We’re living in a time of extreme uncertainty and loss. The coronavirus pandemic has brought up new emotions and sudden changes that we didn’t expect—and probably don’t know how to deal with. The safety and stability we had not long ago is gone. We’re struggling to grasp this new reality and scrambling to find a way forward.
It can be hard to understand and process our feelings; we haven’t experienced anything like this in our lifetime. Psychotherapist Kristin Anderson told me, “Whether directly affected by the virus or not, we are all experiencing a collective societal trauma and sense of loss. Our normal lives are on pause and for many of us, a new normal will have to be discovered once we finally reemerge from our homes.” We know this trauma has us feeling out of sorts, but we may not realize that what we’re experiencing is grief.
If we aren’t able to identify grief, we won’t be able to handle it the right way. So I asked psychology and grief experts to weigh in. Here’s their professional advice to help us understand the complexity of grief during this time and find hope in spite of it.
Grief is unpredictable
We can’t predict when and how grief happens. Everyone experiences it differently. And we have different triggers. There’s not a single pattern that we all follow. A common psychological conception of grief is that it happens in five stages, in this order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But this can be misleading. We rarely experience grief in that exact order of emotions—it’s more of a disordered jumble of these emotions.
Neuropsychologist and co-host of The Doctors, Dr. Judy Ho, Ph. D., explains, “[Grief] does not occur in stages; rather it is more like a circle of grief which ebbs and flows. You can be in acceptance one day, then the next day you’re back to anger or denial.” This unpredictability is very relevant now, when our grief is triggered by circumstances we haven’t encountered before this pandemic. “With the current onslaught of information that is ever-changing, that causes the grief processing to ebb and flow even more,” Dr. Ho shares.
I’ve experienced this as the personal effects of coronavirus became more severe, progressing from social distancing to stay-at-home orders. Each time a new restriction was announced, I realized any semblance of normal life was even further away. The things I was telling myself to stay upbeat—We’ll be back to working in the office in two weeks; I can still plan to go on that trip; the virus won’t possibly afflict anyone I know; our nation will be able to contain the spread soon—were destroyed. Almost as soon as I had accepted the current state of the crisis, something else happened, and I was back to feeling denial and depression. The five stages of grief are still useful, though. They help us understand and identify signs of grief in ourselves and others.
Loss isn’t always tangible
We tend to think of grief in the context of tangible losses like a death, illness, divorce, layoff, or breakup. But there are intangible losses that we might not expect to trigger grief, but do: for example, growing apart from a friend, moving to a new city, or a sudden life change.
Many of us are experiencing intangible losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, even if we are not directly threatened by death or illness. As psychologist Joy E. Lere observes, “Life is not the only thing that has been lost. COVID-19 has obliterated many people’s sense of control, security, safety and the semblance of predictability they thought they had in their lives. It has upended daily rhythms and routines.” Coronavirus has stolen our ability to participate in big life events like weddings, graduations, and funerals.
We can also grieve for things that haven’t happened yet, which is known as anticipatory grief. Therapist Katie Lear, who specializes in anxiety and trauma, points out, “Right now, many people may be experiencing anticipatory grief, especially in areas of the country that are not yet ‘hot spots’ and may only have low or moderate case counts. This kind of grief is felt in advance of a loss, such as when a family member is very ill or when there is an impending threat, such as the pandemic, which could result in the death or illness of a loved one.”
So if you’re thinking, “I have no reason to feel depressed, I’m healthy, employed, and my family and friends are, too,” you could be experiencing anticipatory grief because there are so many unknowns. It’s important to acknowledge to yourself that you have every right to feel that way. When we don’t think something should cause a grief response, it can be hard to understand our emotions and work through them. Knowing that grief can come from intangible things and experiences and that we can grieve ahead of time will help you recognize and address it.
Human connection can heal
No matter what kind of grief we’re going through, we need support—family, friends, significant others, medical professionals, etc. We are coping with extreme circumstances and experiencing all sorts of emotions. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation health poll found that 45 percent of Americans feel that coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health. So you aren’t alone if you’re feeling shaken up.
Don’t be too proud or afraid to ask for help. Connecting with others is a healthy way to deal with grief. Counselor Dr. Rebecca Cowan advises, “Human connection can be a very powerful aspect of healing. It is innate, and we need it. Reach out to each other, emotionally hold each other close, and offer support. At the end of the day, this is what matters most.” Although we can’t be physically close to all of our loved ones, we can be close in spirit. I’ve found that I’m making an extra effort in my relationships with family and friends, which has helped me express my feelings and realize that others are experiencing similar emotions.
To hold on or let go
When everything around us is in chaos, we try to grasp on to what (if anything) we can control. We’re conditioned to avoid discomfort, emotional and physical, at all costs—for ourselves and others. Staying at home, we can feel restless and helpless, wanting to be part of the solution to this crisis. We want to be there for the people we love who are suffering or at risk. This desperation for control can add to our grief, anxiety, and frustration as we discover that we can’t actually control what’s happening.
Grief recovery specialist Shelby Forsythia suggests, “Let things be unresolved. A global pandemic is not the time to try to ‘solve’ the grief surrounding you; it’s a time to allow it to exist and let it remain open-ended. There’s not a fix for the grief that’s happening. Your only job right now is to let it be what it is.” All we can do is try to manage our own response and avoid dwelling on the unknowns ahead. Focus on what you can influence instead of trying to hold on to what’s impossible to control. We can follow the social distancing guidelines, stay at home, donate to relief organizations to the extent possible, and virtually connect with others.
Moving forward with hope
We can’t go back, but we can go forward. Dwelling on past mistakes, losses, and omissions will keep us stuck in grief. To move past it, we must have hope for the future—hope that is realistic, not idealistic. Things might not go back to exactly the way they were before, but we will be able to restart our lives and be part of the long-term solution to keep our communities, families, and world healthy.
Psychologist Paul Coleman encourages, “Emotionally accept there are things [we] cannot control or fix at the moment, and nurture trust that over time life will become more manageable. To fail to emotionally accept what cannot be changed or acted upon, is to resist reality.” It’s this hope that things will get better that will help us rise above our grief and help others do the same. Life won’t be the same, but it will get better.