Grief is a natural, psychological process or response to the experience of loss. It is usually associated with death, dying, or the loss of a person, but grief can also be experienced as a result of the loss of routine, loss of social connection or relationships, and other disruptions in one’s sense of normalcy.
It is often a difficult and unique process that is experienced differently by everyone. It is more commonly associated with the loss of someone’s presence, as well as the loss of freedom and choice, financial stability, identity, and often a loss of meaning in life without that person or familiar and comforting routines. Grief and healing take time, and it is important to be mindful of grief and process, rather than avoid, these difficult experiences and emotions.
Grief is a process of uncertainty and healing
Grieving and healing can take many forms. There is no right or wrong way to grieve or mourn a loss. In many cases, grief cycles between active and passive experiences and reflections. Active grief is the feeling or expression of intense emotions associated with the loss, such as sadness, anger, longing, or guilt. At times, grief can become passive and stagnant when you feel stuck in your experiences and struggle to continue to find ways to move forward. Talking about your feelings and your grief experience can keep grief active and from falling into patterns of inexpression.
Grief can also be experienced as anticipatory fears or worries of loss when you face uncertainty about the future. It is a worry about potential future loss, fear of what may happen or the unknown, or planning for the inevitable death or loss of a loved one. The impacts of COVID-19, and the uncertainty it poses about the future and the health of loved ones, can trigger anticipatory grief widely in the general population.
How the COVID-19 activates grief
The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unique challenges for individuals experiencing or facing grief and loss, as well it has the potential to trigger anticipatory grief in others. The pandemic could mean a loss of routines, medical and paramedical care, social connection, loss of birthdays and celebrations, and the unexpected loss or fear of losing someone that you love.
Disconnection from social supports can exacerbate feelings of isolation or withdrawal as you are forced to maintain social distance and use technology for connection. Changes to exercise routines and eating patterns can also be forced as a result of social distancing, gym closures, and challenges with accessing grocery stores or healthy food options. It can become more difficult to manage health conditions and pain as access to necessary medical or paramedical care is restricted to those in critical need. Individuals also may become hypervigilant to COVID-19 symptomology out of fear of infection and focusing intently on symptoms can actually make them more prominent and anxiety-provoking. As a result of COVID-19, and the uncertainty about the long-term impact, fears, and ambiguity about the future are also common.
Challenges with mourning during the pandemic
Restrictions and social distancing as a result of the pandemic may mean that individuals feel a lack of closure if they were unable to visit a loved one that has died as a result of the virus. In many instances, due to travel and business closures, it can be hard to hold or attend funerals, and there can be a loss of opportunity to hold necessary religious, spiritual, or social traditions that are important to one’s beliefs of death, dying, and the afterlife. It can be hard to begin the process of grieving or mourning without participating in or experiencing these important moments and experiences.
The pandemic also poses unique challenges in one’s ability to process or manage grief responses as there is limited ability to maintain social connections, receive physical comfort, and participate in activities that are soothing, relaxing, or provide a sense of distraction when needed. This lack of stimuli leads to more space and time for thinking and rumination, which can be challenging to manage in a time when there are frequent reminders of death and illness in our everyday life and media.
The unique grieving experience
Grief impacts everyone in a unique way, based on the type of loss you are experiencing, your history or previous experiences of grief, your current level of stress and mental wellness, and your personal capacity for coping and resilience. Some common reactions to grief include:
Cognitive/Thinking: grief can impact your cognition, your sensing, thinking, processing, and understanding, in many ways. It can become increasingly difficult to focus and think rationally. Grief can challenge your perspective of yourself, others, and your world view, leading to apathy or disbelief. You may ruminate or cycle through persistent or obsessive, often unhelpful, worries and negative thoughts or images, and in some instances experience flashbacks to previous grief or trauma experiences. The unexpected, intrusive thoughts can be triggering, distressing, and overwhelming.
Emotional: a wide range of emotions are common, from feelings of shock and confusion to sadness and despair. As grief negatively impacts your thinking and your understanding of the world, feelings of anxiety and worry are also common. You even may feel guilt, shame, or blame, depending on the circumstances of the loss.
Behavioural: As a result of difficult emotions, and challenges to your thinking, it is common to experience a variety of behavioural reactions as well. You may experience tears and cry as a result of sadness, and a loss of pleasure from everyday life. You may begin to withdraw from social connection, and as a means to avoid triggers or reminders of death or loss. Changes to sleeping, eating, exercise, and daily hygiene or routines are also common if you become fatigued and overwhelmed by your experiences and emotions.
Physical: An increase in the amount of stress and emotion experienced from grief can lead to physical sensations or symptoms as well. You may experience weight loss or gain from a shift in eating patterns or added stress, fatigue from insomnia or poor-quality sleep, and headaches, muscle tension, and nausea as well. Racing heart, sweating, shortness of breath, and dizziness are common with increased levels of anxiety as a result of grief. Stress, poor sleep and nutrition, and lack of exercise can also lead to weakened immune systems, frequently feeling sick or unwell, and impact negatively on other medical conditions like high blood pressure or arthritis.
Responses to grief are often normal, but when grief becomes overwhelming and impacts your ability to function in the long-term, it becomes problematic. If you are struggling to manage your reactions to grief and continue functioning in day to day life, it may be time to implement some strategies in hopes that you can begin or continue the healing process.
Strategies for Coping
Acknowledge the struggle – recognize the impact that the pandemic has had on life and its routines, as well as the loss of loved ones. This experience has been challenging for many, and grief, and all associated emotions, are normal and anticipated.
Share your feelings – a wide range of emotions is okay, name those emotions to acknowledge them with intention. Talk with others openly about how you feel or use a journal to write your feelings down. Talk with someone else experiencing grief, as mutual support, empathy, and compassion can help everyone through the grief process.
Focus on self-care – it is critically important to try to maintain healthy sleep, eating, and exercise routines to feel a sense of normalcy and enrich your body with the fuel it needs to cope and heal. Without proper care, you may struggle to process grief and move forward. Allow yourself time to do pleasurable activities, like reading or listening to music, to try to relax and destress.
Set boundaries with yourself and others – take breaks when you need them; it is okay to say no and take time for yourself when you are overwhelmed. Take time to think, process, and grieve the loss. Set boundaries or limits on the amount of news and media you watch as well, and focus your attention on positive or factual news, and avoid overindulging in sad stories and fearful messages.
Give yourself time - grief is a process of healing and it takes time. It is natural for emotions and perspectives to change with time or have thoughts and feelings drift as time goes on. These are all part of the journey toward healing and finding new meaning after loss. If needed, allow yourself to schedule a specific time for grief, or postpone grief, to manage more pressing concerns such as finding work and keeping your family safe.
Practice gratitude and optimism – think about people that have been supportive and experiences that are positive during these difficult times. This may be incredibly tough when faced with the challenges of grief but spending a few moments a day thinking or writing positively can support healing and growth. Writing and expressing thanks and acknowledging the positive can foster hope, joy, and love during difficult moments.
Take advantage of your Employee Assistance Programs - Your workplace Employee Assistance Program (fseap) can offer support and structure to you come to terms with a loss, regardless of the type of loss or where in the healing process you are.
If you are struggling with grief as a result of COVID-19, or any other reason, please reach out to your Employee and Family Assistance Program for support. We are here to help.
f you need support or ideas about how to manage funerals and other celebrations of loss during a time of social restriction, please contact your local funeral home or visit their website for support.