Pandemic Grief: Yes, we're all in it, but how do we cope?
Before my mother passed away in 2016, I had assumed we humans only experience grief when someone dies.
Ironically though, my grief journey with my mom showed me that this emotional experience spans many different parts of us, and is by no means limited to the death of a loved one.
In the two years following my mother’s passing, I quit my teaching job, started my own business, ended a long-term relationship, and moved from a town I’d lived in for almost a decade.
While in the thick of all of this change, one day it dawned on me that so many of the same grief symptoms I’d felt for my mom I was now feeling for completely different life events.
My grief doors had been thrown wide open, making me aware that we grieve so much more than our culture would like to admit.
And then, the pandemic happened…
Suddenly, grief is no longer a solo or family journey. We are experiencing grief on a global scale, in almost all facets of our lives:
Loss of livelihood, loss of normalcy and routine, of traditions and milestones, of social interaction and connection, of freedom to travel, loss of safety and security, and of course, loss of loved ones from the virus.
That’s a lot of loss. Which also means, that’s a lot of grief.
In case there’s any remaining doubt that we’re all experiencing grief this year, here’s some (but by no means all) common symptoms of grief:
- High blood pressure
- Lowered immunity
- Insomnia or over-sleeping
- Deep sadness
- Feeling numb or disconnected
- Confusion or mental cloudiness
- Memory lapses
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Feeling lost or empty
- Feeling like you don’t belong
Any of these feel familiar? Listing these isn’t intended to play a “gotcha” game, they are to validate what you might be feeling, because chances are, you are most likely experiencing some kind of grief.
The problem with collective grief is that, as a culture, we really aren’t good at handling this particular human experience. Grief is hard, heavy, exhausting, and unpleasant, and we live in a time when we have distractions from this emotion literally everywhere we turn.
In fact, distractions from hard emotions are encouraged! Have a glass of wine, binge a show, scroll endlessly, order something fun online, take a sleep aid, and try again tomorrow.
We also don’t typically have time to truly grieve. With grief comes healing, a slow but sure journey that allows us to process, forgive, grow, and accept the situation.
Some people have had an uncomfortable amount of time to grieve during the pandemic, and some, like working parents with kids at home, have had absolutely NO time to do anything, let alone heal from the enormity of all the losses.
So, the question is, where do we go from here? What does grief healing look like during a pandemic? And how do we cope with all this loss?
Talk It Out
First of all, we need to be able to talk about it openly, without judgement or fixing. Grief talk has always been taboo in American culture, but…the pandemic may have opened the floodgates for more honest vulnerability because everyone is going through some kind of grief right now.
The nuanced piece of this step is “without judgement or fixing”. Oh, how we want a resolution to all this uncomfortableness!!! Oh, how easy it is to look at how others (or ourselves) are handling their grief and think, “well that’s a bit much/not enough/too dramatic/yikes.”
The ultimate lesson in grief is that it’s not something to be fixed. We can only distract from it for so long before understanding it’s a long winding road trip, not an efficient direct flight.
Part of the long trip is finding the strength to talk about how you feel, and leaving space for awkward, uncomfortable, and challenging moments along the way.
So, find a way to express your own personal losses. Maybe to a trusted (non-judgey) friend, perhaps in a journal, or maybe through art, dance, or a big scream fest in your car. Find your open door to let the grief flow through, and trust that this openness will ultimately lighten the heaviness of your sorrow.
This openness might lead you to seek out community, or, being open might start an unexpected community around you. Either way, community is another huge piece to the puzzle of healing because it helps you remember you are not alone.
Grief of all kinds can feel incredibly isolating, plus the added intensity of pandemic social distancing, and you may feel like you are on an island by yourself in your grief.
Gathering together (virtually, outside, whatever that looks like right now) is a way to share what you are going through, reminding you that you aren't alone in this experience, because you aren't!
Yes, grief is unique to everyone. We all have different experiences in grief, as well as different ways to cope, survive, or move forward. But letting others witness this, to hold space for you in whatever hard spot you might be in, is incredibly healing and essential to your grief journey.
And remember, community doesn't have to be big, it just has to be supportive. It could simply be a neighbor, an old or new friend, someone you've connected with online, or a larger community that is focused on grief and loss support.
However shitty and hard the grief may feel, hearing other people’s stories, hardships, and journeys lets you know that it’s normal!
Normalizing these hard emotions is crucial to processing them in healthy ways. When we tell ourselves we're "doing it wrong", we suffer even more by adding layers of guilt, shame, or not-enough-ness.
Grief is part of being human, and creating community assures you that you aren't doing it wrong, you are just part of the challenging, beautiful, heart wrenching experience of a human being.
As you go along the winding journey to speak openly about grief, allow emotions to flow and be what they are, find or create community, you may ultimately find yourself at a place of meaning.
As David Kessler writes, this isn’t “everything happens for a reason” kind of meaning. Meaning is not found in the loss itself, but in what we do after.
Kessler reminds us that meaning isn’t that your loss is a test, lesson, gift, or something to “handle”. It can be easy to look at pandemic losses this way.
While gratitude is also a powerful healing tool, so is understanding that loss is something that happens over the course of human life, and meaning is the comfort, purpose, or acceptance that you create after the loss.
Kessler also mentions that "finding meaning" may take months or even years after we experience loss, and that feels very true for pandemic loss as well. Don't feel pressure to wake up one day and suddenly have a total perspective shift into acceptance and meaning. Allowing yourself to truly go on the journey of grief and loss will lead you to meaning in your own divine timing.
Funny enough, the guidance for traditional grief also applies for the non-traditional grief we’re all in right now. While it is extraordinary, it’s still incredibly human. So much of the grief process is allowing our humanness, in all its exhaustion, heartache, and heaviness, to be seen, felt, and validated.
Even though exposing our hard human emotions is one of the most vulnerable things we can do, it’s also one of the bravest gifts we can give ourselves. This gift ultimately leads us toward a richer human experience, and will allow us to heal from the many forms of grief brought on by the pandemic and beyond.