Many of us may have experienced higher levels of anxiety, fear and sadness etc. over these past weeks, writes researcher Emily Acraman, because COVID-19 has turned our world upside down.
20 April 2020 – GRIEF IS THE WORD psychologists around the world are now using to describe that feeling. There are many different types of grief, and what makes this lockdown situation particularly unique is many of us are experiencing grief at the same time.
COVID-19 is changing our lives. While some of us may be dealing with grief at the loss of a loved one as a result of this virus, collectively we are experiencing an overwhelming loss of normalcy and control over our lives and our futures.
It is more than just not being able to do the things we would normally do.
It is a culmination of:
- The loss of social connection with friends and family.
- A disruption to our home life.
- Barriers to participate meaningfully in our work.
- The loss of the ability to move about freely in the world.
- The loss of our sense of safety.
- The fear of the economic toll and what this all means for our future.
For some of us it also includes the loss of our jobs and our economic security. We are all grieving, and we are doing it together.
Additionally, the anxiety that some of us may be feeling at present can also be, in part, due to a specific type of grief known as anticipatory grief.
Anticipatory grief is the feeling we get when we are uncertain about what the future holds. Unhealthy anticipatory grief often leads our minds to think about the future and imagine the worst is possible.
What can I do about this grief?
Grief experts often look to the Kubler-Ross Model (Gregory, 2019) which maintains there are five stages of grief that people commonly experience.
These stages of grief are not linear and can happen in a variety of different orders.
Some people may experience all stages in one day, and others may only ever experience two or three stages.
The importance here is about acknowledging the stage you are experiencing and moving to a place of acceptance and therefore control.
The five stages of COVID-19 grief:
This is often the first emotion we experience; it usually is accompanied by a state of shock. It can also be described as a state of disbelief that this is happening. In this stage a person may be thinking for example, “People are overreacting, this virus won’t actually affect us”.
Once the denial and shock begin to wear off, then you may find other feelings that may have been suppressed by the denial, start to become more evident.
Some or all of us may find ourselves feeling angry at the current situation. We might be angry about the loss of normalcy, or angry about activities or events we were looking forward to being cancelled. In this stage a person may be thinking, “I’m feeling so angry that because of this virus I can’t see my family or do the activities out in the community I’m used to doing”
Try not to suppress these feelings of anger. Anger is a normal and a necessary state of grief. By recognising the anger and allowing yourself to feel it, you will move to a place of healing quicker.
This stage is a way of falsely making yourself believe you can avoid the grief through a type of negotiation. By bargaining or making promises to oneself (or a higher power), it can help give a perceived sense of control over something that feels so out of control
You might say things to yourself like, “if everything goes back to normal quickly and I’m free to leave my house, I’ll never complain about the little things again”.
Bargaining is another line of defence (although weaker than the denial stage) to protect us from reality.
- Depression and sadness
Many of us may be experiencing feelings of intense sadness during this time. You might even find yourself being increasingly tearful. These are normal reactions to shock and change. Someone in this stage of grief may be thinking “I don’t know when this will end, I’m worried the world will never be the same again”.
Finding acceptance is about recognising and accepting a new normal. It is through acceptance we are able to experience control and meaning. Acceptance does not mean it’s okay that people are getting sick, rather real acceptance is saying, “this is happening, I can keep myself healthy, I can connect with my loved ones in a different way and I’m going to be okay”. Often acceptance may be simply having more good days than bad ones.
Berinato, in his article discussing coronavirus and grief, speaks to grief expert David Kessler about his inclusion of a sixth stage of grief: Meaning. In Kessler’s own personal dealings with grief, he felt once he had reached a stage of acceptance, what he really longed for was meaning. Kessler describes, it is often in our darkest moments we look for and can experience real meaning. For us, this lockdown provides numerous opportunities to find meaning. Parents are spending more time playing with their children, we are learning to connect with people via technology, we are appreciating the freedom of getting outside for exercise. Think about ways you can find meaning in what you are experiencing.
Tips for moving towards acceptance and meaning:
- Acknowledge your feelings
The most important way to get to this final stage of acceptance is by acknowledging your feelings. Name your emotions and allow yourself to feel them. Instead of telling yourself you shouldn’t be feeling the way you do, stop and really acknowledge your feelings and emotions. It is also important to recognise that your feelings are unique, and to not compare the way you are feeling to others. You need to allow yourself to feel your sadness and fear and anger.
- Find balance in your thoughts
When we talk about anticipatory grief, often this involves our minds imagining worst case scenarios. The key here is not to ignore these feelings, but rather to balance them out with positive thoughts. If you find yourself thinking about worst case scenarios, balance this by imagining some best outcomes.
For example, “everyone stays home, we contain this virus and we get back to normalcy as soon as possible”.
Also, acknowledging that some things are not possible now, but may be in the future can be particularly helpful.
- Live in the present
If you feel yourself starting to get carried away worrying about the future, to calm yourself you need to come back to the present moment. Remind yourself that what we are doing right now in this very moment is the right thing. We are staying home, and we are saving lives.
There are also a range of mindfulness techniques you can practice which can help to redirect your thoughts into the present moment. Some popular mindfulness apps include:
- Calm https://www.calm.com/
- Headspace https://www.headspace.com/
- The mindfulness app https://themindfulnessapp.com/
- You may also like to try a simple grounding exercise. A good exercise to begin with is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Working backward from 5, use your senses to list things you notice around you:
- List five things you can see
- List four things you can touch
- List three things you can hear
- List two things you can smell
- List one thing you can taste
- Let go of what you can’t control
It is also important to let go of the things you cannot control, and to focus your energy on the things you can. For example, you cannot control what the economic impact of COVID-19 will be, so it is not healthy to get carried away focusing on this. There are however some things you can control, you can stay home, you can wash your hands, you can stay two metres away from people so focus on these things.
Finally, it is a really good time to stock up on compassion for yourself and for others. Everyone deals with grief and stress in different ways. People are going to have a range of different reactions to the grief and the emotions they are feeling. Maybe a co-worker has been particularly grumpy, or the people you live with in your bubble are getting on your nerves a lot more than normal.
Be patient and remember this may be a reaction to this person’s grief and stress during this time. Check in with people and try and maintain that sense of social connection where you can.
While you may have to keep a physical distance from others during this time, it doesn’t mean you need to be socially or emotionally distant.
On the other hand, if you find yourself needing a bit of space from people then that’s okay too. The most important thing here is to be kind to yourself.
Do you need help?
Check out the government COVID-19 website here for more information on support for individuals and families.
If you’re not sure what assistance may be available or don’t know who to contact for help, call the free government helpline on 0800 779 997 (8am to 10pm, 7 days a week).
Berinato, S. (2020, March 23). That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief
Gregory, C. (2019). Five stages of grief: Understanding the Kubler-Ross model. Psycom. Retrieved from: https://www.psycom.net/depression.central.grief.html
Templeton, S. (2020, April 7). Coronavirus: the five emotional stages of lockdown grief you might be going through right now. Newshub. Retrieved from: https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2020/04/coronavirus-the-five-emotional-stages-of-lockdown-grief-you-might-be-going-through-right-now.html
Willis, O. (2020, April 2). Coronavirus is changing our lives, and we’re grieving because of it, experts say. ABC News. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2020-04-02/coronavirus-grief-and-sadness/12113238