Grief In Times of a Pandemic

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to stay away from bingeing on news updates about COVID-19.

It’s not going perfectly, because even while typing up this article, I’m listening to a documentary on pandemics (yes, I know I literally wrote a post on the downsides of multitasking, but these are wild times).

Lately though, I’ve been seeing multiple articles pop-up on the concept of grief in times of a pandemic.

At first glance, I thought these articles focused on the grief of losing a loved one to the virus. But then I noticed the majority of them discussed a different, more abstract type of grief.

This was more of an internal grief, not necessarily caused by one external event, like the death of a loved one. It was a heavy grief, something that we could possibly misinterpret as a general unease or anxiety.

But who isn’t feeling uneasy or anxious these days?

Grief...Seriously?

So at first, I scoffed at those articles. Grief? Isn’t that too strong of a word to use?

Let’s be real for a second. Many of us are blessed to have a roof over our heads, food to eat, running water and some form of healthcare.

Not only that, for those of us who have been impacted financially, we are also lucky to live in a place where the government has rolled our financial support during this time.

But then last week, something changed.

I started the week, getting used to working from home and settling into my new schedule. But I felt…off. Uneasy. Fragile, almost. I could feel my emotions in my chest but it felt different than regular anxiety. It was a deep-seated sadness I was feeling. Sadness over what, I couldn’t be sure.

But then I remembered those articles, and suddenly, it started to make sense. I was grieving.

I think it’s important to talk about exactly what kind of grief we’re feeling and how it may be different from depression or anxiety, which we may be more accustomed to feeling and acknowledging.

In this post, I will review:

The concept of grief

The unique kinds of grief we might be experiencing right now

What we can do to make the process easier for us

Grief vs. Depression

On the surface, grief and depression can look very similar. The first similarity that probably comes to your mind is sadness – both states have some component of profound sadness associated with them.

Additionally, both grief and depression can cause symptoms of:

  • Insomnia
  • Changes in appetite
  • Change in weight

One of the main differences, however, is that grief usually comes in waves. Certain triggers, such as a deceased loved one’s birthday, can bring about more intense feelings of grief.

In between these feelings of grief, however, you can still feel “normal”, and experience positive emotions like joy.

Depression, on the other hand, is usually more persistent and is accompanied by feelings of internal worthlessness and guilt.

It also prevents someone from seeing the positive side of things and experiencing positive feelings.

The main point to remember is that if we can’t grieve, we can’t heal.

While there is no perfect way to grieve, acknowledging that what you’re feeling, grief, is the first step in getting through the pain.

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Grief vs. Anxiety

It’s probably a bit easier to differentiate between grief versus anxiety.

You can feel anxiety while grieving, and people who are going through more severe forms of grief can experience increased symptoms of anxiety.

Grief and anxiety go hand-in-hand, and can occur simultaneously.

For example, you may be experiencing grief over losing your job and having no income in such precarious times.

It’s natural for you to feel anxiety over your present circumstances and the future, as well.

So what exactly can grief look like?

The 5 Stages of Grief (during a Pandemic)

Thanks to pop culture psychology, you may have heard that there are different stages of grief, ranging from denial to acceptance.

Despite what the stages suggest, it is important to note that grief is not linear. You may experience one, all or none of these stages. There is no “right” or “perfect” way to grieve.

Additionally, this model should be taken with a grain of salt, as there are many criticisms of the validity of these stages.

For our purposes, we can use them as a guideline to help navigate through our emotions by putting a name to what we might be feeling.

1. Denial

We’ve all been here – often our initial reaction to a devastating event can be to deny to it ever happened. In the case of COVID-19, many of us may have denied the severity of the situation in its early stages.

This denial serves to protect us again from the initial onslaught of emotions that we would experience if we were to accept all this information at once.

2. Anger

To control our fears and anxieties, we may feel angry about the current COVID-19 situation. Right now, we may be angry over having to upend our lives over the virus.

All our plans in the immediate and near future are canceled or on hold. We feel angry because it’s like someone hit the pause button on our lives and we have no control over it.

3. Bargaining

Here, we begin to compromise to manage our emotions. We try to retain control in a situation where we feel powerless.

We may reason that everything will be over in a few weeks, and we’ll be back to normal before we know it.

There’s no way things will last like this for a long time, right?

4. Despair

The feelings of despair and hopelessness can set in once you fully begin to understand the impact of what you’re experiencing.

You haven’t seen your friends or your family in weeks. Everything you had planned, birthdays, graduations, celebrations, are now canceled or on hold.

Could it be like this forever?

5. Acceptance

When we acknowledge the facts, we may be better equipped to manage our emotions in a healthier, more balanced way.

Accepting reality without denying our fears and anxieties can help us stay safe and well-informed as we do our part to combat COVID-19.

In the meantime, we can keep in touch with friends and families virtually and focus on doing what makes us happy and keeps us calm.

Again, it’s important to remember that these stages are not linear.

You may jump back and forth between stages multiple times because grief comes in waves.

One day, you may be feeling positive and hopeful while facing this new challenge, but the next day, you’re afraid and anxious about what this means for you.

This is all normal and to be expected.

So we’re all grieving right now. But what kind of grief is this?

