Grief is a heavy word. It carries the suggestion that you have lost someone, or something, very significant. However, the grief process can also accompany other experiences. Really, all that is required for grief is loss. And, as we can all attest, this experience with COVID-19 has certainly created some losses.
This term, “grief”, often gets used as a single concept but there are actually a few different kinds of grief. And, because of the nature of this pandemic, we have the potential to encounter several of them at the same time. I don’t share this to “over-label” our experience, but instead, help inform us about the different ways we may be mentally and emotionally impacted during this time. When we know better we can cope better. And, when we can cope better, it gives us the ability to move through difficult experiences in a more informed way.
Alright, this is not an exhaustive list, but let’s look at a few types of grief.
Grief – This is what we are already experiencing to varying degrees. Grief is, simply, our body’s reaction to loss. It can affect us emotionally, cognitively, physically, and spiritually as we cycle through shock/denial, anger, sadness, acceptance, hope, and reconstructing a new normal. The very nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has created some “loss” for every one of us. Whether it be loss of control, loss of connection with others, sadness over those things that have been canceled, missing our old routines, etc. we are all trying to cope with the existing grief already accompanying this strange current reality. And, while that is enough, it is possible that we may be experiencing other types of grief as well.
Anticipatory Grief – While grief is our body’s response to something that has been lost, anticipatory grief is what occurs when we consider what we could lose. Typically associated with the grief experienced when someone is dying of a terminal illness, this is our body’s way of trying to “prepare” us for what’s coming. When we apply this to COVID-19, it is certainly possible for us to experience anticipatory grieving. Examples of this may be thinking about the possibility of losing a loved one, a job, wondering if we need to cancel a summer vacation, or what might happen to school or sports in the fall. It is uniquely focused on what we could lose, added to the grief of what has already been lost.
Cumulative Grief – This is exactly what it sounds like. Cumulative grief is what we can experience when more losses are added before we had the chance to get through what has already happened. Cue COVID-19 and the ongoing nature of canceled experiences, extensions of social distancing, and the impact of this getting more personal and we are prime for some cumulative grief. It is a unique psychological experience because several losses are being experienced at the same time but cannot be grieved all at once because they each carry their own individual importance in our psyche.
So, what do we do? As we can see, the multi-layer experience we are having through COVID-19 can make for a pretty big grief sandwich, one that is super hard to swallow. We can’t pretend we haven’t lost stuff, because we have. We can’t pretend we won’t lose more stuff, because we probably will. And we can’t just “get over” the losses we’ve already had just to manage the ones that are coming. We are just going to have to eat that sandwich one bite at a time — as we are designed to.
Grief, especially the complicated grief we may be experiencing, can only be taken in segments. There is no way to take it in all at once or “get over it” in one fail swoop. Just like this pandemic, our experiences of sadness, anger, shock, and loss have to be taken one day at a time and some days are going to go better than others. And, as the days come, here are some reflection questions that may help you move through in a healthy way. Just a little bit at a time.
Where is this day’s grief coming from? Simply identifying the part of the loss that is bothering you can help increase awareness and focus your coping strategies.
How is my self-care? I know this advice may sound like a broken record but investing in your own “recovery” each day is essential. If you don’t fill up you won’t have anything to pour out in the effort to move through your own grief. And grieving is hard work.
Am I connecting with compassionate people? There are people (personal or professional) who are going to be helpful for you during this time and those who aren’t. Make sure you are making efforts to connect with people who fill you during this time.
Am I making space for happiness/positivity? Just because we are grieving doesn’t mean we can’t authentically experience other emotions throughout the day. Watch things that make you laugh, revisit old memories, feel free to be silly. Grief does not have to rule the day, it just asks for a place here and there.
Almost all of us have been through at least one intense grief experience in our lives —and you made it. It changed you, and it was hard, but you made it. Remember, you aren’t alone, we are quite literally all in this together. And we will make it through again.
Photo by Nishta Sharma on Unsplash