Emotional healing from the COVID-19 pandemic will take time.
Emotions are running on a roller coaster for many people these days. The feeling of dismay, confusion, fear, an overall sense of sadness ... all totally normal to be feeling right now. And there's a name for this feeling, and it's not anxiety or depression. It's grief.
Although some may not be touched by death on a personal basis, the reality is that over 60,000 Americans have died in six weeks’ time, at the time of this writing. The magnitude of that statement takes some time to sink in. We, as a nation, are grieving—and it's okay for us to admit that. We've seen so much sickness and death, we've lost our jobs and sense of stability ...
Grief is a natural reaction to a great loss and both a personal and universal experience, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most often associated with death, humans can also experience grief after a romantic breakup, losing a job, being a victim of theft, or experiencing an illness. Grief can take on physical and mental symptoms; we can feel tired, angry, confused, want to sleep more, have headaches and stomach issues, or engage in excess drinking, eating, or other activities to try and cope with these feelings. Grief doesn't discriminate, as it affects people of all ages, races, and genders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything we have come to know as normal and changed our expectations for the future, trigging a process of widespread grief. The Harvard Business Review points to the work of David Kessler, “the world’s foremost expert on grief”, and his wife Elizabeth to explain what we may be feeling right now.
“We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” Kessler told the Harvard Business Review.
One of the kinds of grief we may be experiencing, according to Kessler, is anticipatory grief—not knowing what the future holds, but knowing that something bad is coming. We fear that greater loss is yet to come, we grieve for what we have already lost, and we grow anxious, lonely, even angry. Kessler describes it as "the mind going to the future and imagining the worst."
He advises, "to calm yourself, you want to come into the present. This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be."
Kessler spoke with Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and author who has spent her career studying the human psyche and emotions, particularly in the area of vulnerability, courage, shame, and empathy. He describes in her podcast about the topic of grief that we are all experiencing, “a collective sense of loss of the world we knew.” You can listen to the full podcast Unlocking Us with Brené Brown right here.
Acknowledging that we are grieving is a good first step. There are ways we can work to help ourselves and those around us cope with grief:
- Please remember that your feelings are valid, true, and justified and you should feel no shame or annoyance at yourself or anyone else for feeling this way right now. Allow yourself to feel, and be kind to yourself—you're doing nothing wrong in feeling this way, or in taking care of yourself.
- Self-care is a top priority in a time of loss, and it may be hard to make yourself do it. Lack of self-care adds to our feelings of being down, so focusing on this is a particularly good idea. Keep yourself clean, make sure you eat, sleep, let yourself feel good. Whatever self-care regimen you use that makes you feel nice, try and do that. Exercise, get fresh air, let yourself relax, keep up with these activities that make you feel physically and mentally good.
- Do not expect yourself to just feel better one day. Grief takes time, it's not a linear process, and it's different for everyone. You will need time to work through your grief, do not try and rush it. Eventually, you will accept the changes in your life and move on—you may even find that you grow from them—however, there is no set time limit or timeframe for when you should feel better.
- Give yourself something positive to focus on, and turn that angst and unruly energy into something productive. Many people find writing soothing, even if it's simply allowing your current feelings to be put to paper. The concept of a pandemic journal has been floating around, and it's a good outlet for feelings, as well as a way to chronicle the experience of living through a pandemic.
- You do not have to go this alone. Allow yourself to reach out to others, connect through social media, send a text, write a letter, make a phone call, set up a virtual happy hour or game night. Just reach out and connect, even in small ways, as it will help you feel less alone and allow you to get some of this funky feeling off your chest. You may find that you can help others work through their feelings of grief, and that can be an incredibly positive and uplifting experience.
- Reach out for support if you need help. There are many options out there that can help people cope with grief in this time of the pandemic. The Grief Resource Network has nationwide resources and information on how to connect with the right kind of support.
Have you felt any feelings of grief or sadness during the pandemic? How have you been handling them? Share any resources or helpful support options in the comments.