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Grief During COVID-19: Mourning the Loss of “Normal”

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

|By Micah Davis, MSW, CSW

Grief can be an extremely difficult experience even during the best of circumstances.

Add in the layers of fear and uncertainty during a pandemic, and to put it lightly, a lot of us are having a hard time. It’s completely natural and expected that some challenging emotions might be coming up, so let’s explore some of those -- specifically as related to loss during COVID-19.

What does grief look like?

Everyone grieves differently, but some of the common experiences associated with grief can include:

  • Shock, feeling numb

  • Guilt, regret

  • Anger, resentment

  • Anxiety, fear

  • Physical symptoms, like fatigue, nausea, changes in sleeping/eating patterns

Let’s talk about the different types of loss we could be experiencing during Coronavirus.

As the death count from COVID-19 continues to rise, the likelihood that any of us has personally lost someone to this virus increases.

While any kind of interpersonal loss is painful, the specific circumstances of COVID-19 can add its own challenges. The speed at which the virus can progress along with restrictions about visitors can make it difficult for people to find closure. Survivors may also feel added guilt about possible transmission of the virus or wonder if they could have taken more precautions to protect their loved one. All of these additional

complications can compound any of the above-listed experiences already associated with grief, creating a unique experience related to the COVID-19 era.

You also may have experienced the death of a loved one unrelated to COVID-19, which can bring about its own challenges.

During a widely recognized crisis, losing someone unrelated to the pandemic may make you feel like your loss isn’t as important, or that your grief is invisible. You may feel that somehow your loss isn’t seen as tragic as others. However, please remember that any loss is difficult, and your grief is valid. Your loved one’s life mattered, and so does your experience of losing them.

Along with individual losses, many of us have noticed a sense of collective loss within our society as a whole.

The deaths related to COVID-19 continue to surpass tragic milestones: people lost in 9/11, in the Revolutionary War, etc. It can be hard not to feel the weight of a loss of this magnitude. Further, the media has been full of images of death (especially violent deaths) which can weigh especially heavily during a time when people are already feeling unsafe or that their health is at risk.

Grief is not only about loss of human life; we are also grieving our idea of “normal” and what life was like pre-COVID.

For most of us, our day-to-day routine has completely changed, and our sense of security and safety has also decreased. This is a huge loss and can trigger a grief reaction. I have seen many people (and have done this myself) invalidate this part of their experience because “at least no one I know has died,” “at least I’m not sick,” “at least I still have a job,” etc.

Pro tip: if the phrase starts with “at least….” stop right there. It’s not a competition. Both things can be true: other people may have it objectively worse AND your experience is still hard.

It’s ok to grieve that you didn’t have that graduation ceremony you were looking forward to, or couldn’t take that trip, or that you’ve lost your typical routine in general. Give yourself space to notice what you’ve lost, and to recognize that loss. Those emotions are valid, and it’s okay to acknowledge them.

So what can we do?

Everyone grieves differently, and it may take some time and creativity to find what helps you. Be patient with yourself through this process! It’s worth it.

Allow yourself to experience the grief in the first place.

It’s a natural response to loss, and you’ll be okay. But you have to feel it before you can move forward, or it will continue lingering at the back of your mind. I was afraid that if I let myself acknowledge all that I had lost from my pre-COVID life that I would get so bogged down in grief and depression, I wouldn’t be able to resurface. But rather than meeting the grief with that kind of resistance mindset, try accepting it as part of your experience. Let it move through you. Then let it go.

A shift in perspective was key for me here. Shauna Janz, a grief specialist, says,

“Grief is gratitude. Grief is praise.”

Grief is just a sign that something was important to you. In this way, grief and gratitude are two sides of the same coin. If you find yourself mourning a loss and you’re having a hard time with it, pause and reconceptualize it: try focusing on all the reasons you’re grateful to have experienced it. This subtle shift in thinking helped the loss seem more manageable.