From filing for unemployment to streaming worship services online, we’ve all undoubtedly encountered lifestyle changes that we never imagined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as some states begin to re-open, the physical distance we keep and the masks we wear in public are only a few of the reminders that “going back to normal” really means adjusting to a new normal. As frustrating as it is, we’re realizing that we all have to confront unmet expectations, ruined plans, or incredible losses. Regardless of what you’re experiencing, there are some tools I’ve used with my clients in therapy that can help you deal with change during this unprecedented time.
Let yourself grieve
Whether you’re dealing with the life-altering loss of a job or figuring out how to work from home with kids running around, whether you had to reschedule a once-in-a-lifetime milestone like a wedding or cancel your vacation plans, there’s no one who hasn’t experienced loss in the form of unexpected change due to the novel coronavirus. Big or small, these unexpected changes and disappointments need to be grieved. You may have lost something like a job or your senior spring semester of college, or you may have to grieve unmet expectations, such as your expected birth experience or a hoped-for summer internship. While you may not be grieving something traditionally associated with grief or loss, you may still have to grieve something you’ve yet to experience—a lost hope, ideal, plan, or dream that never came to fruition due to COVID.
Regardless of what change has occurred in your life over the last few months, take time to feel whatever you need to feel. It’s hard to accept change (especially change we didn’t sign up for) if we never let ourselves fully grieve whatever we lost in the process of change. Let yourself be sad, be angry, be disappointed, be heartbroken. Take time to cry, journal about your experience, talk to a loved one or therapist about your emotions—just let out your feelings without judgement or placing “shoulds” on them.
And avoid comparison
Maybe you didn’t lose your job, have to reschedule your wedding, or miss out on your senior spring of college. Still, it’s certain there are aspects of your life that have changed, and not necessarily for the better. Just because you didn’t lose your job doesn’t mean you can’t be frustrated by trying to work from home with your kids running around. Just because you’re not a senior doesn’t mean you can’t be saddened by the academic, social, or extracurricular experiences you missed out on as a freshmen, sophomore, or junior. Just because your life wasn’t completely turned upside down by this pandemic doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to miss watching sports on TV, hanging with your friends, or to long for a “pre-COVID normal” grocery shopping experience. Denying yourself the chance to feel angry, sad, confused, or frustrated just because your loss or change isn’t as extreme as someone else’s doesn’t actually make your emotion(s) go away. While it’s absolutely important to maintain perspective and to practice gratitude for your blessings, it’s okay—and even important—to acknowledge the smaller-scale losses or changes you’ve experienced.
Feeling your own valid emotions doesn’t have to take away from feeling emotions for or with others. Grieving whatever you’re dealing with need not prevent you from grieving with someone else struggling with something bigger. Empathy doesn’t have to be limited—you can feel sad that life as you know it has changed and feel your heart break with your friend whose world was turned completely upside down.
Establish a routine or ritual
With the changes that have already occurred and the uncertainty that lies before us, life likely feels more unstable than ever. When it feels like we can hardly find solid ground to stand on amidst this pandemic, it can be helpful to establish some kind of routine or recurring ritual to anchor ourselves to something certain and unchanging. This doesn’t necessarily have to look like the at-home schedule that was ubiquitously advised when quarantine started—or at least, it doesn’t necessarily have the same purpose. A daily schedule determines the order you do things, and helps create boundaries when the quarantined days bleed together. On the other hand, a ritual is something you do every day or week, but it doesn’t necessarily structure your time or duties (although it could). Like praying every morning or grilling burgers every Sunday night, the purpose of a simple routine or ritual is to help at least something feel familiar when everything else is unknown (and not necessarily to make you more productive or to set work boundaries).
For you, a routine or ritual that helps life feel familiar might indeed be a schedule, like the order in which you do things every morning—wake up, make bed, brush teeth, workout, shower. Or, it might be as simple as going on a walk around your neighborhood every day. It could be a weekly ritual instead, like having pancakes with your family every Saturday. It need not be complicated; the point is that the repetition of the act—whether daily or weekly—reminds you that at least one thing is unchanging in these changing times. This ritual can be something new that you’ve started during quarantine but still remains consistent throughout the week, like an at-home workout when you used to go to the gym. Or, the ritual might be something that you did pre-COVID that you’re still able to do, anchoring a seemingly unfamiliar current reality to life before coronavirus. If your family made pancakes every Saturday pre-pandemic, continuing that can help establish a sense of familiarity and comfort for you now.
Control the controllables
In any given situation, there are things we can’t control and things we can control. To use a sports analogy, in a game, you can’t control what the referees do or what the other team does, you can only control how you respond to them. No matter how unfair a ref’s call or how frustrating the action of an opponent, you can only control your effort, attitude, and response to these uncontrollables to influence the outcome of the game. In this coronavirus world, new norms (like wearing face masks in public) or things that happen to you (like being laid off) are things that are beyond your control. Establishing a familiar ritual (like a daily walk) or how you respond to the uncontrollables (like your attitude) are within your control.
Even while mourning the losses and changes you’ve experienced due to this pandemic, you can channel your energy into the things you can control. You can search for new jobs if you were laid off; you can work on adjusting wedding plans to a new date; you can make your work-from-home space comfortable and inviting; you can find activities your kids can do at home. Taking action reminds you that there are things you can control, even when so much of your life feels out of your control due to these unforeseen changes. Taking action might include proactive steps like honing your skills for a job interview or your fall season, or it could look like keeping a daily gratitude journal to cultivate a more positive mindset.
While it’s important to take time to intentionally grieve, as mentioned, you can continue to grieve and simultaneously take action in whatever way you can control. Contrary to popular belief, grieving is not necessarily a distinct time period that nicely ends and gets wrapped up with a bow. Rather, grieving is often an ongoing process that can happen even as we seemingly “move on.” So, you can both be angry, sad, frustrated (or whatever emotion the changes brought by this pandemic may evoke) and feel motivated, grateful, hopeful, or whatever other feelings focusing on the controllables may elicit.
Life is a series of seasons, and change is always inevitable. But the changes wrought by coronavirus have been unusual in that they were sudden, extreme, and for most of us, unlike anything we’ve experienced before. For this reason, we could all benefit from incorporating a few practices into our lives to help us navigate change more gracefully.