I’m stating the obvious when I say a global pandemic brings with it tremendous loss. Right now, the loss of life is at a scale that’s hard to fathom—and it’s still climbing here in the U.S. There’s also job loss, which definitely can take a mental and physical toll. For the fortunate who contract and recover from COVID-19, there’s a loss of health, short-term and in some cases long-term, to contend with.
And New York is the epicenter of it all in this country. What the healthcare workers and families are going through is scary, hard to fathom, and, heartbreakingly, full of loss.
These are immediate, painful experiences that are and absolutely should be grieved.
And in a crisis like this, it might surprise you to know that there are different types of grief. Those losses mentioned above are big, all-encompassing types of grief. But there are little losses right now in everyday life that may be chipping away at you slowly. You may not realize you’re experiencing grief right away, but it’s absolutely an appropriate term.
A 40th birthday celebration. A surprise pregnancy announcement. Baby’s first birthday. A half marathon. All cancelled. That meal you were looking forward to getting with friends, or a weekend trip you were planning to take—postponed until a time when physical distancing is no longer needed. All little losses to what make the fabric of our lives whole.
Managing and Accepting Grief in a Healthy Way
Grief: It’s a hard-to-define concept, but it’s an unfortunate, essential part of what makes us human. However, just because we’re equipped to experience grief in this lifetime doesn’t mean we’re good at handling it, especially unique grief like this.
“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” said David Kessler, an expert in grief, in an interview with Harvard Business Review.
There’s also ambiguous grief: an uncertainty about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how long it could continue to affect our lives.
For me, the losses I’m experiencing both big and small during this time amount to some physical discomfort and anxiety—like there’s a weight on my chest I can’t quite explain. I’m sleeping poorly, and when I start to deeply think about the changes or losses I’ve experienced in the last few weeks, I spiral a bit, thinking about what else might go wrong in the future.
To move forward in a healthy manner when this crisis has been mitigated means putting in some work now to understand and manage your grief. As you may already know, Kessler says there are several stages to grief: denial, anger, bartering, sadness, and acceptance. Recently, he added a sixth: understanding the meaning of your grief.
Processing your loss and grief won’t necessarily be linear through each step, and that’s okay. But it’s important to continue to move through your grief—when you’re ready.
There are a lot of experts out there that’ll tell you how you can deal with the stress, anxiety, and grief of this period of time. Kessler recommends you find balance in the things you’re thinking. He and many others, including English therapist Julia Samuel, recommend focusing on what you can do now. Trying to future plan beyond a few days with so many unknowns could drive you crazy.
Samuel also recommends cursing as a coping mechanism, which I am all on board for.
Now is a good time to lean on your loved ones. This is collective grief, after all, and sharing your concerns out loud might be therapeutic for you. If that’s not enough, you could find a counselor that practices in a virtual setting to help talk things through.
There’s one thing that Samuel made very clear, however: although it’s good to treat yourself to something in these uncertain times, make sure that treat doesn’t turn into a new vice, or increase an existing one. Although there is less to do out in the world, turning to alcohol or drugs right now to cope with grief will only push those feelings off for you to deal with at a later time, and might cost you more in the interim than you realize.
Finding Hope Among Loss
Our lives have changed drastically, and we’re going to continue living in this limbo of unknown for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean good things aren’t happening every day. With the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to find those stories of hope, but they are out there.
In just one day, over 400,000 people signed up to volunteer for England’s National Health Service (NHS). Across the U.S., thousands of doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to help. Several people, most notably NY fashion designer Christian Siriano, are shifting their efforts to sew masks for healthcare workers. My mom is doing this, and it makes me very proud.
There’s a huge amount of effort thrown behind researching vaccines—of which some are already in testing—and treatments. Neighbors are helping the elderly in the community grocery shop, children are leaving sidewalk chalk masterpieces for us to appreciate.
Big grief is showstopping and unexplainable. Collective grief for those of us in the U.S. is new and confusing. Ambiguous grief kind of feels like fog following us around. But it’s important for all of us to know that it’s okay to grieve the little things, too. Lori Gottlieb, a therapist writing for the New York Times, had this to say about grief:
“I always say that there’s no hierarchy of pain—pain is pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest. I believe, too, that there’s no hierarchy of grief. When we rank our losses, when we validate some and minimize others, many people are left alone to grieve what then become their silent losses.”
Don’t suffer in silence. Take care of yourself and find hope where you can. It’s out there.