Grief & COVID-19

INTRODUCTION

When we hear the word grief we usually think about death, but the emotions of grief can be felt in so many other circumstances as well.  Grief makes us feel sad, helpless and completely overwhelmed.  We mourn changes in our lives like divorce, moving to a different city or home, retiring from a job.  We even grief positive life events like becoming a parent, some new parents experiencing grief as they feel a sense of losing their identity and the lifestyle they had before having children.

Grief is chaotic, unpredictable and inevitable.  One minute you will be feeling fine, even happy, and the next minute you can feel so incredible sad without being able to put a finger on it as to what exactly happened in that minute to trigger the emotions.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Koep in her book “On Grief and Grieving” she writes that “You don’t get to choose if you’re grieving.  For example if you have a friend who’s going through a major transition, they’re not gonna say, ‘Dude, I’m totally grieving right now. I’m going to do this major shift in my life,’ because we don’t have language for that as a society. They’ll probably say, ‘Dude, I’m so stressed out right now. I don’t really feel like hanging out. I’m drinking too much, I feel sad and not in control’ or whatever it is. But the reality is he’s grieving.” (Bulger, 2020)

I know that with the COVID-19 pandemic we are grieving the loss of our freedom, futures that was planned and the lives and roles left behind in our shared rush to get away from the coronavirus. We are all worried about work, health, our families and our futures in ways that we didn’t have to think about just a couple of months ago.  We are afraid for our parents and grandparents, our children, our jobs, our country, our way of life and at the core of it we also have a deep fear for our own lives.

The reality is that COVID-19 is crossing borders and oceans, it doesn’t discriminate between the poor and rich, the CEO’s or the cleaners.  It effects EVERYONE.

Our individual responses to this pandemic varies from person to person and we need to understand why we are feeling happy one minute and sad the next.

We are struggling to process the pandemic’s rising death toll, its economic impact, the restrictions that take away our freedom and influence our connections with those we saw in our day-to-day lives at work or in our favourite stores and restaurants.

We need to realise that after COVID-19 is gone “NORMAL” as we knew it will be different and challenging.

Our lives will be different and we are all grieving this fact in some way.

DISCUSSION

What is grief? Grief can be defined as the “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.  A cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow.” (Definition of grief | Dictionary.com, 2020)

What is anticipatory grief? Anticipatory grief refers to “a feeling of grief occurring before an impending loss.” (Anticipatory grief, 2020)

COVID-19 caused by a virus that is exceptionally deadly and spreads like a wild fire brought the whole world to a standstill.  We’re all in this kind of emergency state, we feel threatened and are looking for ways to survive.

The whole world is mourning, grieving for the things we haven’t lost yet.  Even if we and our loved ones all make it through this okay, there will be enormous loss of life across the country, some business’s will close or have to scale down, the way we interact with each other will be different and we will face challenges financially.

Together we are all experiencing an emotional state called anticipatory grief, where people acutely feel a loss that hasn’t yet occurred, on a global scale.  Unlike bereavement, the grieving that follows loss, anticipatory grief lacks a sense of finality, a sense of closure.

To explain this lets use the example of a natural disaster like a hurricane or a tornado.  We can predict, know and prepare for it as it is on the way.  We know it’s going to be there for a certain time as it wreaks havoc, but we also know that it is going to go away.  Afterward we grief for what we lost in the tornado, we take stock, find closure and start to build again.

COVID-19 doesn’t have a manual or warning, we can’t predict or prepare for it and the destination of where it is going and what it will do to us is unclear.  With coronavirus, the threat of infection and illness seems to find new victims around every corner consistently.  This makes us feel powerless, disaster seems unavoidable and our emotions easily spirals into anticipatory grief.

Thus, with anticipatory grief, we’re not anticipating that we’re going to be grieving, we are already in the process of grieving before we actually lose the things we want to hold onto.

As you will see below grief in all forms include the same stages, which is often misunderstood.  Stages of grieve don’t follow on each other in a set order, a person grieving can jump from denial to despair and back to denial again.

What is important is that when we grieve we go through all the stages until we reach the acceptance stage.  Acceptance of circumstances is where we start to heal from trauma, when we accept what we cannot change we can start to find some sort of closure and a way to live with what we lost or went through even if we won’t ever forget what we once had.

Let’s look at the stages of grief and how it is manifesting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Denial

Denial can be defined as “disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing”.  (Definition of denial | Dictionary.com, 2020).  We all went through this stage, some people are stuck in this stage and refuse to abide by the restrictions placed upon us during this time or they just don’t care enough to think of the people around them.  Either way, denial sounds like this:

  • This whole thing is so overblown and people are over reacting
  • What a media circus, it’s just crazy
  • It’s the same as the flu and people get the flu every year and hardly anyone dies
  • I’m not (old, immune-compromised, susceptible to lung ailments), so I’ll be fine

Anger

Anger can be defined as “a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong done” (Definition of anger | Dictionary.com, 2020). 

