Maybe you’re among the most fortunate in the coronavirus crisis – your loved ones are healthy and you’re sheltering at home.
Yet you still feel emotionally bulldozed by the pandemic. Those feelings of uncertainty, helplessness and exhaustion may be grief.
“A lot of people who I speak to, and I would include myself in this, we just feel flattened,” said Phyllis Kosminsky, a clinical social worker in Westchester County, New York, specializing in grief, loss and trauma.
“We’ve lost that sense of certainty, that sense of safety, that sense of predictability and so it stands to reason that all of that leaves us feeling dislocated and unsure about what’s going to happen next,” said Kosminsky, who is president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.
With more than 120,000 Covid-19 deaths recorded globally as of April 15, people all over the world are grieving the sudden loss of loved ones, and the intensity of those losses is clear.
But grief can come from the loss of anything we’re attached to deeply: the loss of economic stability, the loss of our ability to move around freely, the ability to participate in life’s milestones in person.
“The grief that people have difficulty naming is the sense of loss that we have for all that we thought we were secure in – like the loss of the illusion that we’re in control of our lives,” said Sonya Lott, a Philadelphia-based psychologist with advanced training in treating complicated grief.
Your high school or college senior might not have a graduation ceremony or your daughter might not have the wedding she’s dreamed of for years.
“We have to realize all those losses are grief, they are real grief,” said David Kessler, author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” which he wrote after the death of his 21-year-old son.
Guilt doesn’t help grief
While it’s easy to look at your situation and compare it with others who may have experienced more profound losses, judging your feelings isn’t helpful in honoring them and moving through them.
“As a bereaved parent, I want people to know that all tears count and all grief counts,” said Kessler, who co-authored two books with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, including an adaptation of her five stages of grief for bereavement.
“The woman whose wedding is canceled, yes, she’s going to get to have another wedding in three months or four months or six months, but she gets to have grief and be disappointed now,” he said.
People often feel guilty about being upset over the loss of their routine or their sense of control when they know others are suffering more.
“You know we compare, ‘well my loss isn’t as difficult as their loss.’ We don’t feel … empowered to acknowledge our grief because we think grief is only real or valid if someone dies,” Lott said.
But smaller losses are real and valid, too, and grieving them is part of taking care of ourselves.
“Because when we don’t honor it, it shows up in other ways: in our bodies, in our well-being – physically, emotionally, spiritually,” Lott said.
You can acknowledge any privilege you may have in facing this crisis while still honoring your losses, she said.
Restoration and gratitude are part of grieving
Being present in our sadness is important while at the same time holding as much gratitude or joy as we can, Lott said.
“It’s really important for us to be present to the loss as we’re moving through it, but it’s also important to stay present to the restoration, to the moving forward, to the finding the meaning in our living, to allowing moments of joy to come in to release some of the anguish,” Lott said.
Crying and screaming are healthy expressions of grief, therapists say, and dancing and singing can also be restorative expressions of emotion.
Humor is an innate coping strategy, Lott noted, as we’ve seen in the memes and the hilarious and creative lockdown videos, interviews and messages circulating on the Internet.
And then there are the efforts we make to rest and center ourselves – whether through sleep, exercise, meditation or a personal passion project.
Care for yourself
Self-care is part of the restoration process involved in grieving, but it doesn’t need to look like a checklist of achievements.
“You know people have told me that they’ve bought weight sets and they’re going to really get in shape while they’re home and then … they’re not lifting the weights they bought because they don’t realize that grief is exhausting,” Kessler said.
“Figuring out how to survive is exhausting. Going ‘oh my goodness, there’s the mailman, let me stand back six feet. I don’t want to make him sick, I don’t want him to make me sick. That’s exhausting,” he said.
One important element of taking care of yourself is setting boundaries.
Being able to say, “today is not the day” when someone comes to you with something you can’t presently deal with, Lott said, noting that women often struggle with feelings that taking care of yourself is somehow selfish.
Connection is essential and sometimes draining
While we can still reach out to loved ones by phone or Zoom and WhatsApp, the comfort of hugs and physical touch is off limits in many of our closest relationships, depriving us of the feel-good hormone oxytocin that helps us feel calm and loved.
But virtual connection is far better than nothing.
“Connect, connect, connect, connect as much as you can,” Lott said, but be aware of any tendency to be more present for other people than you are for yourself.
Kosminsky recognizes that reaching out to others can feel like a hurdle when we’re feeling the flatness that she and others have experienced during this period.
She recommends making a short list of people you really care about and scheduling calls with them.
“Don’t wait until you feel like calling your friend, or your mother, or your sister, because if you’re one of those people who never seem to really feel up to it, that feeling is not going to dissipate,” she said, noting that pacing ourselves is going to be key to coping with this crisis long-term.
Recognizing meaningful moments also helps balance feelings of loss
“I live on a street where I only knew a couple of neighbors’ names. We’re now all on a text chain. We ask, “Oh, does the elderly man at the end of the block need anything at the grocery?’ That’s meaningful,” Kessler said.
Don’t forget compassion
Being productive is hard when we’re grieving, and the things that nourish us – the self-care – can feel daunting.
“If you think about someone who’s in grief, do we ever say, ‘wow, when she was in grief, she sure ate well, she sure got the right amount of sleep, boy, she was very productive.’ That’s not what grief looks like,” Kessler said.
Put activities that bring you peace and moments of happiness at the center of caring for yourself.
“Whatever brings you joy. For me, I love jigsaw puzzles, and so I’m doing more of those,” Lott said.
Have compassion for yourself. Acknowledge that we’re living in abnormal times, and don’t criticize yourself for feeling grief, whether the loss involves death or not.
“Self care is always our goal, but you know this is about progress, not perfection,” Kessler said.
“And we’re measuring ourselves by a goal in normal times. ‘Oh, I bought the weights, why aren’t I doing them? Oh, I don’t have to get up in the morning, why aren’t I sleeping enough?’”
That would be because you’re in the middle of a pandemic, he said.
“Let those words in: You’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
It’s stressful and uncharted. Be kind to yourself.
Correction: The global number of Covid-19 deaths cited in a previous version of this story was for April, not March as originally written.