightened as to the what ifs. We are just starting to see the shore, but unsure what awaits us on land.
The confusion of what is right to do brings confusion as there are different things happening, different rules and processes. We may be apprehensive about resuming activities we used to take for granted (going to work in office, gym, shopping, being in places with larger numbers of people).
There are a couple of important things to understand about pandemic grief. First, it is normal and natural. Secondly, grief responds to awareness, attention, and expression.
You will feel better if you mourn. Mourning is being aware of your grief, giving it the attention, it needs and deserves, and expressing it outside of yourself.
Self-care is paramount, yet is often the first thing to fall by the wayside. We frequently hear a lot about how to take care of ourselves physically with this virus, but I have seen little about emotional, social, and spiritual health.
When we are feeling the emotional pain of our coronavirus grief, we can tune into it and allow it to teach us what we are really worried, sad, angry, etc. about. And then we can express it. We can talk to others about it, in our household, on the phone, or online. We can write about it in a journal. We can listen to music or watch movies that help us access, understand, and share our feelings. Mourning our grief in these ways helps soften it and gives us the emergency emotional release and sustenance we need to survive.
Socially, we can’t congregate in person right now. But we can continue to make efforts to reach out to the people we care about. Video calls, voice calls, emails, texting, and social media work. The point is to stay connected as much as possible and be open and honest in those communications about whatever you are feeling or struggling with. This may encourage others to be honest as well, creating the opportunity for mutual support and kindness.
In times of loss, we almost always wonder why things happen as they do. We naturally question the meaning of life in general and the meaning of our own life in particular. If you’ve been struggling with beliefs, values, meaning, and life goals during the pandemic, you’re experiencing the spiritual aspect of grief. And the best way to care for your spirit right now is to be intentional about giving it time and attention. It has been recommended to spend time each day on spiritual practices. For some people that might be meditation or prayer. For others, it can be reading a spiritual text, speaking affirmations, attending a religious or spiritual service online, doing yoga, writing in a journal, or spending time observing nature or walking outdoors.
By being aware of your emotional, social, and spiritual health every day and being deliberate about self-care in those areas will help you and others today as well as in the weeks to come.
There is no doubt that this is a challenging moment to be alive, but it is also a moment in which our collective resources have never been greater and more capable. So let’s be open, honest, kind, and gentle to ourselves and to each other.
Christine Chaffey MC, CCC, CGRS
Clinical Supervisor - Therapy & Counselling