Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, health care professionals have expressed concern about the short-term and long-term effects the pandemic may have on mental health. Not surprisingly, the concern most often expressed is depression and anxiety. However, there is one very real, very present aspect of mental health that needs immediate emphasis: grief and loss.
What Is Grief, Exactly?
When you hear the words “grief and loss,” chances are you immediately think of losing someone through death—and rightly so. But did you know that it is not only appropriate but also necessary, to grieve other kinds of losses?
Grief is the process our brains go through as we adapt to new circumstances brought about by a loss of some kind.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, studied grief and loss extensively. She theorized that in the process of grieving, the human mind goes through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (It’s beyond the scope of this article to examine each stage in detail, but if you’re interested, please read her book On Death and Dying.) She said that the stages didn’t always come one right after the other. For example, a person could be sad and depressed at the loss (“I miss Dad so much I can’t stand it…”) and feel angry (“Dad shouldn’t have driven when he’d been drinking!”) and be in denial (“I just can’t believe Dad is dead…”), all at the same time.
As you can see, grief can be a mish-mash of different unbearable emotions unrelentingly crushing the mind and heart.
We humans are “programmed” to socialize. As a result, cultures all over the world have rituals around death and mourning, and they generally include getting together in large groups to remember the dead and to comfort one another. But these days, when we are mandated to stay away from each other, the comforting rituals are interrupted, making grieving especially difficult. In fact, if a loved one has the coronavirus, we cannot be near them to hug them, to give them encouragement, or to say goodbye. Our grief is multiplied as we, and the dying, face death in isolation.
It’s Not Only Death…
As if the massive loss of life caused by the pandemic weren’t enough to have to come to grips with, we face other types of losses that cause just as much grief as death does.
Here are a few scenarios that may trigger a grief response:
- Loss of job
- Loss of income
- Loss of sense of safety and security
- Loss of a sense of being carefree
- Loss of control over one’s daily life and destiny
- Loss of contact with loved ones
- Loss of daily routine
- Loss of freedom to live life without a mask or social distancing
- Loss of planned events (graduations, weddings, funerals)
- Loss of traditions to support the grieving process
- Loss of the world you knew
Each of these significant losses requires that you grieve in order to adapt to a “new normal.”
But I Feel Guilty…And So Should You!
An unfortunate characteristic of us humans is that we tend to judge—not only judge others, but also judge ourselves. It’s something we need to avoid like the plague, because it’s incredibly destructive. Following are two examples:
- Mary lived in a region that was subject to tornados. One summer day the unthinkable happened: a tornado destroyed her home and those of several of her neighbors. Mary survived by sheltering in place. Her next-door neighbor Penny lost not only her home, but also her mother, who was in Penny’s back yard and was unable to get to safety in time.
Mary was grateful to have survived, but she was devastated that the storm destroyed all her children’s baby pictures and other precious, irreplaceable family mementos. She wept when she thought of that part of her history being gone forever.
Then she started feeling guilty for feeling bad. “Penny lost her mother, after all! I shouldn’t feel sad. I’ve just lost ‘things’.” Every time Mary started to cry over her own loss, she started feeling guilty and told herself, “You have no right to feel sad! Shame on you!”
The Lesson: Don’t compare your loss to anyone else’s. You have the right to feel any way that you feel, no matter what your circumstances or the circumstances of others. Grief is valid for any loss, not only when someone dies. And no loss is “better” or “worse” than another. Your healing will come more quickly if you acknowledge the fullness of your loss.
- Sandra had been divorced for four years when she heard that her ex-husband Jim had died in a traffic accident. Although the marriage had been difficult, not all of the times had been bad ones. She began to cry uncontrollably when she learned of his death.
When Sandra told her friend Linda about Jim’s death, she was shocked at Linda’s angry response: “You have no right to feel sad after all he put you through! You should be glad he’s dead! I don’t feel one bit of sympathy for you!”
The Lesson: No one has the right to tell you how you should or should not feel in any given circumstance. The truth is you are entitled to feel whatever you feel. Ignore the judgmental comments of others and grieve your loss freely.
Care For Yourself
It’s extremely important to take good care of yourself as you grieve the losses the pandemic has produced in your life. Grief applies an inordinate amount of stress to body, mind, and spirit, and stress can have negative consequences on your wellbeing. Get enough rest, exercise, and proper nutrition.
Even though the grieving process is healing, it’s no fun. That being said, humour is an innate coping strategy and is an important part of healing. Don’t judge yourself, or anyone else, if you experience light moments. It’s an important part of the restorative process.
Try to continue your hobbies or other activities you can safely enjoy. Set and maintain healthy boundaries. If someone comes to you with a request, don’t be afraid to say no if you feel you can’t deal with it. Be good to yourself.
You Can Do This!
Remember when we used to be able to board an airplane without going through security checks? When we could take our computers and other electronics with us—no questions asked? When we didn’t have to take off our shoes in order to be approved to fly? When we could get on the plane with a bottle of water brought from home?
There was grumbling when the new restrictions were imposed. Grumbling at change is human nature; we love routine and predictability. It makes us feel safe and in control.
But we survived the changes in air travel. What initially felt like such huge impositions on our freedom are now routine. We hardly give them a second thought. Maybe we have to get to the airport earlier than we used have to so that we can stand in line at security. But we adapted. Now it’s no big deal.
You’ll get through this pandemic. Allow yourself to grieve your losses, but look toward the future too, because it will come and will bring new and rewarding aspects to life.
And remember, even though we must physically distance ourselves from each other, we are all in this together. We at Elumind Centres for Brain Excellence understand what you are going through and are ready and willing to assist you.