Coronavirus

Collective Grief and COVID-19

IMG-1236 (1)Grief has descended upon human race fast and furiously this season. For people who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19, grief is sending many into uncharted emotional territory. For those whose lives have been disrupted, grief is also a very real thing. This post will offer some creative avenues to accompany you on this grief journey, as traditional forms of support have been disrupted due to social distancing.

Ideas in this blog post come from the book, On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Her template for the emotional journey of the grief cycle offers a helpful way to organize and make sense of our emotions.  As you read through the grief stages, please write, draw, doodle, or create a visual template to explore your grief journey in this COVID-19 pandemic. Feel free to use the template above. Regardless if your loss is tiny or gigantic, your emotions are real. A newer idea in the grief world is a diagnosis called complicated grief, in which grief is unrelenting, lasting for many months or years beyond a traditional grief cycle. Please reach out for help if you are struggling with your emotions. There are several links at the end of this post to guide you to the right place.

GRIEF STAGES

DENIAL

When we experience loss, denial is often the first emotion we feel. On occasion, we have time to prepare emotionally, but our new COVID-19 reality materialized so quickly, collective denial was one of the first emotions felt by many.  Denial is a coping mechanism, a normal reaction to massive change, and perhaps a gentle way of helping us make sense of things that just don’t make sense.

It is  remarkable how quickly we shifted to our at-home lives, but looking back, many of us might have felt like we were in zombie mode for those first few days and weeks of our quarantine. Many of my clients have felt some guilt and shame around not being productive during this quarantine time. Please give yourself a “hall pass” if you have not been productive during this time. Can you attribute your lack of motivation to  denial or just coping, and the idea that you were in the process of acclimating to your new world?

If you lost a loved one related to COVID-19, please be gentle with yourself in this grieving process. We are often able to shift out of denial as we come to terms with the world around us, but for many people who did not get to be with their loved ones due to restrictions on visits, they missed the opportunity to experience all of these emotions and preparation for loss in real time.

ANGER

Anger is a human emotion that can consume us. Anger is powerful, intense, scary, and can often rule over us if we allow this strong emotion to run the show. If emotions are information, anger is one that is telling us we have been violated in some way. As denial disappears, anger is often the first emotion to materialize as we make sense of our loss.

The difference between a feeling and an emotion is quite simple. A feeling is something we can name, and an emotion is often something our body feels before it becomes a conscious thought that can be named. If you are experiencing anger, this is normal, this is real, and you have every right to be angry. What can you do with your anger? That might be a topic for another blog post (stay tuned, we will get there as we unpack all of this emotional stuff). Anger can sometimes provide movement. Can you check in with your body, explore your anger, allow it some wiggle room? Can you give yourself permission to articulate it by naming it, drawing about it, or telling a loved one about it?

If you lost a loved one due to COVID-19, your anger might be more amorphous and hard to get a hold of. What we know about grief is we often have to travel through an emotional journey of sitting with emotions before we are ready to move on.  I have had many clients try to short change grief work, explaining their lack of interest in processing a big loss.  Eventually the needed work catches up, but everyone’s timetables for exploring grief might look a bit different.

Please be gentle with yourself and remind your friends to be gentle with you too. My observation from working as a therapist for the past few decades is people often get stuck in the anger stage of grieving,  lose sight of the grief journey, and are left with the sense that their essence is based in anger. When we get to “classify” our anger as part of the grieving process, anger can serve as simply an emotion rather than something that defines us.

BARGAINING

Bargaining is a challenging stage of grief, and probably one the most difficult ones to walk through in the grief cycle. When denial and anger have already been felt and processed, our mind often wanders in the direction of, “why,”  and “what could I have done differently to have altered the outcome?” This is a huge grief stage to tackle, because it really addresses our sense of control vs. lack of control. COVID-19 is proving to be a prime example of something that is out of our control on many levels.

Bargaining also involves the existential angst we might have with our higher powers. People often bargain with the universe, thinking they can alter a permanent outcome by doing something in the here and now to retroactively create a different outcome. Self blame in loss is very, very common in young children. Kids often take on huge burdens of self blame for things far out of their control (numerous case studies described children who thought they caused the World Trade Center to collapse during 9/11). Communication is a key element to mitigate the inner dilemma in children and adults. As we suffer silently carrying these huge worries in our head, it is challenging to make sense of these complex emotions.

As we come to terms with our real lack of control with some things in the world, we can make peace with this grief stage. If you lost a loved one due to COVID-19, please let yourself feel all of the feelings, and please find a safe and trustworthy person to voice your thoughts. Self blame can be catastrophic,  as you might wonder things like, “Did I not wash my hands enough? Did I infect my loved one? Did they know how much I loved them, even if I couldn’t be with them in their last days or moments?” Please voice these feelings you might be having. Even if they are not accurate, they are real emotions, because you are feeling them. What I love about the grief cycle, is it offers a space to recognize that we are not alone in the journey, as many of the things that feel endemic to our head and heart are felt by many as they walk through their own grief journey.

