Grief is commonly linked to the experience that comes after losing someone we care deeply about, often through death. However, there are different kinds of grief and many of them have nothing to do with dying at all.
In fact, experts believe the coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into a sort of collective and chronic grief, as we mourn jobs, relationships, holidays, normalcy and other tangible and intangible losses.
“Chronic grief is being experienced in many ways: through feelings of hopelessness; a sense of disbelief; avoidance of any situation that may remind someone of the loss; or loss of meaning and value in a belief system,” said John Sovec, a grief counselor in Pasadena, California. This grief “can be stressful because you don’t have time to properly grieve one loss before experiencing the next.”
During this time, a lot of people are also experiencing a shift in identity, which is its own form of death in a way, according to writer and grief coach Breeshia Wade.
“[People are] taking a look in the mirror and not recognizing themselves ... Maybe their identity was tied to a job they no longer have, or maybe our nation’s racial reckoning is causing them to see their participation in anti-Blackness,” Wade said. “They may not like what [they] see. There is grief in forming a new identity after the loss of an old one.”
This not only takes an emotional toll, but a physical one as well, added Julie G. Kays, manager and clinical counselor at the Counseling Center at Stella Maris in Timonium, Maryland.
“Sometimes we feel grief in our bodies before we feel it anywhere else,” she said. “Our bodies might experience more pain — headaches, stomach aches or intensifying chronic pain — or might feel depleted and numb in response to grief. Grief is exhausting, it impacts our overall ability to function and we may find ourselves distracted, forgetful and unable to focus. We may lack energy and not find pleasure in many things, even those things that used to give us joy.”
The continuous emotional and physical onslaught of grief can then lead to long-term problems. This may include “huge upswings in depression and anxiety as well as a deep emotional fatigue that is affecting people’s ability to cope with their daily emotional maintenance,” Sovec said.
This insurmountable grief is to be expected given all that we’ve endured this year. But it’s important to find healthy coping mechanisms to help you deal with it ― and they might not be the same ones you’d use to cope with a death. Here is some expert-backed advice that may make managing these specific losses a little bit easier:
Allow yourself to feel the grief.
Don’t brush off what you’re feeling or diminish it. Diana Concannon, a licensed psychologist and dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, said it’s necessary to allow yourself to feel your emotions without trying to dictate them.
“Grief is primitive, and although it can be managed, it resists being tamed or controlled,” she said. “When overcome by powerful emotions — which can arise unexpectedly while grieving — it is often most healing to breathe into these feelings, presume they are part of our grief process, and allow them to dissipate naturally.”
Share your grief.
Because of the stigma associated with grief, it can often feel like an isolating experience. But you’re absolutely not the only one feeling this way.
Express to your family that you’re extremely upset about not being able to see them for the holidays. Tell your friends you feel a lack of purpose without a job. Being vulnerable is scary but it will help ― and perhaps it will also encourage others who might have been worried about speaking up, too.
“Identify what you’re feeling and know that you’re not alone,” said Jennifer Teplin, a licensed clinical social worker and the founder and clinical director of Manhattan Wellness. “When experiencing grief, things can feel extremely isolating. By sharing with others and being curious about their own experiences, we will immediately feel less alone.”
Try to not compare your experiences to other people’s experiences.
As you share your journey and struggles with those around you, avoid stacking yourself up to them. Just because someone is coping with not being able to see their family differently doesn’t make it wrong or right. Just because someone had more loss this year doesn’t mean your losses don’t matter. We all handle grief in our own ways, and everyone’s losses are valid.
“The comparison can have detrimental effects on the natural grief process and reactions, as it suggests someone is not doing it right and this contributes to feelings of shame and guilt that stunt healing,” said Maggie Tipton, director of psychological services at Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania.
Find new rituals that provide you with a sense of routine.
“Figuring out new ways to add cadence and structure to your life with intentional rituals ... can help you integrate losses in a meaningful way,” said Abigail Nathanson, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City.
This is especially important if you’re struggling with the loss of “normalcy” right now (and, really, who isn’t?). We don’t have control over a lot that’s going on in the world, so finding areas where we can introduce some stability can be grounding. Try waking up at an earlier time every day, adding a daily workout to your afternoons or setting Fridays aside for takeout and Netflix.
Try reflective journaling.
Journaling has a host of mental health benefits and can be extremely useful in the grieving process. Reflective journaling, in particular, can help you examine the losses you’re experiencing more closely, said Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Create a narrative around what happened, why it may have happened and how your life has been changed for both the worse and the better,” Celan said. “In this case, create a storyline around how your life has been impacted by the pandemic.”
While journaling, you could also take a moment to list a few things you are currently grateful for in your life, which can also help your mental health.
Dive deeper into self-care.
During this time, self-care has never been more important. (And no, we’re not just talking about slapping on a face mask and opening a bottle of wine.)
Sovec said it’s important that you are taking care of your body as well as your emotions during the grieving process. That means nourishing yourself, moving your body, sleeping, setting boundaries and allowing people to help you. And if at any point you’re struggling to function or do these basic things, it might be worth speaking to a mental health professional.
“Often the last things that people focus on when grieving is taking care of themselves and this lack of self-care can exacerbate the emotional overwhelm that can accompany grief,” Sovec said. “When our tank is empty, it is even more challenging to process deep emotions.”
Grief “is not always a predictable journey,” he added. Some days you’ll wake up feeling OK and others you’ll feel pummeled by the weight of it all.
“Be kind to yourself and accept that grief is a valuable and life altering process,” Sovec said.