I had a relatively dramatic moment a few days ago that brought me to the realization that I wasn’t giving enough acknowledgement to the losses and to the grief that accompanies this COVID-19 pandemic. I actually yelled at a complete stranger, something I have never done in my lifetime. As I sat down for some much-needed reflection, I realized I was experiencing one of the stages of grief: anger. It was time to review the stages of grief and how to cope.
Grief is a natural response to loss
Some of the losses we are experiencing (and they are many!) during this COVID-19 pandemic may be difficult to name. At the same time, the standard piece of advice from grief experts is to acknowledge it and name it. While we usually associate grief with the death of someone, any loss can trigger grief. To help, I have identified a couple of less obvious types of losses you may be experiencing.
Ambiguous loss is an unclear loss with no resolution or closure. There isn’t a single defining point, like death. This ambiguity and uncertainty makes grieving more complicated.
Isn’t that exactly what we are experiencing as we live through this pandemic? Life as we knew it has and will change dramatically. We are trying to make sense of the changes and losses and what our lives will look like down the road. We are also grieving a living loss – a loss that keeps going and going.
With ambiguous losses, there is often a vagueness in terms of how we feel and we may not be inclined to put words to these losses. Feeling confused, hopeless, disoriented, discombobulated, or overwhelmed is a normal response to ambiguity and uncertainty. For some, it may feel more like a discomfort or we may just feel ‘off’.
Anticipatory losses and grief
Anticipatory losses are the feelings we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. And uncertainty is one of the defining features of this pandemic. Grief expert, David Kessler, says that with a virus, this kind of grief is confusing for people because we know something bad is happening but we can’t see it. Being unable to see it results in feeling a loss of safety.
Many people are also grappling with anticipatory grief, or the feeling that greater loss is yet to come. You may recognize it as the feeling that comes with a life- threatening diagnosis or when anticipating the loss of a parent in the future.
Caregivers and anticipatory grief
For caregivers, anticipatory grief may be looming large and slipping into worst-case scenarios for aging parents, family members who are living in retirement homes and long-term care homes, and other people more vulnerable to severe outcomes and possibly death from COVID-19 pandemic.
Tips on how to cope with losses and grief
- Name it.
Like all other feelings, acknowledging and naming the feeling is what helps us move through the feeling. Our feelings are fluid. That is, they are fluid IF we allow them to flow and don’t resist them by trying to shut them down or bypass them. Just knowing that what you’re going through has a name (ambiguous losses for example) and being able to recognize it is the first step in building resilience to the losses, says Dr. Boss. It allows us to begin to create some meaning from the loss.
- Understand the stages of grief.
There is a ‘but’ that comes with this. David Kessler reminds us that the stages he and Kubler Ross developed are not linear and were always intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, and more recently, Kessler added a sixth stage, meaning. Kessler has described how these stages may play out in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic:
There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.
- Identify your strengths and coping skills.
While none of us have experienced a pandemic like this before, we have all had difficult transitions in our lives, from deaths of loved ones, to divorces and job losses. How did you get through those difficult times?
- Be compassionate with yourself and others.
Kessler puts it this way: “Our hearts know how to grieve, but our minds work against us. Wouldn’t it be great if we felt more love and compassion for ourselves in grief.” To foster more love and compassion, here is a self-compassion exercise. In terms of compassion for others, it is important to know that everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A great way to extend compassion to others is through a loving-kindness exercise.
- Balance worst-case scenarios with best or better case scenarios.
Anticipatory grief can move into intense anxiety. To prevent this, you can balance worst case scenarios with opposite or ‘better case’ ones. This is not about pushing the worst-case scenarios away. That won’t work. Instead, try to balance them. For example, balance imagining your parent or someone you love dying from COVID-19, with a focus on imagining them living through this pandemic. Balance by focusing on thoughts such as: not everyone you love will die; the world will continue; a new ‘normal’ will develop; human beings are resilient; we are taking the right steps to flatten the curve.
- Bring yourself into the present.
Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. While most of us will recognize this as mindfulness, you don’t have to meditate to bring yourself into the present. You can use grounding techniques like: naming five things in the room; paying attention to your in and out breath; using your senses and naming how you feel (the air is cool, my chair is soft, the coffee smells good, etc.). Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick.
The good news is that people tend to be resilient in the face of grief. Once the immediate crisis has passed, and it will pass, even if we don’t know when, we will find a way to adapt and create a new life for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
What are you doing to cope with all the losses and collective grief we are all experiencing?