Why We Might be Grieving

I should start this section by prefacing that because we’re living in unprecedented times, there isn’t a lot of research into pandemic-related grief.

A simple Google search on “grief” brings ups dozens of articles about different kinds of grief (there’s a lot more than you think) and the majority of them are related to the loss of a loved one.

A deeper dive, however, brings me to what I’m looking for. Again, there isn’t a significant amount of research into non-bereavement related grief, but there is conversation about anticipatory grief.

Anticipatory grief is a feeling of grief before the “thing” happens. It's the grief before the inevitable grief.

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For example, we’re not sure what’s going to happen with COVID-19, we don’t know what the end outcome is going to be. We don’t know how we should or will react, or what we'll do.

This is a grief of the unknown, grief over the lack of certainty and safety.

Of course we’re grieving. Alongside this uncertain, dynamic grief, we may be experiencing other kinds of grief, touching all aspects of our life.

You may be experiencing of grief over your loss of freedom.

Grief over not seeing your friends.

Grief over your finances.

Grief over worrying about your very existence in this world.

How I've Been Grieving

Let me break down my own grief over the past week.

While settling into my new job (I consider it to be a new job since I've never worked from home). While providing psychotherapy virtually is not new to me, I felt strangely uneasy at the fact that I may be providing virtual care for a few weeks not because I want to, but because I had to.

I had an urge to constantly check news websites, and check the Trending section on Twitter to keep up with any updates.

I was feeling anxious, definitely. But there was something else, something I couldn’t recognize. I felt uncomfortable, and flighty.

I had bouts of deep sadness where I missed my friends, my extended family and even my morning commute to work (which, honestly, isn’t anything to be missed).

I realized this week that I was grieving over a loss of normalcy, of my routine.

Of my life.

Immediately when it hit me, I felt guilty. I chastised myself in engaging in self-pity, when there people out there who were ill, people who had lost family, lost their livelihoods.

Families who would be evicted. Who I was to be grieving?

You Are Allowed To Grieve

It’s important to remember that anyone and everyone can feel grief.

You are allowed to grieve.

Accepting what you’re feeling is in fact, grief, is the first step in healing.

No, you’re not being selfish or ungrateful.

You are human.

You are feeling human emotions.

At this time, you might be grieving for a loss of stability and security. You no longer have a set routine or schedule. You miss being able to hang out with your friends at your favourite restaurant after work or ordering takeout on the weekends without a second thought.

You may be grieving while missing your friends, or not being able to go to your parents’ house for family dinners. Grieving the loss of your social life doesn’t make you a bad person.

Additionally,  you might be grieving severely over your sudden loss of financial security. Some of us have lost our jobs or have a significant reduction in our incomes and don't know what to do next.

This is a whole new world, one you have to learn to navigate quickly, while simultaneously dealing with our own emotions and feelings.

Perhaps you’re empathetically grieving – for those on the frontlines of the pandemic, putting themselves at risk to save the most vulnerable.

Maybe you’re grieving for those who’ve lost loved ones; those who’ve lost their jobs and livelihoods; and for those who are currently most at-risk in our society.

It might be comforting to know that even if we don’t realize it, we’re all grieving.

We might be grieving over different things, but we all feel it, in some capacity to some extent.

As dire as this situation is, we are not, and never will be, alone.

How Do I Work Through My Grief?

There is no “cure” for grieving (or for anxiety/depression), rather, grieving itself is a part of the healing process.

Here are different ways that can help manage the grieving process in a healthy, balanced way.

1. Accept your grief.

Own it. It’s yours and to heal, you need it. Grief is nothing to run away from or be ashamed of. It’s a natural part of the healing process.

2. Take a step back and unplug.

In times of uncertainty, staying online and keeping up with the news and social networks can actually be unnecessarily overwhelming and detrimental to our well-being.

For a few hours every day, turn off your phone, and keep off of social media.

Try to only check the news once (preferably during the daytime), and definitely not before bed (you need to sleep!).

3. Acknowledge the good.

I know - sounds a little basic and mildly condescending. But even while grieving, you’re allowed to be happy.

Facetime with your family and friends, come up with new traditions and new routines to temporarily replace the old ones.

Maybe it’s a weekly group video-chat or a virtual date night.

Remind yourself of the good things - the roof over your head, having a full pantry of food and access to good healthcare.

There is always good to be found, as long as we all take a look outside of the rabbit hole.

4. Just breathe.

In our grief, we can forget to do the most basic things. Take a deep breath when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed and caught up in your emotions.

It may not alleviate your grief, but at least your brain will have the oxygen it needs in order to deal with everything, which helps you make better decisions and move you into a better mindset.

5. Ask for help.

Like always, getting help is sometimes necessary for you to deal with how you’re well.

Now more than ever are we in need of a helping hand.

My lovely team of skilled therapists are working extended hours to offer you support, so feel free to reach out to book a session.

Wrapping Up

What are some ways you are processing your grief during this uncertain time?

As isolating as this all appears to be, it’s nice to remember we are not alone.

And I have a feeling when we are able to go out and spend time with our loved ones, we will all have a deeper appreciation of many more things in our lives.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services