NAVIGATING PANDEMIC-INDUCED GRIEF

I’ve been wondering why this second month of the Covid-19 pandemic feels so much harder than the first month.  As a grief counselor, I’ve observed that the second month of grief after a loss is often much more intense than the first month.  Does pandemic-induced grief fit this pattern?  The answer is yes.

In the first month after a loss, the bereaved are busy with making funeral arrangements, visits from friends and family, receiving telephone calls, sympathy cards and casseroles.  There is also a lot of busyness with wills, death certificates and the like.

Similarly, in the first month of sheltering-in-place, we were busy buying toilet paper, making disaster plans, finding or making face masks, figuring out how to stay connected via Zoom, and navigating grocery shopping.

After the first month following a death, the phone is quieter, the cards and casseroles have stopped coming and we are somehow expected to be back to “normal.” The bereaved are left to navigate this new land without their loved one. They wonder if they are handling their grief in the “right way”, and may be feeling anxiety in the face of not knowing what their new life in the “new normal” will look like.

Likewise, in this second month of pandemic shut downs, much of the doingness of the first month is over.  We have stocked up on toilet paper and grocery staples.  We have figured out how to stay in touch with our friends and community via Zoom.  Like after a death loss, we are left with the question “now what?” We wonder when, and how, things will change in the post-pandemic “new normal.” We are fearful and anxious, with more questions than answers.  It feels like a big void, where we are seeking ground in utter groundlessness.

The Tasks of Mourning

William Worden’s task model of grief[a] provides a useful road map for navigating pandemic-induced grief. There are four tasks in this model, the first two of which are relevant now: (1) accepting the reality of the loss, and (2) working through the pain of grief.

Task 1:  Accepting the Reality of the Loss:  The first task of grieving is to accept, both intellectually and emotionally,  the reality that a loss has occurred.  The task in working with pandemic-induced grief is to acknowledge the reality that life has changed.  I find myself reminiscing about life in the “good old days” before the pandemic – the ability to come and go as I pleased, getting together with friends, hugs and freedom from fear. Although I am confident that much of my prior life will be restored, I am coming to realize, both intellectually and emotionally, that it won’t look the same.

Task 2:  Working Through the Pain of Grief:  I imagine that most of us would prefer to skip this task, for fear that our pain will overwhelm us.  Nonetheless, working through the emotions of grief is critical for healing from pain.  Failing to do so may manifest itself as physical illness, substance abuse to numb the pain, or result in depression or complicated grief.

 Here are some tips for working through the pain of pandemic-induced grief:

  1. Take care of your body.Eat nourishing foods (with the occasional indulgence), limit caffeine and alcohol, enjoy a soothing bath or shower.  Exercise.
  2. Remember to breathe, deep diaphragmatic breaths.
  3. Allow yourself to cry (and drink lots of water as crying is dehydrating).
  4. Express your feelings through journaling, art or movement or talking with others.
  5. Appreciate nature. Listen to the sound of a bird, notice the trees and flowers blooming this spring.
  6. If your feelings are overwhelming, speak to a trained grief counselor or psychotherapist.

“Tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”

In the words of author Stephen Levine, “tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”  Through experiencing the pain of own unique grief, we can tap into grief’s universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and our world.

 

[a] Worden, J. William (2002). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Professional. New York:  Springer Publishing Company.

 

(c) 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

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