The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our collective and personal lives in ways we could never have envisaged a few months ago. This overwhelming change has brought with it a deep sense of grief and loss.
This has taken many different forms, from the heart breaking loss of loved ones, to the loss of livelihoods, important missed moments with friends and family, a sense of normalcy and agency and the loss of hopes and dreams for the future. We may also be experiencing anticipatory grief as we come to the realisation that the world will never be quite the same.
This type of grief is often confusing. There’s an intangibility about it that hinders our ability to process our experience or its impact on us. But it’s important that we label this experience as grief so that we can begin to understand and learn from our emotions, work together to support each other and tend to the very personal nature of our losses.
What is grief?
Grief is the very normal response to loss and bereavement. It’s a process involving several different stages, each experienced slightly differently by everyone. It’s a singularly unique experience, non- linear in nature and, despite several claims to the contrary, has no particular time frame. Each person will grieve in their own way within a time frame that’s personal and meaningful to them.
However, it’s helpful to understand the different stages of grief. This can help us frame our experiences of the pandemic and try to start to make sense of them.
Stage 1: Denial
This manifests as a refusal to accept or difficulty accepting a situation. Sometimes this is necessary. In times of overwhelm and distress we may not have access to the inner resources we need to see things as they are. If you recognise yourself as being in denial, it’s important that you try to take small steps towards understanding the situation fully.
Denial may explain why some people refused to comply with official guidance as the pandemic began to unfold.
Stage 2: Anger
During the pandemic, lots of us have felt frustration at being unable to continue many of the activities that make up our life such as seeing family or going to work.
In this stage it’s vital that you find ways to express those emotions, as denying them can mean they become stuck. Unprocessed emotions can lodge in the physical body causing pain and discomfort.
Stage 3: Bargaining
We have all said to ourselves, ‘Ok, if I socially distance for a while, everything will be fine?’, only to be faced with the reality that we don’t know how and when this will end.
It can be helpful here to try, whenever possible to acknowledge any silver linings or things that remain a constant in your life such as the love and support of family, friends or supportive co-workers.
Stage 4: Acceptance
In this stage we can simply be with what is happening and start to figure out a way to move forward. This is likely to coincide and be closely related to our ability to find a new sense of meaning. When things just don’t make sense, a renewed sense of meaning can be found in the actions we take to rebuild our lives.
Take time to understand which stage of grief you may be experiencing. You may find that you move backwards and forwards between the stages over time. This is normal. Grief is a messy, non-linear process. And the unending nature of the pandemic prompts much anticipatory anxiety and grief. Know that it’s normal and understandable to feel angry, sad, frustrated and scared. Also be aware that this experience is likely to bring back feelings associated with previous periods of loss or grief. This too is normal.
Ways to cope with grief
1. Take care of your physical health
Grief and feelings of loss can be a very physical experience. Processing difficult feelings takes energy and time. It’s important that you look after your physical health and encourage others to do the same. Changes in appetite and sleep patterns are common, so tune into your body and give it what it needs in terms of nutrition and rest. Remember that your wellbeing isn’t an infinite resource, so find ways to restock and manage your energy levels.
2. Stay connected
Loneliness can exacerbate feelings of grief and loss so it’s important that you try to stay connected to other people, especially if the current situation has meant that you’re more socially isolated than usual. Reach out to family and friends if you need to talk or if you need help with practical things such as preparing meals or childcare etc. Although sadness and anxiety can prompt you to withdraw, see if you can instead gently turn to others when you feel distressed and lean on them for support.
3. Practice mindfulness
Anticipatory grief can take our minds hurtling into an imagined future which we are likely to populate with the worst possible scenarios and outcomes. That’s because the brains job is to keep us safe, and predicting outcomes gives us an illusion of control over otherwise overwhelming circumstances. Try to recognise when your thoughts are focusing on that worst case scenario and gently pull them back to the present. Mindfulness practices or simple breathing exercises can help you bring your awareness back into the present moment.
4. Stay hopeful
If you’re finding it difficult to stay in the here and now, perhaps you could try to imagine a best case scenario instead. Then plan on taking small steps each day toward this positive outcome. The events we’re experiencing will pass, and there will be opportunities to reshape our lives in ways we have not anticipated yet. Remaining realistically hopeful will help you cope in times of uncertainty. There are a multitude of ways that things can unfold.
Also try to keep in mind that life is a continual flow of loss and gain. Although we put strategies in place to establish a sense of control, the reality is that most things are uncertain, most of the time. And that’s ok.
5. Be kind to yourself and others
Remember to stock up on compassion during this time and meet each one of your experiences with a sense of warmth and kindness. Support yourself as you would a good friend and ease up on yourself when things get tough.
Equally, show compassion to others and be generous in your interpretation of their responses and behaviours. Allow people to be where they are in the process and balance this with tending to your own needs. Although grief is a completely normal process, it can be harder to bear for some than others.
Many people find it difficult to support others who are grieving. It can feel awkward and a little too close to home. But in reality, most people who are grieving just want to be seen and heard, rather than ‘saved’ or ‘rescued’. The important thing is to make yourself available. Often, a kind word or thoughtful gesture and an acknowledgement that you understand how overwhelming it can feel is all that’s needed.
If you‘re supporting someone else, try to create a space in which they can feel comfortable naming whatever part of the grief journey they’re on. Naming our experiences gives us a sense of cognitive control. It helps that emotion to be a ‘something’ rather than ‘everything’.
Of course, it’s important to include yourself in this circle of care, and avoid becoming too overwhelmed with other peoples’ distress. This is vital if you’re to continue supporting others effectively and function yourself. With so many of us suddenly experiencing a sense of loss, we all need to be vigilant of our own wellbeing.
It’s ok to grieve for the way life used to be and to feel anxious about the unfolding new normal. These feelings are completely understandable as we reintegrate back into the world from the shelter of our own homes. Remember to keep talking about how you feel and try to support others in their journey. If your feelings of loss remain overwhelming and you’re finding it increasingly difficult to manage how you feel, perhaps consider speaking with your GP. Or reach out to CABA to find out more about our professional counselling options.
Written by: Kirsty Lilley
Kirsty has delivered mindfulness and self-compassion courses to a wide variety of workplaces during her career and is also a trained psychotherapist and coach. She has worked at a strategic level within organisations developing wellbeing policies and been responsible for developing training courses on improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as courses designed to help line managers support people with mental health difficulties effectively and continually works towards the reduction of stigma within workplace settings. Kirsty is committed to an integrated and compassionate approach when helping others to fulfil their potential.
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