sadness

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.