Grief is part of the experience for us all; How to recognize and cope amid COVID-19

April 15, 2020

Most people understand loss and grief as something associated with the death of a loved one, but loss and grief are much broader. A lot of circumstances can cause someone to begin grieving when they’re not even aware of it; and it can be painful and confusing. In the simplest terms, grief is reacting to a loss. You have something, and then it’s gone. That can be the loss of a person or a thing, but also the loss of normalcy or freedom, the loss of a sense of connection with others, your routine or maybe the future you expected to have. Sound familiar?

These symbolic losses – intangible losses, like the loss of a job that defined your normalcy, self-identity and security – often go unrecognized; the grieving process we experience goes unacknowledged, and it’s hard to accept that these things we rely on to make life look normal on a day-to-day basis can be yanked away overnight. We’re left not understanding how we should feel about it, or even what it is we’re feeling.

Grief can present itself in a number of different ways. It can manifest as anxiety or depression, or even depression and anxiety at the same time. We may notice changes in our own behavior we can’t explain, or maybe changes we don’t notice, but others do. Someone on the outside may see in us signs of depression, but we may remain unaware. We may be angry or agitated, or even hostile towards others. It’s a scary notion that in this time, when all of us are so in need of support and compassion, we may be less than kind. That’s all the more reason to be patient with our loved ones, friends, strangers, and perhaps most importantly, ourselves.

The first step to approach and manage the condition of grief is to recognize and claim our feelings about what we’re experiencing. A lot of people aren’t accustomed to this, or it may make them uncomfortable, but almost the whole world is experiencing a collective grief right now, and if we can name and claim these feelings we’re having and talk about them with each other, we can begin to cope.

Once we’ve identified it, how do we process and cope with grief?

Bring Yourself Back to the Present
The prime culprit for many of us right now is what’s known as anticipatory grief – a lingering sense that there’s more loss ahead for us, and a fearful anticipation of what might happen. In the case of anticipatory grief, we often find that we’ve shifted towards a future-oriented mode of thinking. We start to feel as if the things we’re afraid of happening are going to happen, and we may start to feel panic or dread. The best thing to do when you’re experiencing this is try to reorient your thinking to the present; the here and now. Take an inventory of what is true around you in that moment. That can be as simple as taking time to stop what you’re doing, take some deep breaths, try to clear your mind, and look around the room. Identify five things in the room with you, like a chair, the television or your favorite painting, and think about the reality of right now. For someone who has lost a job, that might mean, “money is tight, but my family has a roof over our heads.” This is an exercise in mindfulness; the point is to bring yourself back to the present, because this is the only place in time where we can be effective. When we take an inventory of the present moment, it can take some of the emotional freight out of our anxiety about what’s to come, when we really can’t be certain of what that will look like. Remember to consider the possibility that it might be okay in the end.

It’s important to understand that the grieving process is not linear; these things don’t happen in order

Understand the Five Stages
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first defined the five stages of grief that have come to be widely-known and accepted, and often, it is believed that the grieving process is static; that it happens the same way for everyone. This is untrue. Everyone experiences their own version of the grieving process. Part of that process is the experience of denial. Right now, that might sound like, “This isn’t as bad as the media makes it sound. We’ll be fine; I won’t get sick.” We also may experience anger, which is often our way of searching for some type of empowerment when we feel powerless; trying to gain control over our fear. We may blame others or even become defiant: “Never mind what they say, I’m still going to work,” or, “Let’s have the party anyways, they can’t stop us from living.” Bargaining often involves trying to logicize actions or thoughts: “As long as everyone washes their hands before they come inside, we’ll be fine.” Despair is also likely to settle in, and that brings us back to anticipatory grief: “If I can’t work, I can’t earn money. I’ll lose my home. The future I hoped for, my dreams and goals, it won’t happen. I won’t get there.” Eventually, we may reach a point of acceptance: “I can’t control this, but I can practice social distancing, wash my hands and wear a mask. I can have Zoom calls with my friends every day, take care of my mental and physical health and make the best of the situation.”

Find Meaning
It’s interesting to note that another researcher who worked with Kübler-Ross, David Kessler, added a sixth component of the grieving process, and that’s meaning-making. After we experience and process grief, we’re then able to reflect on it. If we’re able to lean into it, sit with it, and then press forward, we may find that we emerge on the other side as a better version of ourselves. We find meaning in this process: “What did that experience mean to me as a person? What did it mean that I was able to go through this in a way that was productive? How did it change our culture or our world?” Maybe you find out that reaching out and helping others was a valuable coping mechanism for you, like sewing masks for frontline nurses and doctors or donating to online fundraisers for communities like hospitality workers. Despite the fact that we’re all so compressed by this situation, we can find a way to put value into the stream of life and be of service to others, even though we’re scared ourselves. That’s one way to find meaning.

Don’t Expect a Linear Process
It’s important to understand that the grieving process is not linear; these things don’t happen in order. Everyone has their own grief response, and though it often includes the five or six stages, it’s distinctive to that person and what they’ve experienced. Grief is also not something that comes, goes, and that’s it. It can come back, triggered by future events, or simply the fact that we may need to grieve more for that initial loss. Grief is not something we typically move on and away from. It’s something that we learn to move forward with.

Know You are Resilient
What’s so insidious about this situation is that so many of us are struggling with real, difficult, and often unnamed feelings. Some people have lost loved ones and are unable to mourn in the tradition of their culture; together, with the support of loved ones. Still others may actually be traumatized by this experience. The good news is that most people are resilient. If we can name our feelings and learn to experience them in a supported way, use our social connections to process, talk and be vulnerable with each other, then there is a potential for us to emerge stronger, maybe as individuals, but also hopefully as a culture, a country or even a world.

Rely on Social Support

We should maintain human connection as much as we can in times of grief. Make an effort to seek out social interaction on a daily basis, even if it’s just a phone call. Online connections are being heavily utilized right now. Recovery communities are hosting virtual meetings throughout the day with as many as 60 or 80 people participating. There are many resources being formed that almost anyone can tap into for support. With many of these tools, you’re able to see the faces of the people you’re talking to, adding another level of connection. Especially if you live alone, maintaining this connection is important. We’re humans, and we weren’t designed to be isolated. Loneliness is painful for a reason. Whether it’s an online support group, community group or a solidarity circle, people are gathering together virtually to talk about what they’re experiencing, what they’ve lost and what they fear, and to support each other. Sharing with others and hearing your own story reflected back tends to illustrate so clearly that we’re not alone in this situation. We’re sharing this life raft with a lot of others who understand, and that can be very meaningful to us as well.

This article first appeared in the Lovett Center.