By Shauntée L. Walters, MSc.
Registered Counselling Psychologist
Life Intervention and Support Services
What is grief?
Grief is the anguish experienced after a significant loss, usually referring to the death of a loved one. It often includes physiological distress, confusion, yearning, dwelling on the past, and fears about the future. It can disrupt the functioning of our immune system and can lead to negative thoughts. Grief may also take the form of regret for something lost, remorse for something done, or sorrow for a mishap to oneself (APA 2021).
Disenfranchised grief is where the ability to express our grief is limited in some way, frowned upon, or restricted by society, whether directly or subconsciously. E.g, loss of an outside partner, stillbirths, teachers losing students, medical professionals losing patients, and police/ fire officers witnessing death in performing their duties. In the specific context of COVID-19, this also includes the inability to be with loved ones as they decline and at their death; have or attend the memorial in the way that is desired; perform familial rituals and gather to comfort each other.
COVID-19 has also brought many other types of loss. The number of persons who became unemployed permanently or have been placed on furlough indefinitely is unprecedented. This has not only led to the loss of income but changes in the standard of life for many (CDC 2020).
Students planning to attend university overseas have had to stay at home; some enrolled in studies have had to withdraw for lack of funds; the immediate future many designed has been delayed or denied.
Loss of freedom
Many persons also identify the loss of control or self-determination as difficult to process. The freedom to decide where to go and when; to leave the house and take a moonlight drive; simple things that previously were seen as “normal” parts of life have fallen under the dictate of authorities.
It is understood that the measures employed and directives given are all towards our health and safety, however, this knowledge does not make the day-to-day experience any more tenable.
Collective loss and trauma
No one has been spared. In one way or another, each person has experienced grief and loss. We have all been traumatised and negatively impacted. Many persons have been able to change course, start businesses, adjust and adapt quickly and others have not. We are recording increased mental illness diagnoses and requests for intervention from those with previously known conditions.
A large-scale emergency event such as COVID-19 causes many to experience multiple losses and coupled with the restrictions, etc. can lead to doubts about our ability to cope.
Following are some suggestions to be considered:
If your grief results from the death of a loved one, whether to COVID or just during this period, strategies may include:
Creating connections virtually where they cannot be facilitated in person.
Use the available technology to host special gatherings to share remembrances about your loved one much in the same way that such events would occur in person. Share photos, memories, stories, and thoughts with each other. These events may be spontaneous but are best when planned and all are prepared for the activity. Memorials which include persons outside the family can also be planned. This gives friends and others the opportunity to share their remembrances and tributes. It allows the family to be connected but also to be loved and supported by the community of persons who also loved their member who died.
Create a physical memento/ virtual memorial.
Consider making a physical album or memory box to keep specific items of significance or in memory of your loved one. Many times we rush to clean the room and remove clothing but there are some items that are kept. This could be a collective activity where each person, regardless of location, keeps an item or items to be later compiled in one location.
There is also the option of creating an online/ virtual space where both family and friends can leave their remembrances (CDC 2020).
Plan to meet for an in-person memorial when it is safe
Make plans to have a memorial service or activity in honor of your loved one when COVID-19 has passed and all is safe. This could take the form of a memorial dinner, tree planting, visit to the gravesite, and laying flowers; just about anything that is agreed upon. In this case, the ritual is delayed but not denied.
Ask for help: counselling; prayer
Seek external support to help you cope. Many mental health services are available virtually and can be accessed free or at minimal costs. Reaching out to your spiritual community is also advised where that community has been a source of support previously.
Whichever choice is taken, understand that there is help available.
If your grief results from other types of losses strategies may include:
Acknowledge the loss and associated pain
It is important to be open with self and others about our feelings and not bottle them and pretend that we are ok. Try art, dance, journaling, gardening, or some other creative outlet (CDC 2019). The goal is to process and work through the pain. Do so in a way that is comfortable for you.
Intentional mindfulness and focus in the present
Many are tempted to spend days worrying about the future and those things which cannot be controlled. Being mindful is a decision to focus in the present moment and only on those things which can be controlled. Understandably, this is not always easy but it can be done by talking to ourselves and choosing activities which keep our mind in the here and now e.g grounding activities that encourage us to focus on our surroundings and what we are doing only in the moment using our five senses.
Connecting with household members and friends
Spend time talking with those within your household and create activities which all persons can participate in e.g movie night, special dinners, and games evenings. These activities remind us that we are not alone and that we are loved by those close to us. If you live alone, connecting with others virtually is important; set up video calls, virtual lunches, and dinners and use messaging to stay close.
The goal of connection is support. When we support each other the weight and stresses are also shared, which makes it easier for all involved.
Regardless of the origin of our grief, it is real; and as COVID-19 continues, the possibility exists that there will be more to come. Our culture and socialization encourage us to pretend that we are always ok. There is nothing ok about living through a pandemic!
Let us all acknowledge this and accept the fact that grieving is a process. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts. It will be different for each of us but once we acknowledge our pain, work to stay connected, and give and receive support; we can come to a place where our functioning is not negatively impacted. We will be able to remember with love and move forward without fear.
This article appears in the March 22 edition of COVID Weekly. Read the full publication here.