Grief during Covid-19
‘’Grief happens upon you. It’s bigger than you…. In the moments of my life when I have fallen in love, I have just as little power over it as I do in grief. There are certain things that happen to you as a human being that you cannot control or command, that will come to you at really inconvenient time, and where you have
to bow in human humility to the fact that there’s something running through you that’s bigger than you.’’
- Elizabeth Gilbert
How are we feeling? If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it….
A recent interview with David Kessler in the Harvard Business
Review raised some interesting points about our current situation. Kessler along with
Elizabeth Kubler- Ross is the world’s foremost expert on grief. Recently he
shared his thoughts on why it is so important to acknowledge the grief you may
be feeling, how to manage it, and how he believes we will find meaning in
Could this feeling be grief?
Kessler suggests it is possible that we may in fact be feeling a number of different griefs. We might have lost a loved one, or not. But the world has changed, and though we might know this is temporary, it may not feel that way right now, and deep down we may also realize things will be different. Things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; choice; connection and the inevitable fear of economic toll is hitting us all at once like a tsunami, and we are grieving. Collectively. And we are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.
More than one kind of grief?
In addition, we may also be feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Most often it focusses on death or dying. It could present itself as a feeling when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday, or could be more broadly imagined futures. This kind of grief is so confusing for people in the case of a virus, because our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but we can’t actually see it, which erodes our sense of safety. So we’re feeling a loss of safety too. Feeling this loss of safety collectively is also new for us so we are grieving not only on a micro, but a macro level too – individually and as a group. We may even be stunned to find that during this time other losses or grief from the past is triggered again.
How can I manage this grief?
First we need to understand the stages of grief, but it’s very important to remember that these stages are not linear and may not happen in this exact order but shift backwards and forwards between them. They provide some scaffolding rather than an exact map of how we grieve.
- Denial: which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us.
- Anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities.
- Bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?
- Sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance.
- Acceptance: This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
Acceptance is where the power lies, and it is in this acceptance we finally find control - I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.
How can we manage the physical pain and a racing mind?
Let us consider anticipatory grief again for a moment. Anxiety is the by-product of unhealthy anticipatory grief that is left unchecked. Our mind does not like not knowing so will begin filling in the gaps or voids and showing us possible, often the worst scenarios. We are likely to see the worst scenarios because our minds want to prepare and protect us. Our mind won’t let us ignore the scenarios or try to make them go away — they will keep returning to us. Therefore we need to acknowledge them and try to find balance in the things we’re thinking. When you start to feel the worst thoughts taking shape, try to replace them with better thoughts such as; We all get a little sick and the world continues; Not everyone I love dies; Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.
Anticipatory grief is the mind propelling into the future and imagining the worst, often without us even realising it. To ground yourself, you need to come back into the present – a key principle followed in meditated or practiced mindfulness and a strategy for coping with a panic attacks. Try this technique: Name five things in the room, for example: a television, a sofa, the dog, a plant, an old lamp. Now pay attention to your breath. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The sofa is firm. Your dog is warm. Feel the breath coming into your nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain and anxiety you may be feeling in the moment.
Next, think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What a local shopper might be doing is out of your control, but you can control staying 2 metres away from them and washing your hands. Focus on what you can control.
Now is the time for compassion…… a helping for everyone else and then a second generous helping for yourself! Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief which are likely to manifest in different ways, so try to be patient.
But it’s so open-ended….!
This is the most troubling aspect of this pandemic, but it is a temporary state. And it helps to keep repeating it. The precautions we’re taking are the right ones. This is survivable. We will survive. This is a time to overprotect but not overreact.
We can find meaning in all this, no matter how disastrous it may feel. Kessler has recently added a sixth stage to grief: Meaning. We often seek meaning in our darkest hours and it’s during these times we can also find the light. Perhaps it’s the new joy of going for a walk, a warm smile from someone two metres ahead of you in the queue at Boots – a reminder that somehow we are all in this together. Maybe it is reconnecting with an old friend or family member we have fallen-out with, or getting to really know each other and ourselves for the first time, as a result of being ‘locked-in’.
So what is left when you are still overwhelmed with grief?
Just feel sad. It’s OK. Let yourself go for a bit to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger regardless of what those around you may be feeling (which is probably the same, even if they don’t show it). There is something powerful about naming this as grief. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through but you don’t need to go through it alone. If you feel you’d like help with this process you could also consider online support - many counsellors and therapists have adapted their practice for online work and reduced their rates, so are more accessible than ever before to support you in getting the help you need right now.
Afraid to feel?
It’s not unusual to hold the fear that if we let one feeling in we might soon become overrun by a deluge of feelings we can not control. The truth is that no feeling is permanent when we feel it and allow it to move through us. We will feel it and it may then go away for a while, or we may move to the next feeling. Grief often comes in waves, sometimes out of the blue. It is a process which gets easier and less intense as we allow it to pass through.
Remember this time will pass. Before too long we will be in a different space, having learned much about ourselves and the world around us.
Take care. Stay safe.