This situation may seem unclear because many people are experiencing tremendous loss as a result of this pandemic: loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of health, loss of jobs, and income. There is also the loss of the customary rituals of funerals and communities gathering to grieve together. But what might be less obvious are the smaller losses that also affect our emotional health.
Right now, the tragic losses of life, health, and jobs are the losses experienced by people of all ages. In reality, missed graduations and proms, canceled sports seasons and performances, postponed weddings and vacations, separation from family and friends when we need them most. We have lost the predictability of daily life. The notion that there will be eggs and toilet paper on supermarket shelves, that we can safely touch a doorknob with our bare hands, that we can get a haircut and our teeth cleaned or spend a Saturday afternoon at the movies.
So, yes, there is collective anxiety surrounding COVID-19, but there’s also cumulative loss. Here are some ways to help navigate through the grief.
Acknowledge the grief
Although anxiety is unpleasant, it can be easier to acknowledge anxiety than to recognize the pain. That’s because there are two kinds of anxiety: productive and unproductive anxiety. We can turn our fear into something productive (using our worry to take actions such as hand-washing, social distancing, sending meals to elderly relatives, or calling a neighbor who lives alone). Or unproductive (spending all day clicking on the latest coronavirus headlines). Either way, anxiety tends to be active.
Grieving, on the other hand, is a much quieter process. It requires us to sit with our pain, to feel a kind of sadness that makes many of us so uncomfortable that we try to get rid of it. Even under normal circumstances, we do this to ourselves and our children.
A child might say, “I’m sad,” and the parent says, “Oh, don’t be sad. Hey, let’s go get some ice cream!” In the age of coronavirus, a child might say: “I’m so sad that I’m missing seeing my friends every day” and the parent, trying to lessen the child’s pain, might say: “But honey, we’re so lucky that we’re not sick and you’ll get to see your friends soon!” A more helpful reply might be: “I know how sad you are about this. You miss being with your friends so much. It’s a big loss not to have that.”
Just as our kids need to have their grief acknowledged, we need to recognize our own. We tend to mistake feeling less for feeling better, but it helps to remember that the feelings are still there. In reality, they’ll just come out in other ways: in an inability to sit still, in being short-tempered (which is especially problematic in close quarters), in a lack of appetite or a struggle to control one’s appetite, in an inability to concentrate or sleep.
The more we can say to ourselves and the people around us, “Yes, these are meaningful losses,” the more seen and soothed we will feel.
Stay in the present and acknowledge your deep feelings.
With COVID-19, on top of the tangible losses, there’s the uncertainty about how long this will last and what will happen next that leaves us mourning our current losses as well as ones we haven’t experienced yet. (No Easter, no prom, no birthday parties, and what if this means we can’t go on summer vacation?)
Ambiguous grief can leave us in a state of ongoing mourning, so we need to stay grounded in the present. Instead of catastrophizing — ruminating about losses that haven’t happened yet (and may never happen); we may have lost our sense of normalcy, but we can still stay present for the ordinary right in front of us.
Mindfulness reminds us that pain and sorrow, like all else, are impermanent. Does this mean grief goes away completely? Of course not. But it does mean that it will change shape and form, it will ebb and flow, some days it will hurt like hell and some days you will start to smile. It means that our grief, like everything else, is impermanent and ever-changing. When you stay in the present moment, you recognize your emotions and the profound loss you are feeling.
Let people experience loss in their way.
Loss is universal; how we grieve is deeply personal.
In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. Even Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s familiar stages of grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — aren’t meant to be linear. Everyone uniquely moves through loss, so it’s important to let people do their grieving in whatever way works for them without diminishing their losses or pressuring them to grieve the way you are—a good rule of thumb: you do you (and let others do them).