DEPRESSION

Many of us are now several weeks into this pandemic. My own family is on day 45 of being home at this writing. The term, “pandemic fatigue” has been coined to reflect the sense of ennui many of us our currently feeling.  As we await the green light to return to the world, we might be feeling down. In the grief cycle, when we come to terms with the lack of control created by loss, and grapple with the “bargaining stage,” the sense of helplessness or depression might emerge on your emotional landscape. This is normal, natural, and a big part of loss.

When the world opens up again, it might look and feel a lot different than the one we knew just a few months ago. This is a place where sadness and loss might be truly felt.  As you can name these feelings as you are experiencing them, please take the time to do so. If you are feeling off as you walk back into your open world, this is actually a sign of mental health. The world will feel different, and you might respond by feeling nostalgic of grief stricken about our recent past. Please allow yourself to embrace these emotions.

If you lost a loved one related to COVID-19, sadness, depression, and feelings of loss  might take time to process. The collective grief we are feeling, compounded with personal grief are all really profound. Please encourage your loved ones to give you space, love, acceptance, and please do the same for anyone you know who is grieving a loss related to this pandemic.

ACCEPTANCE

These stages of loss are not linear, nor exact, but serve as a framework  to help make some sense of your journey. Acceptance happens when we can recognize loss as a part of life, and feel less consumed by the experience. Grief is an excellent teacher, and in the end, offers us a space to grow, gain wisdom, and increase our emotional intelligence. Acceptance does not mean we gave up on loving our loved one who passed, it means we have found a place for it to live in us, while still carrying on with our own lives. Although this post is not as robust as a therapy group, it might still serve as a helpful space to heal, reflect, and engage your creativity for your healing journey.

Creativity can serve as an excellent avenue to get out of a dark place. You might be thinking you are not creative enough to engage in self expression as a form of healing, but please take a small risk to try something, even if it is just a simple doodle as you are reading this post. Art created in art therapy sessions is often raw, messy, ugly, and powerful. The honest form of self expression is often surprising as we can communicate things that cannot be expressed verbally.  Visual information can serve as a vehicle for self expression of emotions that often have no words. Please use your creativity as a guide for self expression.

Because we do not have community to sit with in person, Zoom has served as a unique vehicle for simulated condolence calls, but  really can’t replicate what happens face to face with community support. If you know someone who is  grieving due to a loss, please reach out to them, give them some love, and make plans to spend time with them in the near future. We will get through this. Humans are resilient.

If you are struggling emotionally, please follow these links for more help:

Grief Resource Network

Grief and Mourning Resource Page

This blog post was written in memory of Melvin Solomon, who passed away this week due to COVID-19 related causes. The post was also written in memory of Rick Beiles, another amazing person whose life was cut short by COVID-19. May both of their memories be for a blessing. 

 

Mask Making During COVID-19

The debate on wearing a mask in public is endless, and varies depending on your location on the globe. The search for medical masks is also endless, as there is a world wide shortage. Please let the medical professionals have first access to the actual medical masks, and use your creativity to create your own mask. This video will teach you how to make you own reusable mask from an old t-shirt (this requires a sewing machine for creating your mask):

 

 

 

 

Create an Emotional Safety Plan During COVID-19

img_0722The Covid-19 pandemic has brought much of the human race to a standstill. Many of us cannot leave our homes except to get basic necessities. The short term goal in this process is to stop the transmission of a rapidly spreading virus, but the long term outcome might just be how it impacted our mental health. Grief, anxiety, and depression are very real things happening as our species engages in a very non-human activity of self isolation. Finding ways to mitigate this emotional roller coaster can be essential for the here and now.

If you are feeling out of sorts today as you sit in your home, this is actually a sign of mental health. This paradox might sound odd, but it’s true.  Let’s start this chat by acknowledging that what you are feeling is REAL, OK, and NORMAL. How are you actually feeling? Please tell your loved one or someone exactly how you feel today ( or send a response in here to this blog). Acknowledging your emotions can be hugely helpful in reducing your distress levels. Please complete this sentence: Today I am feeling _______________________. If you are having a hard time filling in the blank, please use this list of possible answers: overwhelmed, scared, anxious, calm, terrified, confused, numb, spacey, angry, nervous, loved, sad, uncertain, bored, curious, content, grief stricken, relieved, etc.

