In one week during COVID, three of my clients and one of my older friends died.
Grieving at any time in life is painful. Grieving during COVID is unprecedented. With social distancing, we are more at risk of grieving alone. This is why we need a plan for helping ourselves move through grief and loss during COVID.
What is grief?
Grief is an intense psychological, physiological, and emotional experience that is necessary when adjusting to a major loss (like the death of a loved one, receiving a diagnosis of a life-altering medical or mental health condition, losing a home to a fire or foreclosure, etc), and when we move through necessary transitions in life and role changes (like leaving the home for the first time, becoming parents, becoming empty nesters, losing a job, ending a relationship, etc).
Grief isn’t something that we can choose to do or not do. Grief is a normal human experience that helps us to process loss, move through transitions in our lives, and integrate all of our experiences. It’s painful and necessary. Our psyche actually needs to experience and process these losses in order to adjust to them in a healthy way.
What are the stages of grief?
Grief is as diverse as the people who experience it, but there are common features that are seen with grief. Elisabeth Kubler Ross pioneered the concept of the stages of grief, but what she repeatedly tried to explain was that people don't move through the stages in order. Grief is messy and disorganized and so is our healing process.
The stages, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:
How do these stages of grief play out in reality?
Grief is as diverse as the people who experience it. New experiences of grief can dredge up old experiences of grief, compound, and become overwhelming. Simultaneously, that same person may draw on their personal experiences of having moved through grief and be resilient.
Grief is messy, unpredictable, and complex. There is a whirlwind of emotions. Just when we think we have a handle on our emotional state, a song or smell triggers a memory and we are flooded with emotions.
The Kubler Ross’ stages of grief offer a guide; they give us an emotional language for talking about grief and loss.
These stages help us to normalize grief, but Kubler Ross, herself, made many statements and even wrote that these stages are not linear, we don’t move through them in a neat and tidy line. These emotional stages are part of a whirlwind of emotions.
The gift of these stages, however, is that they normalize the emotional experience of processing grief and they let us know that we are not alone. They say, “It’s OK to be angry,” “It’s expected that you are going to bargain and plead for more chances” or “wish that you had made a different decision that would alter fate and prevent a loss from happening.” They say it’s human to deny that the person is going or gone.
The stages help to name our experience, because naming our experience and giving voice to it, helps us to integrate losses into our psyche, which is what we need in order to heal and grow.
What about additional stages?
David Kessler’s sixth stage of grief is really important. In a podcast with Brene Brown, Kessler explained that finding meaning when we're grieving is important but that it is not a bypass to the pain. Kessler cautioned, if we don’t experience the pain associated with loss, we cannot heal it. Meaning provides a cushion but doesn’t take the place of the pain. He also clarifies that there is no meaning in the loss or the death itself, the meaning is what we do after the person dies (or the loss); the meaning lies within us, not in the loss.
What can I do if I'm grieving during COVID?
We don’t get to dictate how we grieve. Grieving happens on both an unconscious and conscious level. It simply happens. We don’t get to say, I've moved through “denial," now I am in the stage of “anger.” Or, “I’m experiencing depression, so that means I’m on my way to acceptance and then I’m done.” Grief doesn’t work like that. To actually move through the grieving process, we have to experience the pain and suffering associated with grief.
The timeline is unclear. It used to be thought that the person should have moved out of their intense bereavement process (grieving after the loss) within six months to a year. But, that isn’t true. Fragments of grief may exist throughout our lives.
Here are seven strategies for coping with grief and loss during COVID:
- Acknowledge that you're grieving. Giving words and voice to the grieving process helps in the healing process. It helps to bring the unconscious into the conscious (kind of like turning on a light in a dark room). Allow yourself to look and reflect.
- Share your grief with others. Sharing your grief with others allows you to get the support you need. Grief is too big to hold on our own, which is why every society and culture has a tradition for bereavement and mourning that typically includes rituals and events with community and family. Rituals, community, and family events create opportunities for our grief and bereavement to be witnessed, held, and understood. It creates a sense of belonging, which helps to stabilize us when our foundation is unstable.
- Don’t downplay or dismiss your pain and suffering. Pain and suffering is just that—painful—and one of our natural human tendencies is to push it away. Allow yourself to experience and talk about the pain.
- Engage in self-compassion. Hold your pain and suffering gently and with compassion. Be kind to yourself and be encouraging. Refrain from judging yourself or others. One of the things that I share with my bereaved clients is, "This is hard and you will get through this … I’ll be with you every step of the way."
- Try to maintain your physical health. You may notice sleep disruptions, loss of appetite, and other physical changes. Do your best to maintain your physical health.
- Even though you have to distance yourself during COVID, do not isolate. Reach out to others for support. Stay connected to others by forging new bonds or strengthening the bonds you have.
- Join a grief or bereavement group. Groups can help to hold space for our suffering, remind us that we are not alone, and help us to bear witness to others and allows others to see us. Find a grief group here.