You don’t know anyone who passed away due to COVID-19.
So how come you feel like you’re grieving?
Because you might very well be. During this pandemic, many are experiencing different types of losses. Whether it’s loss of a job, social interaction, money, missing a special ceremony or milestone event, or even the loss of your freedom of movement, it’s common to be grieving during this time.
And while a certain amount of grief is normal and expected at this time, Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Executive Clinical Director of Evolve Treatment Centers, says that overwhelming, debilitating grief often means individuals are resisting the new reality.
“Many people are fighting the new normal and denying the fact that the whole world has turned upside down. While they think resisting reality will help them cope better, really it’s just making it worse and keeping them stuck in their pain. To move on from the pain, you need to first acknowledge that this IS our new reality. Reaching this point of acceptance may, for some people, require going through the various stages of grief.”
Let’s discuss, in brief, the Five Stages of Grief. First researched and formally identified by experts David Kessler and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Note that people can move through these five stages of grief in a different order than the one described here. One can also jump around from different stages at different points in time.
The Five Stages of Grief, Adapted for COVID-19
This is usually the first step when processing a loss. In the denial stage, you’re still in a state of shock. You can’t believe that what’s happening is really happening, and you move through each day numb to the world. You might be in denial if you’re still hoping and planning to have a big party next month, even though the coronavirus makes it obvious it won’t happen. Or if you refuse to even consider the possibility of having a backyard wedding. You might also be in denial if you feel flat and emotionless at the thought of these losses.
You feel anger and rage at nobody, at everybody, at the universe, at the coronavirus itself. At people breaking quarantine, at those not wearing masks, at the school administration, at your teens’ summer camp, at the cashier at the grocery store. You may try to find people to blame for the pandemic, no matter how rational or irrational blaming might be. Underneath your anger is deep internal pain. This pain may come out as snappiness at your kids, spouse, or teens. Even if you know that your anger isn’t logical, it helps you move through the grief process.
Since we want life to be returned to the way it was before coronavirus, we may start bargaining with ourselves or with the universe. This gives rise to thoughts like: “Please, God, if I can have my graduation, then I’m okay with everything else being taken away.” Or “If we can have our wedding as usual, I’ll give half of the wedding present money to charity.” This is when you start making “If only” or “What if…” statements in the hopes that things may change.
When grief takes hold of us internally, we may fall into depression. This phase is often the most obvious and long-lasting stage of grief. It may be hard to eat or sleep or even concentrate. We may not want to interact with friends or family (even virtually) and it may be tempting to hide away all day in bed. We may cry 24/7, and our sadness can get triggered at random moments. It’s okay to cry, feel your sadness, and not suppress your grief – to a certain extent. Feeling depressed temporarily after a great loss is normal. However, if the depression becomes chronic and debilitating, or lasts longer than you think it should, it indicates the need for intensive mental health treatment.
Acceptance is the final stage of grief. While it’s often thought of as analogous to being happy with your loss, that’s not what acceptance is. Acceptance means coming to terms with reality. It means understanding that we have a new normal. Acceptance is the opposite of denial. It doesn’t mean you have to be okay or satisfied with the situation. It means you accept the reality of the situation. You know you’re in this stage when adapt your life and change your routine to cope with the new reality. In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), Reality Acceptance skills can help teens and individuals achieve this state of acceptance and decrease overwhelming feelings of emotional pain and suffering.
Feeling Grief and Loss is Normal Right Now
If this process feels familiar to you – meaning if this set of reactions lines up with your reactions to the coronavirus pandemic – then what you’ve been doing is grieving the loss of how things were. That’s fine for a while, but now it’s time to move to that final stage: acceptance. That’s how you can move forward under this new normal and create the life you want to live.