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COVID-19 and the Grieving Process

If you caught last week’s blog on high school seniors, you may have noted the mention of the grieving process. This topic is so huge that this week’s blog is devoted solely to it, and likely an entire book could be (and many have been!) devoted to the grieving process. While grieving is certainly not new to the human experience, the unique circumstances befalling the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic have initiated a collective grieving process that needs to be attended to, because the loss everyone is experiencing (in different ways) is quite unlike anything that has happened before.

What Exactly Is Grief? And How Does It Show Up?

Grief can be defined as deep sorrow following a loss, or on a lesser scale it may entail annoyance or trouble. Oftentimes people think of grief in terms of an emotional state, but did you know it can actually have physical affects too? There is some truth to the saying that someone has a “heavy heart” if they are experiencing the emotional pain of grief—your chest may indeed actually hurt! Here are some other ways that grief may show up in your body, even if you don’t think you are experiencing it in your mind.

How the body feels grief:
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • General body aches
  • Loss of appetite or over-eating for comfort
  • Inability to focus on work
  • Lacking motivation 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth

The above list showcases some things to be aware of—as they may signal that your body is experiencing an element of grief, even if your mind isn’t quite ready to process it yet. That’s ok. Grief is grief. Allowing yourself to feel it, and go through the process without self-judgment allows healing to begin. People are grieving the loss of so many different things, it’s important to honor each.

You may be experience grief over the loss of: 
  • Your health
  • Feeling safe and secure
  • A loved one
  • Your job
  • The normal routine in your life
  • Socializing
  • Going to the gym
  • Your graduation ceremony
  • Financial security
  • That vacation you were so looking forward to
  • Going out to eat
  • Predictability
  • Hugs & human contact! 

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Maybe you feel an overall sense of sadness and loss that you can’t quite pinpoint the exact source of, that’s ok too! Feeling off-kilter and sensing sadness and loss is completely normal during this unprecedented time of uncertainty.

The Stages of Grief

Hopefully this blog will further normalize grief for you by breaking down the well-researched grieving process of Kubler-Ross. You may be physically isolated, but you are definitely not alone in your experience. Remember, these stages do not have to be experienced in a linear way or at all! Everyone’s grieving process may be different and you may cycle through stages. That’s ok. It can be helpful to know some of the common stages that people go through to better create a frame of reference for your own. The most important thing to remember is that grief is hard and takes time to heal.

What are the stages of grief?
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Denial can entail shock for some people. This might look like thinking to yourself: this isn’t actually happening—are we on candid camera? When will this be over. Denial can serve as a self-protective strategy because if you don’t acknowledge something exists, you can’t fully feel the emotions attached to the event.

There are many things to be angry about regarding the current situation in the world. Anger is a powerful indication that your life has been shaken up in some way. Sometimes people look for someone or something concrete to blame in this stage, because it’s easier to direct anger at something specific. Sometimes people’s anger can turn inward.

Bargaining occurs when you try to make internal deals. This might look like: if I just do x then y will happen. This can entail bargaining with God, bargaining with yourself and/or with people around you. This stage likely occurs because you are trying to search for ways for things to go back to a comfortable homeostasis that may no longer exist. This can be a scary place to be.  

Some despair will set in during the depression stage. Things may including feeling hopeless or like things are never going to get better—so why try? What’s the point? Everything can feel so overwhelming and like no one else could possibly understand.

Finally, we have acceptance. If you have allowed yourself to feel the previous stages as they have come up for you—then you may start feeling a bit of acceptance. It may not happen all at once, but you’ll know you’ve started to accept the situation when you allow yourself to enjoy the small things again and get excited about things for the future. You change what you can and try to roll with what is out of your control.

Coping Tips

The experience of grief can be painful, both physically and mentally, there is no denying that. But suppressing the experience of this discomfort may, in fact, actually prolong it. There is hope and healing to be had from the grieving process—though it may not always seem like. It’s true, that things likely will never be “the same” as they were prior to the coronavirus outbreak; however, maintaining hope for even just the possibility of some joy and sense of security is a solid place to try to keep your mind and your energy.

Ways to Cope with grief/loss: 
  • Allow yourself to feel what comes up without judgment
  • Try to create something (music, writing, painting, singing, blogging, etc)
  • Share your experience with others (to fend off isolation)
  • Take care of yourself physically as best you can
  • Move your body (stretching, cardio, weightlifting, etc)
  • Accept help from others
  • Limit your focus on the virus situation
  • Try to practice gratitude and joy for small things

There are infinite ways to deal with grief and to express it in a healthy way. Even if you feel like lying in bed all day—it is actually ok to allow yourself to do that once in a while. Just make sure that this is temporary and make plans and goals for the next day.

Ongoing Help

The therapists here at Angelus remain available to you to help and support you throughout this grieving process and as everyone navigates how to create newfound security and stability for themselves. Schedule a counseling session today to work with a therapist through your own unique grieving process. Together, you and your therapist can come up with creative outlets for you to express yourself and ensure that you’re on the road to healing and integrating this universally painful experience in the most healthy ways possible. You’re not alone—the world grieves (and heals) with you.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services