When people experience trauma, they often feel a wide range of emotions,  including emotions that don’t seem to match up with the current experience. This is all a normal part of trauma.  NAMING our emotions or the thing that is happening can actually help us get a hold of the experience, and while we are still in the thick of it with this COVID-19 journey, acknowledging it in real time can reduce some of the emotional distress. We don’t want to fall down an emotional rabbit hole here, so let’s add one more tool to incorporate along with naming our emotions…. a handy, dandy emotional safety plan.

An emotional safety plan is a tool to use when your experience is so intense, it shuts down the thinking part of your brain (your pre-frontal cortex). Writing an emotional safety plan in advance of an incident can remind you to do something to pull yourself back, and bring that thinking part back online.  I worked in an inpatient psychiatric facility for many years we found so much value in this tool, that all employees (ranging from the CEO to the janitorial staff) attached our emotional safety plan onto the back of our name tag. If we got triggered, overwhelmed, or were trying to not get sucked into extremely stressful moments, we were encouraged to look at our safety plan, and use it to help us get regain a sense of equilibrium.

What would your emotional safety plan look like this week? There is no “perfect” way to make a plan, but the idea is to make a list when you are calm that you can use when you are not calm. Feel free to use a few of these prompts:

MY EMOTIONAL SAFETY PLAN

NAME IT (the feeling or thing I am experiencing):

SOMEONE I CAN REACH OUT TO SPEAK WITH: 

SOMETHING I CAN DO FOR SELF CARE:

SOMETHING I CAN TELL MYSELF TO GET THROUGH A REALLY HARD MINUTE,  HOUR, DAY (we are all having a LOT of these in our current pandemic/self isolation, maybe a little mantra here might be helpful):

An emotional safety plan is simply a list  to give you perspective on the here and now, and provide some emotional regulation. This is not designed to move you away from your emotions (remember we decided a few paragraphs ago that feeling our feelings is profoundly important. This is just an extra tool in case your emotions overpower you. If your distress is overwhelming, or if you are in  emotional or physical danger, please see the hotline numbers at the bottom of this link.

1-800-799-SAFE -Domestic Violence Hotline

1-800-273-8255 – Suicide Hotline

If you find this whole conversation a bit out of your comfort zone, please watch this excellent interview with Dr. Brene Brown on the profoundly important act of being real and expressing emotions during this really challenging time. She was interviewed this week on 60 minutes: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/brene-brown-cope-coronavirus-pandemic-covid-19-60-minutes-2020-03-29/

Porch Portrait Photo Project

IMG_0599 (1)As we entered into our first week of social distancing, I pitched an idea to friends in my neighborhood to take pictures of them standing on their front porches. This project was an instant hit, and is serving many purposes, including socializing with the limitations of social distancing, documenting this experience, and providing a creative activity to connect or reconnect with community.  I invite you to join me on this creative endeavor.

I am hearing about many parts of the world where leaving one’s home is forbidden during this pandemic, and violating this prohibition can lead to jail time or hefty fines. If you live in a place where you can still roam about, perhaps this might be a great project to introduce to your neighbors. Aside from the primary issues around the COVID-19 pandemic, LONELINESS is perhaps the largest issue that will come out of this experience. 28% of Americans currently live alone. While this might have been manageable in our lives just a few weeks ago, this current dilemma of losing all elements of community can be debilitating to many people who live alone. Do you have anyone in your world who might really appreciate you dropping by (from a distance) to take their picture and send them some good vibes?

I am not a photographer, and am actually using an I-phone to take my portraits. The options for editing a photo on any smart phone are so advanced, anyone can take a pretty great photo with this small device. I would also encourage emailing a consent form (I used Google forms to create mine), offering subjects the options of them alone keeping the photo, sharing the photo in your friend group and/or sharing it publicly. Getting consent is essential to this project (especially if you are considering posting any of the images on social media). Good luck and spread the creativity to keep our communities humming along.

 

Cocooning vs. Quarantining- Words and Attitude

african monarch butterfly on white calla lily flower

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Let’s switch up the negative names of our new Coronavirus reality to something slightly more life affirming. We have been told to hunker down and quarantine (the word hunker is defined as to squat or crouch down low). Before we switch up the names though, we might need to re-imagine what we are doing. Can you use the metaphor of a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly to mark your current experience of being stuck at home? Please try this project to muster some resilience.

