Four months ago, all of our lives changed due to COVID-19. For many, it felt, and still feels, as though the world’s turned upside down. While everyone’s circumstances and responses to the pandemic are different, there is one common thread running through this collective experience, and that is grief and loss.
As grief expert, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, explains: “Grief is everything we think and feel inside of us whenever our attachments are threatened, harmed, or severed.” This encompasses our attachment to life as we knew it, our attachment to other people, to our jobs, our routines, our hopes and dreams, and more.
The pandemic has affected our relationships with others in a multitude of ways. We may have lost people we care about to this terrible virus. We may have lost the opportunity to physically see family members who are vulnerable. We may have lost the comforting power of touch after months of not being able to hug friends. We may be losing patience and positivity with our partners.
Other pandemic-related losses include the loss of livelihoods, loss of security, loss of routine, loss of structure, loss of a sense of normalcy, loss of ability to engage in rituals and events, including funerals, birthday celebrations, school plays, weddings, graduations, and once-in-a-lifetime trips; which can all contribute to a loss of meaning and purpose, loss of motivation, loss of identity. Grief sets in.
In grief, “we experience shock and disbelief,” writes Wolfelt. “We are anxious…We become sad and possibly lonely. We get angry. We feel guilty or regretful. The sum total of all these and any other thoughts and feelings we are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is our grief.”
We are also experiencing anticipatory grief, which can manifest as feelings of dread and fear about future losses and about the uncertainty of what lies ahead. “Our minds and hearts are naturally trying to anticipate and prepare for what’s to come” (Wolfelt, 2020).
Grief is a normal, necessary, and universal response to loss. It is an ongoing, nonlinear process that knows no timeline and is not confined to discrete stages. Grief is not a problem to be solved, but rather an experience to be tended to. We cannot be cured of our grief, but we can heal over time.
In addition to the symptoms listed above, grief can include feelings of emptiness, yearning, hopelessness, hurt, confusion, and groundlessness. Grief is a whole body experience, affecting our physical, cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social functioning. Lynn Jonen, clinical psychologist at Sierra Tuscon treatment center, speaks to the individual nature of each grief journey, stating: “Our experience of grief is shaped by circumstances surrounding the death or loss and by the sum total of our cultural beliefs, life experiences, family, religion, and personality.”
But regardless of the different paths we all take in grief, contemporary grief literature points to two key elements involved in healthy navigations of loss, and those are:
1. Finding ways to express our grief
2. Having our grief witnessed
While there are many theoretical models through which to better understand and work through grief, I have chosen to share Alan Wolfelt’s Six Needs of Mourning, which he has adapted in a recent article called “Coronavirus and the Six Needs of Mourning” in order to focus on the grief needs of pandemic-related losses. The six needs are as follows:
Need 1: To acknowledge the reality of the pandemic and our grief. Acknowledging the reality of COVID-19 includes learning the facts about it, the precautions to take, and getting information from credible sources. Addressing the reality of our grief includes talking to others on a regular basis, and opening up and being honest about our thoughts, feelings, and fears.
Need 2: To honor all of our emotions. It is normal to experience a wide range of feelings about this pandemic, and for many of those feelings to be difficult to cope with. By being aware of them, naming them, and expressing them in some capacity, we can soften them.
Need 3: To think about the positives by spending some time each day considering the people and aspects of our lives that we are grateful for. Identify ways to feel, acknowledge, and/or express that gratitude, whether it’s by writing a card to someone who means a lot to us, saying a little prayer of thanks at the end of the day, keeping a gratitude journal, or paying it forward with a gesture of kindness toward someone else.
Need 4: To be kind to ourselves. It’s important to treat ourselves with patience, tenderness, care, and compassion – to treat ourselves as we would a good friend; to take care of our physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual realms. If we neglect one or more of those five parts of ourselves, we risk becoming unbalanced and intensifying our grief. Examples of how we can attend to ourselves during this difficult time include taking a walk, FaceTiming a friend, playing a board game with family, or doing a guided meditation.
Need 5: To search for meaning. It is common to now think of our lives as divided into “Before” the pandemic, and “After.” We are in a period of transition where life feels suspended and the future is full of unknowns. This can be a scary and certainly uncomfortable place to be. But when we stay with that discomfort and confront the kinds of spiritual questions that often come up in this “liminal” space, we are learning and growing in profound ways. When we are present to our pain, transformation occurs. Practicing mindfulness also enables us to soak up moments of pleasure, contentment, and joy. Focusing our awareness on the here and now, without judgment, as we engage in activities we enjoy, is an essential part of coping with coronavirus-related grief.
Need 6: To reach out to others to give and accept support. Human beings need contact and connection with others. Lean on other people during this time; deepen your relationships, and build new ones. Express your concerns to those that you trust, and try to be empathic as they lean on you, too. We now have to rely on technology more than ever before, and it’s important to utilize the tools at our disposal even if they’re not our ideal or preferred modes of communication. Video calls tend to feel the closest to in-person encounters, second to phone calls. Emailing, texting, and chatting through social media can also be helpful when used intentionally. While often forgotten, handwritten letter writing can also be a special way to stay in touch. The important thing is maintaining the kind of contact that facilitates reciprocal support and compassion.
Mourning is the most difficult work we will do in our lifetimes, but when mourning is done “well,” says Wolfelt, we can gain clarity about what really matters in our lives, and let go of some things that don’t. Dr. Jonen hopes that our collective experience with this global pandemic will provide our society the wakeup call we need to start appropriately addressing grief, which is too often seen as something we have to deal with by ourselves and “get past” as quickly as possible.
“…it almost seems as if something this catastrophic was needed to shake us out of complacency and the subscription to our culture of ‘more, more, more, speed, information, keep going no matter what’ mentality,” she states. “COVID shut us all down very quickly; it forced us to stay in our homes, many of us to leave our jobs, all of us to reevaluate priorities… We have an extraordinary opportunity at this moment to collectively transform how we move through grief and trauma.”
Jonen, L.P., PhD. (2020). Understanding Grief and Trauma in Today’s World [PowerPoint slides]
Wolfelt, A.D., PhD. (2020, April 20). Coronavirus and the Six Needs of Mourning. Center for Loss and Life Transition.
Retrieved from https://www.centerforloss.com/2020/04/coronavirus-six-needs/
Emily Lockamy, MA, LCMHC offers individual grief therapy and grief support groups at Chrysalis Center.
Call 910-790-9500 to set up an initial appointment.