It is okay to grieve the loss of normalcy. Our world has changed so much in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, even with easing restrictions, there is no certainty that it will return to normal any time soon. Every one of us has experienced the loss of our sense of personal safety, social connection, personal freedom and control over our lives. Far too many of us face the loss of financial security – our job, our career, our business, our retirement savings, to say nothing of colleagues and loved ones. These losses are bound to have an effect on our emotional and mental health.
Grief is a normal and healthy reaction to loss. There is a misconception that grief must be reserved for death or the loss of something that is somehow “worthy” of being grieved. In reality, it's possible to experience grief over the loss of anything, especially when we lose something that threatens our sense of self. Anyone losing their job will feel this quite strongly, but even the “stay home” orders themselves threaten our former realities. So much of our identity stems from our social connections and activities, and when those things are taken away, it leads to a crisis of self.
There’s a lot of talk about feeling anxious or depressed right now, but what we are experiencing is actually grief. There's power in naming our experience as grief because it allows us to move through it. We have lost normalcy and identity, and we have a right to feel grief over this. Denying an emotion keeps us stuck in it: Emotions need motion. We must go through the stages of grief and ultimately get to a place of acceptance, because acceptance is where we find control again.
Grief is an individual experience
I see people on social media criticizing high school students who are upset that they aren't able to go to prom. The critics consider the loss of prom trivial compared to the larger issues at play in the world. Yet that sort of response is so damaging and so invalidating of others’ experiences. The loss is valid – senior prom is an important part of the high school experience that comes once in life. Dealing with this loss involves the grieving process, even though it's a different type of loss.
Unfortunately, our society right now seems to have this belief that in order for my pain to be valid it has to be worse than yours. People are going to experience pain and loss in different ways, and, unfortunately, there's more than enough grief and pain to go around. Instead of being hard on those who don’t seem “deserving” of their grief, we should have compassion for both ourselves and for others.
Don’t get stuck
I see a lot of jokes on social media about drinking at 10 a.m. and sharing “quarantinis” over video chats, almost to the point of normalizing these self-medicating behaviors. People are cut off from their usual methods of coping, and many are turning to unhealthy ways of immediate gratification to numb their discomfort. Not only can this be dangerous in the short term, but I am concerned for what happens a few months from now for people who haven't allowed themselves to feel the loss, fear and grief they have. We're going to see a lot of complicated grief and post-event trauma from people who haven't fully moved through the grieving process.
Complicated grief becomes all-encompassing, making it difficult for people to think about anything else. They cannot accept the reality of the losses they've experienced and therefore fail to adjust to the new reality. When things do start up again, people who haven’t properly experienced grief are going to have a hard time getting back into their former routines. We will see issues in ongoing relationships, divorces, rumination over losses and difficulty sleeping. Once the social distancing is alleviated, if people haven't worked through this process, they're going to have a harder time reconnecting with others.
Working through it now
Working through our grief requires us to find a balance, where we allow ourselves time to experience the different stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. It involves staying in the present as much as possible and remaining clear on what we can and cannot control in our lives. We cannot control whether or not our neighbors or even our family members follow the quarantine guidelines, for example, but we can control our own responses.
One of the best thing we can do is show ourselves as much compassion as possible. We try so hard to push away our feelings, but it's not really a battle we can win because our body is producing these feelings. If we allow ourselves to experience these feelings as they happen – no matter how uncomfortable – we will be better able to move through the process.
It’s also important to seek help, whether it's communicating with family and friends remotely by using technologies like FaceTime and Zoom, or seeking professional support through telehealth services. Willingness to accepting help in uncertain times is a huge step forward.
Borrowing some of the self-care tools from anxiety treatment can also help: Creating a schedule, cultivating social connections, journaling, meditation and mindfulness practices. We are uncomfortable with the uncertainty we face. Putting words to it by talking to someone or writing in a journal can help put things in perspective.
It can be difficult in this time of social distancing, but social support remains an important part of building resilience and moving through times of grief. Within that supportive framework, take the time to look at the loss and remain still with the feelings it brings.
Also engage in some positive, self-nurturing and restorative activities, like going for a walk. During quarantine, rediscovering old joys can be a gift to the soul, such as connecting with family members you haven't spoken to in years or sitting down to have dinner with your children rather than working late.
Remember this is a temporary state. Grief is transient, and there's not a linear process to get through it. For the most part, people are resilient. We go through a lot of grief and adversity at different times in our life, and with the right support we are able to come out on the other end of it stronger and more resilient.
By Devon Dautrich, Ph.D.
By Ming Wang, MD, FASAM