Loss is one of life’s most stressful events. It takes time to heal, and everyone responds differently. We may need help to cope with the changes in our lives. Grief is part of being human, but that doesn’t mean we have to go through the journey alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many of us to change the way we go about our daily lives. With those changes, some of us are experiencing a wave of losses: economic, social, physical and emotional. For some, these losses may build up and lead to feelings of grief. Why is it important to accept and allow these feelings? Only by acknowledging the grief we’re going through can we take steps to heal.
It may come as a surprise to realize that grief can be a reaction to events other than death. Such emotional reactions may include shock, numbness, denial, anger, fear, anxiety, panic and guilt as individuals learn to live with loss. Even authors such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, who have described grief as occurring in stages, point out grief is not linear. It’s normal to experience a variety of emotions, and grief is often described as being like a roller coaster. Another analogy is what Dr. Alan Wolfelt phrases “the wilderness of grief,” a journey that’s very unpredictable and difficult to navigate.
What is Grief?
Grief (also called bereavement) is the experience of loss. Many people associate grief with the death of an important person. However, people experience grief after any important loss that affects their life, such as the loss of a job or relationship. Grief after diagnosis of an illness or other health problem is also common.
People experience grief in many different ways—and experience many different thoughts or feelings during the journey. People may feel shocked, sad, angry, scared, or anxious. Some feel numb or have a hard time feeling emotions at all. At times, many people even feel relief or peace after a loss.
Grief is complicated. There is no one way to experience grief. Feelings, thoughts, reactions, and challenges related to grief are very personal. Some people have thoughts or feelings that seem at odds with each other. For example, someone may feel very depressed about their loss but accept the loss at the same time. Many people find that the intensity of their grief changes a lot over time. Holidays can often bring up strong feelings, for example. People work through grief in their own time and on their own path.
Types of Grief
Ambiguous grief is a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding and often results in unresolved feelings. The rapidness of our lives changing during the pandemic has caused many to be left with a real sense of unease. The losses we are experiencing are not typically acknowledged as losses by our friends and families, such as losing our confidence in the future, losing our security that we’ll graduate by a specific date or losing our feelings of control over our own lives. All of these are losses that we may grieve, but we have no rituals or even language to acknowledge them as such.
Latent (hidden) grief is often associated with caregivers of individuals with dementia. It attributes caregiver burden to the hidden grief that comes with losses associated with dementia, such as loss of memory, loss of relationships as they once were, or loss of mobility. Each time the person living with dementia changes, they and those around them grieve those changes. The thought is that addressing the hidden feelings of grief can diminish the burden. Similarly, losses, both big and small, can build up and lead to overwhelming feelings of loss, sadness, powerlessness, anxiety and depression.
Anticipatory grief refers to our feelings of grief even before a loss occurs. For example, we may be worried about a very ill family member and already feel that we are grieving them. Or we may be anticipating even more loss of income and financial insecurity. Even though our worst fears may not come to pass, anticipating them can lead to legitimate feelings of grief.
Losses and COVID-19
COVID-19 has brought dramatic changes to our lives, including many losses, such as:
• Economic security: The pandemic has resulted in large unemployment numbers, a fear of further job loss and an economic recession.
• Health: Fears of contracting COVID-19 have led to increased health risks for the most vulnerable. Of particular note is secondary harm for people who need care but are avoiding hospitals, or for those who can’t access their doctor easily due to increased demand due to the pandemic. This situation has also highlighted existing and persisting health inequalities. The heaviest burden of this pandemic will be felt by those facing the greatest economic, health and social inequities.
• Food security: Food is both a necessity and a source of comfort. The financial crisis, closure of social services and increasing pressure on our safety net has resulted in a growing number of Canadians living in hunger.
• Friends: Despite the virtual connections available, for many the inability to connect with friends and family in the same physical space has led to isolation and loneliness. Humans need connection.
• Ceremony/tradition (graduation, funerals, weddings): The traditional markers for milestones have been cancelled or shifted online, leaving many with unresolved feelings.
• Stability/safety: The home environment does not provide safety and security for everyone. Cases of domestic and child abuse are currently on the rise.
• Sense of personal freedom: While physical distancing measures are now a necessity, they may leave individuals feeling like a prisoner in their own homes.
• Future dreams: With the turmoil of the pandemic, many have put future plans and hopes on hold. This loss of hope can be particularly painful.
• Death: Many have lost a family member or friend to COVID-19.
• Academic stability: For parents and students alike, the added stress of homeschooling, concerns about impact on their future education and uncertainty of when and how schools will reopen has created great strain.
What Can I Do About It?
People express or talk about grief in different ways, but we all feel grief after a loss. In most cases, people navigate through grief with help from loved ones and other supporters and, in time, go back to their daily life. Some people need extra help from a mental health professional. Grief can be more complicated when the loss is sudden or unexpected, frightening, the result of an accident or disaster, or the result of a crime. Other factors also play a role. A person’s experience of mental illness, lack of personal and social supports, and difficult personal relationships can also affect the impact of grief. A type of counselling called grief counselling supports people through difficulties around grief.
