A Pandemic of Grief

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Written by Chelsea Alarcon, LPC

Due to the worldwide coronavirus emergency, millions of people are losing people and things that they deeply love, need, and/or desire. Due to these losses, grief is something that many of us are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic (if we were not already facing it prior). Many of these COVID-19-specific losses were highly unexpected and sudden, potentially making them more difficult or traumatic/re-traumatizing.

I have noticed during my conversations with others that the word “grief” is most commonly associated with the death of a loved one and rarely associated with other kinds of losses. While grief certainly can follow a death, many people are surprised to learn that grief can also follow the loss of almost anything. It can follow many other events such as (but not limited to) the loss of a job, support system, home, pet, relationship, ability, hope, dream, expectation, health, experience, human right, or sense of security/safety. Grief can also re-occur in response to a reminder of something or someone we lost in the past, especially if that loss was traumatic or life-altering. I will describe tips for coping with grief, regardless of who or what is being grieved.

Allow feelings to come and go without judgment.

It is normal to experience distress in response to losing anything or anyone we deeply love or care about. Compound that with all the sudden changes as a result of COVID-19, and it is especially understandable to feel sadness, anger, abandonment, anxiety, jealousy, guilt, or longing (emotions that are common with grief). These feelings will come and go. Some feelings will linger longer than others. Some feelings will be easier to manage some days than others. Try not to draw meaning from or have judgments about the intensity or frequency of your emotions; rather, just see them as part of a human process that is necessary to adjust to a new reality. Try also not to judge yourself for how you are managing certain emotions. No two days are ever going to be exactly the same, and it is healthy to practice compassion for ourselves. Remember that your experience and feelings are valid, regardless of what others may say or do.

There are many differing opinions about grief, often resulting from myths about it (e.g., you are only allowed to grieve for so long, or grief responses are somehow pathological). There are also differing opinions about this pandemic, politics, and modifications to our behaviors in response to the pandemic. Others can make comments that are coming from their own subjective experiences, with or without realizing that they can be invalidating of your feelings and experiences. Remember that someone does not have to agree with you in order for your feelings to be valid. No one lives with your unique mind, body, and life story except you. These contexts matter for how we feel and how deeply we feel it.

Don’t compare your grief process to others’.

Grief is more than an emotional process. It involves many other facets of our lives. As previously mentioned, our experiences of grief depend on our larger context, meaning that we draw from events, and our unique ways of dealing with distress in general. Some people cry, some do not and could potentially feel just as much (or more!) sadness. Some people express their emotions, others prefer to be more private or do not feel safe expressing emotions. Some people quickly find a way to honor their loss while others do not have a practice to honor it for quite some time. Some people see reminders of their loss everywhere while others are distracted. For all of these reasons I mentioned, I often encourage grieving people to “keep their eyes in their own lane” by asking themselves what they can do to help themselves through the present moment (as often as they can).

Take a break from distressing material (social media, news, etc.) or conversations (if able and if needed).

During a quarantine, screen time can easily increase and our conversations about the difficult situation at hand can also increase. Practice checking in with yourself about how you are feeling as often as you remember to do so. If you become aware of distress and notice that this distress increases in response to certain material or conversations, limit your exposure to it if you are able. You may make a decision to not check a screen for a certain period of time (however little or long of a period of time that you feel you need) or may set a limit with someone you are talking to regarding what you are willing to talk about and how long you are willing to talk about it.

Plan to do activities that feel enjoyable.

Many of our schedules are being thrown off by staying in quarantine or by working many hours to meet the ever-increasing needs of others. COVID-19 is also a situation that is leading many people to feel panicked and a lack of control over their lives. One way to feel less panic and more control is to plan to do things that feel relaxing or joyful, even if it means stepping away from something important for a few minutes or asking someone else to help so that you are able to do what you planned. Planning to do something enjoyable can also give you a much needed break from thoughts and feelings that can easily spiral into hopelessness or despair.

 Find ways to honor your loss and/or your feelings about the loss.

There are several ways to honor a loss or one’s feelings about a loss. Some examples include but are not limited to: artistic expression, a ceremonial practice, finding a new way or unique way to do a celebration (with social distancing if that is what you are practicing), a conversation with a supportive person, listening to music, and creating a physical symbol of positive memories that you are able to look at as much as you would like.

Get or make it a priority to maintain support.

Most of the research about grief highlights the importance of having and maintaining support through the grieving process. Support can involve family members, friends, various communities, self-help books, and/or individual/group therapy. Experiencing acceptance, validation, and presence from another person can feel more reassuring and comforting than one expects. While the pandemic is creating challenges for obtaining and maintaining support, technology has continued to support many types of interactions, gatherings, and online communities. Technology has even allowed for an increased use of teletherapy (i.e., online therapy sessions).

If you want to, use the loss as an opportunity to learn something about yourself, grow a new skill/enhance existing skills, or attempt to create something new for yourself or others.

If this is something you would like to do, know that it does not have to be done in any specific amount of time. It often depends on the specifics of your situation and grieving process; however, I mention it because it can feel healing for many people to give life to something new after a loss. What the “new thing” is highly depends on the situation, your personal values, and the resources you have. Some examples could include a person who lost their job creating a job for themselves online or creating a new routine for themselves in this time of joblessness, a person whose loved one could not obtain appropriate medical care becoming an advocate for themselves or others, or someone who was previously very busy finally taking time to do something they love that they have not done in a while. Allow yourself to brainstorm by yourself or with a supportive person if and when you feel ready. Remember that saying hello to something new does not necessarily mean you will not feel grief ever again or that you are somehow erasing the significance of who/what you lost. It simply means you are creating a new reality for yourself.

In closing, honor your feelings of grief and find ways to take care of yourself during this time and always.