When we feel angry we feel empowered for a moment.  We get angry because we attempt to gain control over our circumstances and the fear that comes with it and rather than accepting and dealing with the problem we turn hostile, blame others, engage in power struggles, externalize the issue and sometimes refuse to comply with the rules.  Anger sounds like this:

  • This is all China’s fault.  If they’d quarantined earlier, we wouldn’t be having this problem
  • It’s a conspiracy and we must find the people responsible and punish them
  • I don’t care what the president says about lockdown, I’m going to work today
  • Forget what they told us, I’m bored and I’m having some friends over

Bargaining

Bargaining is to “negotiate the terms and conditions of something” (Definition of bargain | Dictionary.com, 2020).  When denial breaks down and we start to acknowledge our reality but are not ready to give up on the illusion that we still have control, we start to bargain and we try to compromise to find an easier, less painful way out.  What it sounds like:

  • It’s OK to spend time with others as long as we wash our hands and wear masks
  • This will all be over by Easter.  I’ll be safe until then and then we can go back to normal
  • I know when people look sick, I will be fine as long as I stay around people who are healthy

Despair

Despair can be defined as “to lose, give up, or be without hope” (Definition of despair | Dictionary.com, 2020).  Depression occur when reality fully sets in, when there is no more room for denial and during this stage we experience a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that we are fully disempowered and all is lost. 

We engage in self-pity and feel like nothing we do is going to make any difference, despite evidence to the contrary.  Despair sounds like: 

  • I can’t go to work, so I will not get paid and soon I will be broke and homeless
  • This pandemic is the new normal and we are going to have to live with it forever
  • I can say goodbye to my hopes and dreams
  • I am high-risk and can get sick easily and then die alone, because no one will be able to be with me

Acceptance

Acceptance it “the act of assenting or believing” (Definition of acceptance | Dictionary.com, 2020).  We finally acknowledge and surrender to the facts, whatever those facts happen to be.  In this case accept that COVID-19 is real, it is happening and it is happening to us as a world together.

When we reach this stage, we can stop denying and fighting the reality of COVID-19 and we can start dealing as effectively as we can with what is happening to our world.  Acceptance sounds like:

  • I can’t control the pandemic, but I can do my part by staying home, washing my hands and follow the restriction rules 
  • Stay positive, the fact that I can’t leave my house doesn’t mean my life has to stop and I can’t make plans for the future
  • I can work from home and I can still connect with my friends and family via phone and the internet 
  • I can enjoy the extra time I have with my spouse, my kids and do new and exciting things at home
  • The world is going to change, but maybe the change will be better for everyone

What can we do to manage all this grief?

Understanding the stages of grief is a start.   Acceptance, is where we find power and a sense of control again and this is where we want to be.

Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety and fear, our minds begin to show us images of the worst scenarios possible e.g. my parents getting sick or not being able to look after my family.  We shouldn’t ignore these images or to try to make them go away.  Our minds don’t work like that and it can be painful to try and force it.  The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking.

Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst, try to calm yourself.  Try to think of the present and where you are at that moment.

You can name five things in the room.  For example you can see a computer, a TV, a plant, pillows and a glass of water. It can feel weird doing it, but it is effective so that you can realize that you are in the present moment, you are breathing and nothing you’ve anticipated has happened.  In this moment, you’re okay.  You have food.  You are not sick.

You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control.  Understand that what other people around you are doing is out of your control, what the rest of the world is doing are out of your control.  Focus on what is in your control, staying home, washing your hands, keeping your distance from people, etc.

It helps to say out loud that “This is a temporary state, the precautions we’re taking are the right ones and that this is survivable. We will survive.”

Hearing something in your own voice are more powerful than we give it credit for, so make sure you say the correct things to others and yourself.

There is something powerful about naming emotions and what we are feeling now is called GRIEF

It helps us feel what’s inside of us, I had a lot of people tell me this week “I am sad, I cried last night, my life is a mess and I am scared”.  When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you.  Emotions need motion.  It’s important that we acknowledge what we go through and allow yourself to feel the anger, denial, bargaining and despair in order to get to acceptance.  Fighting our feelings doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling and when we allow the feelings to happen they usually happen in an orderly way which empowers us.  Then we are not victims anymore but survivors.

CONCLUSION

It’s crazy to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now, in fact it is a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. 

We have been so conditioned to see only the bad and evil side of humanity over the years and if we really take a hard look at ourselves now we have to admit that we just settled for that, we accepted crime, it was ok to only see family on special occasions, we didn’t help someone because “someone else can do it”.  It was ok that our kids spend a lot of time in front of the TV, because then the adults can rest and have a drink or two.  Our “normal” was our comfort zone and it is changing now in ways we can’t yet predict.

Meaning can be found in times of despair and right now all of us have the power to decide what is going to be our “new normal / comfort zone” by staying focused on the positives, the things that give meaning to our lives and the things that make us happy.

Connect with the people in your life again, teach kids to play outside again, be patient with each other, be kind and just love each other.  Be and stay grateful.

Then when this is all over we might realise that our “old normal” was supposed to die so that a “new normal” could be born.  A “normal” that will include more compassion for each other, more understanding of what people in our country are going through, more hope, more faith in our futures and more believe in each other and our dreams. 

We will be able to remember how the whole world came together to help and support each other and we will realise that humanity in essence is good and that we are stronger than we thought we were.

We will be able to say that we survived a pandemic.  We are not victims.  We are survivors.

“You must take personal responsibility.  You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself.  That is something you have charge of.”

-Jim Rohn-

REFERENCES

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