 

  • Please find some  paper in your home, or just use your imagination to conceptualize this creative angle on our strange situation.
  • Please divide your paper up into three sections.
  • In the first section, please create a caterpillar. If you are not feeling the creativity urge, maybe just jot down a list of things you were doing a few weeks ago that might represent a less robust version of yourself (for all of us who were stretched thin, this might not be too hard to imagine). My list would probably include drinking too much coffee, not completing projects, not returning phone calls, etc
  • In the second section, please draw a cocoon or chrysalis (chrysalis is the technical term any third grader might remind you of, should you refer to the metamorphosis of a butterfly using the word cocoon). Again if this is too base or juvenile for your liking, please use this space to jot down a list of enjoyable and life affirming things you might explore during this home time.
  • In the third section, please draw a butterfly to represent a new and improved version of you who might walk out of your home when this is all over (yes- it will end). Imagine yourself reconnecting with the outside world in a new way with wings or something cool like that. A fresh perspective which is just about the same as new wings. We will all be different. Social isolation is not in our genetic makeup, so reconnecting with our species will probably be pretty spectacular. Again, if the butterfly metaphor is a bit pedestrian for you, perhaps just jot down a list of how you might envision reconnecting with the world.

More than two billion people are currently on lockdown in their homes on the planet as of this writing. That number might actually go up, as experts have warned that this week is going to look pretty grim. This unprecedented experience is perhaps the first time in human history that such a massive number of people are all essentially doing the same thing.  The quest to stop the transmission of Coronavirus is being called a variety of ominous things such as shelter in place, lockdown , quarantine, social distancing, self isolation, and other negative things. In some cities, this experience is being enforced with harsh punishments for violations, with soldiers in the streets. What would happen if we changed the languaging to conceptualize this as something more palatable to the human experience? Could we call it cocooning? hibernating? pausing? resetting our compass?  Slowing down? Respecting our elders and fragile fellow humans? Being a great Homo sapien?

How we conceptualize this whole thing will really determine our mental health throughout this experience. If we shift our experience to call this cocooning, we will be emerging from this quarantine as a completely different person, community, world, and species. Things could go wonderfully or terribly in this process, but there are some theories being kicked around that this might be a jump in consciousness caused by a radical shift in re-evaluating our values, and a radical appreciation for life we might have ignored just a few weeks ago. Stay safe and be well.

 

The Art of TIME in a Coronavirus Quarantine

black and yellow analog clock

Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

TIME. When we look back at this radical week in human history, one vantage point we might observe it from is how we handled time. Many people on Earth are simultaneously experiencing a cataclysmic shift in reality, as our familiar lives have come to a screeching halt. Several of my therapy sessions with clients over the past few weeks included conversations on the possibility of a quarantine, and how that might provide some respite from our crazy, busy lives. Now that we are really experiencing that reality,  what to DO WITH ALL OF THIS TIME is proving to be a bit overwhelming. Navigating through news that is changing fast, finding provisions, worrying about our livelihoods, and just making it through each day this week is simply overwhelming.

The real question we might want to ask ourselves in this stage of this thing, is how do we  master time? All of us secretly wanted extra time and now that we have it, what should we do with it?  How do we navigate through the very confusing, very scary, and very real, new world we have entered? I would like to propose two very simple tasks to try today:

Quarantine Wish List

Please make a list of things you might accomplish for your quarantined time. Please add some practical things (my first task is doing my taxes for the US deadline of April 15). Please also add some pleasurable things that you never have time to do, and some projects you might have started awhile ago, but never had time to finish. Next, hang your list in a prominent place.  Then, and this is most important part, do not pressure yourself to jump into any of these projects too quickly. I have spoken to several people this week who are feeling guilty they have not been productive this week. Please do not pressure yourself to be productive or creative.

We are all in a state of shock, and when we are in that place, it is very hard to do anything beyond  just being in survival mode. This might looks a bit different to each of us, and might include binging on Netflix, binging on news, buying toilet paper, etc. Having your wish list handy, but not feeling pressured by it can serve as a buffer to make the time you are spending now feel more temporary, knowing that when you settle into your new reality, you will have a lot to keep yourself busy.

Make a Daily Schedule

Last night, I forced my kids to go to bed on time as if it were a regular school night. They protested, and I held my ground, explaining that as soon as our schedule goes haywire (or we stay in pajamas all day), we will have succumbed to time in a really negative way. We actually didn’t create any schedule during the first few days of our new “at home all the time” lives. I did this as a social experiment to see what would happen. As suspected, everyone kept drifting to their screens, and the days marched along in a loopy, slow, negative way.

We have since created daily schedules for each person in our home as the days drift along. These have included meal times, hang out times, solo time, together time, etc. Although we are not being super strict at following them, the lists are still serving as boundary makers to make our boundary-less new world feel more manageable. What would your daily schedule include?

In my therapy sessions last week, my clients all fantasized how great a quarantine might be, because they would suddenly have the glorious TIME we never had enough of in the lives we were living just last week. When this is all over (yes, it will end), we will walk out of our homes with new attitudes, new perspectives on humanity, and perhaps will have regrouped enough to envision a different and more beautiful life for ourselves and our loved ones. Step one of this transformation is learning to reclaim time.  

Having an accountability partner in this process can also be important. Feel free to post your lists here. Hang in there!