COVID-19 Gives Us Grief Dealing with Ambiguous Losses - theHumm May 2020
COVID-19 Gives Us Grief Dealing with Ambiguous Losses - theHumm May 2020
By Barbara Carroll
As we move through the COVID-19 pandemic we face multiple losses and experience the range of emotions of grief: anxiety, fear, sadness, despair, anger, loneliness, disappointment, hopelessness and regret. We each have our own losses, and we have all lost things such as peace of mind, freedom, independence, control over much of our lives, physical contact and a sense of safety. Well, we can say, COVID-19 is temporary and when it is over life will return to normal. That may be, but we are not there yet, and in the meantime it can help to acknowledge and understand the grief we are feeling.
Our losses are ambiguous. We don’t know when and how the self-isolation restrictions will be lifted and we don’t know if some of our losses will become permanent. Some of us will lose our jobs and/or businesses, but we don’t know if and/or when that will occur. For now, we are living with ambiguous grief, a type of grief that is characterized by high levels of uncertainty and anxiety. It is the type of grief that happens when a loved one goes missing and it is not known whether they are dead or alive.
How do we cope with ambiguous grief? The anxiety of this type of grief is very uncomfortable to live with and our tendency is to try to reduce it. One way to do this is to go to extremes. If a loved one is missing, we can reduce anxiety by believing the person is alive, or even that the person is dead. In our COVID-19 reality we can reduce anxiety by believing that the threat is not real, not great, or that it won’t happen to us. If we believe only this, we end up on a crowded beach in Florida and the common good is not served. We can go to the other extreme and believe that we are never going to recover, and our losses are permanent. Our uncertainty is lowered, and if we can think of someone to blame, our anxiety is lowered as well. We then become discouraged and our mental health is at risk. Either way, going to extremes is not a helpful strategy. To be responsible citizens and take care of our mental health we need to find ways of living in the middle ground, where our anxiety is high. At the moment, a level of anxiety is good — it keeps us vigilant and safe.
How to Cope?
Some ways in which we can cope with the grief of COVID-19 include:
Reduce anxiety using well-known techniques such as breathing or meditation. Any repetitive activity like walking, knitting, painting, chopping wood or raking leaves will also help.
Pay attention to what causes our anxiety spikes. This will inform us of anything we can do to avoid the spikes, such as not going to the grocery store and ordering groceries online. At the very least by paying attention we will learn when the spikes will subside.
Don’t think too far ahead. The truth is we don’t know the future at this time. Try to let it unfold as it does. One step at a time.
Determine what is within our control and focus on that. We can’t control how this virus is going to play out, but we have some control over much of our lives within our homes and over how we react to all that is going on.
Accept that we are grieving — which means we will have bad days when we don’t feel motivated to do anything, and good days when we think we are coping well. Our emotions will hit us unpredictably and we may feel overwhelmed and out of control at times. These waves will flow in and out. In a hard day, know a better day is coming. In a good day, embrace it fully, knowing our bodies are helping us brace for the next wave.
Structure the days — and do it the night before. We are more motivated to get out of bed if we have an idea of what we are going to do that day.
Use distractions from the feelings of grief to avoid being overwhelmed. Actively seek out things to laugh at, phone a friend, FaceTime with family, cook a nice meal, read a good book, watch an engrossing Netflix program; whatever works for each of us.
Employ creative problem solving to stay connected — as we do when we have the family Easter dinner over Zoom, play bridge online, run online contests for our friends or organize virtual scavenger hunts.
Each day generate three things that went well, that we are grateful for.
Beyond these strategies, we can try to find meaning in what we are going through. We can reflect on our experiences and on what we see going on in the world. We can pay attention to transformations we see happening in ourselves — changes in beliefs, attitudes and priorities. We have the time to think about what we want our lives to be like, what our priorities will be, and what we value in our communities and country. If we do that, growth will happen. We will emerge from this, not to where we were before, but to somewhere that is richer, fuller, and, hopefully, more compassionate and understanding. We will be wiser as individuals, as communities and as societies. The payoff for sitting with grief and high levels of anxiety at the moment is the possibility of a better future. Now is our time to dream. When this is over it will be time to work together to find ways to make those dreams realities.
— Barbara Carroll is a Grief and Bereavement Specialist
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