Coping with loss and grief during COVID-19
If you are feeling lethargic, sad, distracted, disinterested in things you enjoy, or irritable—you may be grieving. There can be power in identifying that emotion.
Having lived with the coronavirus pandemic for several months now, you may have noticed changes in your emotional state. While many of my patients were experiencing deep fear, anxiety or panic in February, today you may find yourself suddenly in tears, emotionally distracted, or feeling angry or depressed. Or even just struggling to recall a common word or jumbling sentences. These are all signposts on the very human path of grief and mourning.
With the COVID-19 pandemic has come great loss. You or someone close to you may have lost a friend or family member to COVID-19. Loss during the pandemic comes in many other forms, too, such as the loss of connection with friends and family, the loss of touch, and the losses of safety, economic stability and a known future. Each of these is significant in itself; most people are processing a combination of many losses at once. David Kessler, an expert on grief, commented recently in the Harvard Business Review, “This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
Although grief is universal, it expresses itself in many different ways. It can be hard to know what to say or how to act to support a loved one who may be struggling. And it can be easy to overlook your own mourning and be gentle with yourself.
Here are a few ways to honor and provide support to yourself and those around you who are grieving a death or other type of loss:
Be present. You usually can sense when something is bothering a loved one. Without pestering, it’s important to let them know that you are available to them. When they are ready to talk, respect their vulnerability and turn off your phone or the TV to show them you are there with them, to listen or just be. At the same time, if you notice changes in your own mood or outlook, slow down and take stock of the big picture. It’s natural to feel things in response to such widespread change. Give yourself space and permission to feel them.
Name your grief and reach out to others. You may feel like you need to put on a strong face for others who are struggling. But it’s more healing to be vulnerable and acknowledge that you are affected, too. By sharing your experience, your loved one will know that they are not alone and will feel less isolated during this challenging time. It’s ok to ask for the support you need.
Find new ways to celebrate a loved one’s life. Recognize that although you may not have been able to be with a loved one during their last moments, you can grieve together with family and friends. The fact that we can be connected virtually with family and friends is important. Create a collaborative video: ask friends and family to share funny, significant or other memories by posting a picture with audio about what it meant to you. Make plans for a future memorial service, for when everyone may be able to come together again. Use an online obituary service to share your loved one’s life story, and to exchange memories and condolences. Even during this time, it is important to create a shared experience to honor the death and each other’s relationships.
Move toward acceptance and inner calm. For a long time, mental health professionals have recognized that grief has some distinct elements: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and, with time, greater acceptance. David Kessler, who worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to define these stages of grief, reminds us that, “Acceptance… 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.” By focusing on activities that you can control, you can enter the present, open up to creativity, and build acceptance.
Being in the present is also calming. Take 30 seconds and listen, deeply, to the sounds in your home or outside a window. Take a moment each evening to express gratitude for life’s small treasures: a generous neighbor, a healthy meal, a hand to hold, music you love. If you’re feeling sad or frustrated, don’t fight it: let the emotion be there with you. When you acknowledge your emotions rather than fighting them, your relationship to the feelings—and the loss—can transform over time.
If your emotional state becomes overwhelming, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional who can help guide you through your experience of grief. You are not alone, and getting the help you deserve is part of the path of living through loss.
Read more of PacMed’s resources during COVID-19.