The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an epidemiological as well as a psychological crisis. For many of us, this experience has activated feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness. Now more than ever, it is important to recognize that we are in the middle of a collective grief experience. As the pandemic has evolved, people have had to confront a series of losses including safety, social connection, as well as our sense of self.
Traditionally, we relate to feelings of grief after losing someone we love. This continues to be a reality for many with the number of people becoming ill steadily increasing and the death toll on the rise. There is also a wide range of losses unrelated to health as we are all grieving life as it used to be.
Many of these losses we’re experiencing now are ambiguous and come in a series; this can make it difficult to move forward. For many, loss of secure employment has resulted in loss of financial security and identity. Families who were financially comfortable just weeks ago are now having to apply for and anticipate government assistance, as well as apply for forgiveness or forbearance for student loans, utility bills and insurance policies. The world seems to be changing in ways that many of us have never seen in our lifetimes.
We are dealing with the loss of our freedoms, routines and future plans. Our regular customs have been placed on hold and the familiarity and comfort that comes from knowing what to expect day in and day out has largely (and temporarily) disappeared. At large, anticipated plans, ceremonial traditions and celebrations have also been postponed or even cancelled.
By beginning to understand our shared experience of grief, we can gain insight into our individual and collective responses. The process of grief has been described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross as having five different stages: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. These stages are fluid, and we each move through them in our own ways and at our own pace, even sometimes repeating stages.
Today, denial can be expressed with statements such as, “The media has blown this out of proportion. This virus is just like the flu.” Denial aids in the service of self-preservation. It typically occurs when we experience vulnerability or perceive a threat to our sense of control.
Anger may sound like, “Forget sheltering in place, I don’t care what they say, let’s have people come over.” Anger can be, for some, a natural reaction that emerges as an attempt to gain control over their fear. We exemplify this by turning hostile, blaming others, or by simply refusing to comply.
Bargaining occurs when we start to acknowledge reality while maintaining the perception of control through compromise. An example of bargaining in today’s context might be expressed as, “As long as everyone washes their hands, it’s okay to spend time with our neighbors tonight.” This is our way of finding the middle ground.
Despair, or a sense of hopelessness, may sound like, “This pandemic is the new normal and if I can’t bring home a steady income, how will I feed my family?” During this stage, we tend to think nothing can help, despite the evidence presented to the contrary.
And finally, acceptance occurs when we are able to effectively process what is happening and has happened to us. For example, “I can’t control the pandemic but I can do my part by sheltering in place.” This is the stage where we are able to effectively problem solve and can tend to be more open-minded to range of suggestions and possibilities.
For those of us grieving life as it used to be, remember that this is temporary. The way in which we think about this pandemic can help our process of grief immensely. Talking about these emotions and stages with those that you trust helps promote healing through normalization; as we have all experienced loss in some way. Here are some suggestions for dealing with virus-related losses.
- Losses are unique. As previously mentioned we have all been impacted by this pandemic. Lead with compassion while recognizing both large and small losses. Comparing circumstances or one’s response to loss can feel trivializing. It’s important to remember that there is no hierarchy in grief; grieving simply relates to how you process your feelings.
- Allow yourself to grieve – Giving yourself permission by intentionally setting a time and space to feel a particular emotion can happen in a variety of ways and with or without people. If you begin to notice an undesired emotion creeping in, rather than pushing it aside immediately, pay attention and take a moment to acknowledge that feeling before moving on. It’s moments like these when the brain alerts us that there may still be some processing to do.
- Notice the positive – Gratitude practice! Take the time to write down three good things every day and review your list weekly. This difficult time can reveal new ways of doing things we did not know were possible as well as advance our understanding as to what is most important in our lives.
- Join in – Despite the social distancing practices, we still need to connect with our support systems. There are plenty of options available to us in order to safely interact and connect with loved ones. We may not be able to hug them momentarily, but we can certainly communicate our endearment to one another in creative ways.
- Control what you can – Being intentional with our actions and attitude can help is to feel empowered. We cannot control what our neighbor is doing, but a personal decision to practice social distancing can give us a sense of safety and control.
- Seek help – Experiencing stress, anxiety and sadness are what makes us human. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) has over 600 state organizations across the nation, find your local NAMI to access general information and resources about COVID-19 available to you here.
We also welcome you to reach out and schedule a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with myself or any one of my knowledgeable colleagues at Lindsey Hoskins & Associates. We are here to support you during these unprecedented times by offering virtual therapy services to new and existing clients.
Lindsay Enright, MS, LCMFT provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda office and virtually. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsay.