Grief during COVID-19

We are all experiencing grief related to the upheaval and uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. It is okay that you are still grieving, even though we are months into COVID-19. We have all experienced disruption to our lives, and find ourselves trying to cope with a longing for old routines and life prior to COVID-19. Perhaps you are experiencing very painful losses such as the illness or death of a family member or friend, or the understandable sorrow of a cancelled graduation, wedding or vacation, feelings of continued uncertainty, the inability to reschedule a trip, loneliness from not seeing or hugging your friends, or the loss of your business, job or stable finances. COVID-19 has hit each of us hard, and has dramatically impacted our mental health.

With all of this rapid change occurring, it can be easy to forget that your body is going through a traumatic event, and thus not recognize the grief you’re experiencing. For example, you may notice anger related to routine changes and shut downs, then be able accept those changes, only to become angry again a few days (or even hours) later. You may notice yourself feeling more irritable, sad, easily distracted or overwhelmed and may not attribute this directly to the changes brought on by COVID-19. While these changes in emotions and mood can feel confusing and overwhelming, they may be linked to grief. Understanding the stages of grief that accompany loss can help us to understand our emotional experiences and validate that they are there for a reason. Emotions are here to help us. Some emotions are signals that something in our life is out of alignment or unsafe or “off.” By learning about emotions, tuning into our feelings, and then being curious about them, we are able to better understand what we need to find peace and emotional stability.

Stages of Grief

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called On Death and Dying and proposed five stages of grief. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages of grief are widely accepted in psychology; however, individuals cope with loss uniquely and will not necessarily experience the stages in order or in any specific time frame. The process of grief is not a linear one, and it is common for people to cycle through these stages repeatedly, especially on anniversaries, during times of stress, or when reminded of a prior loss. Remember, a loss is not necessarily just the death of a loved one, but can include any of the changes related to employment, finances, hobbies, time or celebrations mentioned earlier. Additionally, if you have previously experienced a significant and/or traumatic loss in your life, feelings of grief and loss may surface again now, at a time when you are facing losses related to COVID-19.

Denial may come in the form of shock, dismissal or avoidance (“This can’t be happening; This isn’t real”). Denial may also be experienced as feeling numb, disconnected, or desiring to isolate from others. Denial helps to cushion the intensity of the loss and can be the body’s way to try to protect itself when the situation feels overwhelming.

Anger can look like irritability, snappiness or frustration. The anger can be aimed at oneself, friends, family, medical professional, or larger organizations and institutions. Anger can feel scary to some people, but it is your body communicating something important to you. It is recognizing that you have been hurt and are feeling deeply. Give yourself permission to feel the anger (Where do you feel the anger in your body – what specifically physical sensations? How intense does it feel on a scale of 1-10?). Feeling the anger is different than acting on the anger (e.g. yelling). Invite yourself to notice what feelings may be underneath the anger (e.g. sadness, shame, remorse, anxiety, loneliness, etc.)

Bargaining means we are often living in the past and trying to create a different outcome for the loss we experienced. You may notice yourself saying things like, “If only…” or “What if…” which can give the illusion of having control over the situation. This is especially true if you have been feeling powerless, helpless or had self-blame. It is painful to be grieving, so you may also be bargaining to reduce the pain (“If I could just get my old routine back, I vow to do more to…”)

Depression is a painful stage. It can be experienced as a general feeling of sadness, hopelessness, fogginess, or apathy. You have just experienced a major change, and your body is acknowledging and honoring that. The hole that something or someone leaves creates intense feelings of sorrow as you recognize what is different now, and try to create a new norm. Often sadness is a sign of how much you loved or valued what you had. Feelings of sadness are understandable and normal. This is not an indication you have clinical depression, but rather than you are adjusting and grieving.

Acceptance does not mean you like the situation, but that you realize this is your new reality and do not fight against that. Though this was not necessarily what you wanted, acceptance allows you to recognize what is, and to find or create peace or calm amidst this change. It gives you the space to learn to make new routines and find other meaningful ways to be in the world.

Healing while Grieving

Learning about the stages of grief may help you feel more calm, as it can provide insight and validate what you may be experiencing. You are resilient and doing your best during a very hard situation! It is important to take time to acknowledge the losses and emotions you are experiencing so that you can work through them. Are there certain aspects of your pre-COVID-19 life that you are missing the most? Reflect on those things and brainstorm ways to recreate, re-invent, or honor those things. Have you lost someone that you love during the pandemic? Allow yourself time to reflect on your relationship with that person, ways you can honor their memory and continue to feel connected to them. Have you lost a job and financial security? Take time to list the ways the loss has impacted you and any (understandable) feelings of anger, fear, shame, etc. that may accompany that loss. No matter your situation, consider adding the following to your daily routine: journaling, deep breathing, mindfulness practices, meditation, prayer, yoga, physical exercise, time in nature, creating art, or connecting with a trusted friend.

Daily self care. Take an inventory of things that give you a sense of peace or joy in your life. How can you incorporate at least 5 minutes of those things into your life each day?

Practice self compassion. It is important to treat yourself with the same kindness you give others (self-compassion). Be gentle with yourself right now. Notice the way you talk to yourself in your mind (your internal dialogue) and work to make this dialogue more gentle and compassionate. Most of us are harsh critics of ourselves. This may be even more true if you are experiencing grief and loss. Rather than, “I’m such an idiot. I can’t figure this out,” try “This is hard and I feel discouraged.” or “I can’t figure it out, yet. I’m doing the best I can and will get it.”

Create a routine and new traditions. Routines are one way to establish a sense of control and consistency that can get lost during times of grief. Experiment with what type of routine works best for you. Some people enjoy very structured routines that consist of waking, eating, dressing, working, etc. at specific times of the day. Other people tend to thrive on daily rhythms, where events may happen in a particular order but not necessarily at a set time. If you have experienced a loss that has upended your life, such as a job loss, create lists of things to do or people to network with. An organized list can bring a sense of organization, lessen feelings of being overwhelmed, and provide a sense of structure and control that is important. Explore ways to set new routines and traditions in the midst of COVD-19.

It may be time to seek additional support if you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed by this process; if your daily life is feeling very effortful; your relationships have been suffering; if you have experienced a prior loss and did not grieve it or it still feels painful; or someone you trust has suggested counseling. Therapy provides a supportive space for you to work with a professional who has helped many others in this situation. You are not alone and would be honored to help you in this process. Together we will make it through this.

Authored by: Dr. Sasha Mondragon, Ph.D. and Dr. Jennifer Martin, Ph.D.

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