Here are Some Tips to Help you Through Your Journey:
- Name it. In naming our feelings as grief, we can begin to understand the underlying emotions it brings and address them. Emotions are not right or wrong. However, we need to recognize that we’ll experience such feelings as denial, anger, frustration and sadness, and that we need to feel the depths of our pain in order to work through our grief. Responses to loss and how people experience and express grief vary greatly by individual. It’s also important to remember grief is a process, not an event or a race. With support and the willingness to do the difficult work, we can get through it.
- Validate it. We need to recognize all feelings and acknowledge them as important without judgement. Suppressing our feelings or feeling guilty for having them doesn’t allow us to take steps to resolve them. Encouraging ourselves and those around us to mourn all losses, big and small, is key.
- Mourn. To assist in further understanding the difficult journey of grief, Dr. William Worden developed The Four Tasks of Mourning. Again, these are not linear, and everyone’s journey is unique. While the tasks were created around mourning the death of an individual, they can also be applied to other loss.They include:
1. To accept the reality of the loss.
2. Experience and process the pain of grief.
3. Adjust to the world without the deceased or with the loss.
4. Find a way to maintain a connection with the deceased/loss, while embarking on your own life.
- Celebrate the good. While COVID-19 has brought great uncertainty and loss, we can also find meaning in the good it may have brought into our lives: closer ties, time for reflection, realization of what is important to us and what our priorities are. Spending time writing in a journal and acknowledging the things for which we’re grateful can be a simple yet valuable exercise.
- Routine. At a time when life feels particularly chaotic, setting a routine is important and ensures we have a mixture of social, physical and educational activities in our day. Routine doesn’t mean rigidity, but it can offer a sense of control.
- Self-Care. Time constraints still exist. Virtual work, study, child and elder care, and even socializing can result in a hectic schedule. Ensure there’s still time for self-care (however that may look). Taking a walk, exercising and meditating are all ways we can be kind to ourselves. Click here for a guided 20 minute meditation.
- Avoid Comparing. It’s easy to compare ourselves to individuals who are coping differently with the current situation. Especially when we’re already feeling low, it can drain us of our limited energy and can lead to resentment towards others and towards ourselves. Instead, focus on your own strengths and coping strategies. Listing your strengths and issues you have overcome is an effective way of highlighting and celebrating your own ability to cope.
- Connect with caring and supportive people virtually or over the telephone. This might include loved ones, neighbours, and co-workers. We are currently offering a supportive telephone counselling service that you’re welcome to reach out to.
- Give yourself enough time. Everyone reacts differently to a loss and there is no normal grieving period.
- Let yourself feel sadness, anger, or whatever you need to feel. Find healthy ways to share your feelings and express yourself, such as talking with friends or writing in a journal.
- Recognize that your life has changed. You may feel less engaged with work or relationships for some time. This is a natural part of loss and grief.
- Reach out for help. Loved ones may want to give you privacy and may not feel comfortable asking you how you’re doing, so don’t be afraid to ask for their support. Again, we are available for supportive telephone counselling (see information above).
- Holidays and other important days can be very hard. It may be helpful to plan ahead and think about new traditions or celebrations that support healing.
- Take care of your physical health. Be aware of any physical signs of stress or illness, and speak with your doctor if you feel that your grief is affecting your health. Here is an article on the connection between physical and mental health for more information.
- Offer support to other loved ones who are grieving. Reaching out to others may be helpful in your own journey.
- Be honest with young people about what has happened and about how you feel, and encourage them to share their feelings, too.
- Work through difficult feelings like bitterness and blame. These feelings can make it harder to move forward in your life.
- Think about waiting before making major life decisions. You may feel differently as your feelings of grief lose their intensity, and the changes may add to the stress you’re already experiencing.
How Can I Help a Loved One?
Be there for your loved one
Although it might not be possible for you to be with your loved one in person during this time, show them that you’re there for them by giving them a call, participating in a video chat or by dropping meals off on their front porch. Grief can be overwhelming, but support and understanding can make a huge difference.
Understand that a loved one needs to follow their own journey in their own way
This means that they might not process their grief in the same way you do and need to express their feelings in their own way.
Ask your loved one what they need
Regularly remind them that you’re there for support if they aren’t ready to talk with others yet. Remember to offer practical help, too. During this time of physical distancing, dropping off meals or offering to do the groceries may be just the support your loved one needs.
Talk about the loss
It’s common to avoid the topic and focus on a loved one’s feelings instead, but many people find sharing thoughts, memories, and stories comforting.
Remember that grief might be bigger than loss
For example, if someone loses a partner may also feel a lot of grief or stress around financial security and other matters.
Help your loved one connect with support services if they experience a lot of difficulties.
Take care of your own well-being and seek help if you need it.
The supportive telephone counselling service mentioned above, is also available for you if you need someone to talk to.
- 640 Toronto interview with CEO Rebecca Shields—Mourning in a time of social isolation (Apr.22, 2020)
- Loss and Grief During the COVID-19 Pandemic (PDF)- CMHA Ontario
- CMHA Grieving Brochure