What have you lost due to the coronavirus? Even if you’ve kept your physical health, it’s likely you sustained other losses like income, freedom of movement, attending church or visiting family and friends.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 140,000 American lives, the loss of a loved one is not the sole cause for grieving during this change-laden period. Navigating social distancing and its related consequences have required significant adjustments to almost everyone’s daily routine, and along with these new realities often comes an unprecedented sense of loss.
Karen Bracey, a Penn State Extension educator from Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, recently led a webinar on “Mental Wellness during COVID-19: Grief, Loss and COVID-19.” She said that grief is a complex emotion, which needs to be recognized and understood in order to be dealt with productively.
Bracey cited Scott Berinato, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, for his March 23 COVID-19-related essay, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” In it, he points to the works of internationally known experts on grief, the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler. Kübler-Ross, best known for her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” collaborated with Kessler on her final book, “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss,” published in 2005.
In 2019, Kessler went on to write “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”
Berinato interviewed David Kessler for his article, which delves into the impacts of COVID-19 on our daily lives and emotional health. Kessler says that the changes around us have spawned varied feelings of grief. Among them he cites “the loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection.”
Kessler notes our tendency to minimize what we perceive as comparatively “minor losses” by saying things like, “I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other peoples have it worse.” However, a better approach is to stop at “I feel sad” and then proceed to name and claim our sadness for what it is: grief. Acknowledging this feeling empowers us, Kessler said, and is the first step to managing that emotion constructively.
According to Kessler, grief comes in several forms. There is unexpected grief, such as that experienced back in March 2020, when the pandemic first struck. That feeling gave way to collective grief, when having the COVID-19 experience in common with others caused the broader community to share a sense of loss. Now, anticipatory grief is setting in as we all look toward an uncertain future and sometimes imagine the worst. Kessler suggests “coming into the present” as a way to calm oneself by realizing your worries have not yet materialized and, in the current moment, you’re OK. Likewise, it helps to remember the pandemic is not as permanent nor as open-ended as it feels.
The term “new normal” is heard frequently these days, which Bracey explained is just “unintentionally the code for anticipatory grief.” She defined anxiety as a form of uncontrolled anticipatory grief.
Bracey went on to list three things we know about grief. First, it is necessary to go through grief to get past it. “You can’t go around it, over it or remove it,” she said. Instead, it is necessary to feel the pain, sadness, emptiness, guilt and anger in order to move through grief in one’s own way and one’s own time. The goal is then to “come out the other end a whole person, capable of living life with a full range of emotions,” including joy and the ability to acknowledge what you went through.
To reach the goal of getting past grief, Bracey discussed the five stages of grief identified by Kübler-Ross, emphasizing that these stages are not necessarily a linear progression and may not occur in the same order for everyone. Additionally, there is no set time length for any of these stages and sometimes an individual might pass through a stage more than once as they grieve.
Briefly, these grief stages begin with denial, which is our brain’s way of slowing things down to process and manage them. The anger stage is powered by a sense that we have lost something of value to us unfairly. The bargaining stage involves trying to “make a deal” in an attempt to control forces beyond our control; for instance, thinking that “I’ll wear a mask if it means I won’t contract COVID-19” is a form of bargaining. Feeling grief at a deeper level as a sense of overwhelming heaviness and/or emptiness often symptomizes the stage of depression. Finally, the stage of acceptance is reached, in which we’re not OK, but we’ve accepted the reality of the situation and can begin to work through it.
After reaching acceptance, the sixth stage of grief identified by Kessler is finding meaning in what had been one’s darkest hours. Bracey referred to this as post-traumatic growth, which originates in finding positive outcomes from one’s grief experience. For example, quarantining at home during COVID-19 might lead to the discovery that it’s nice to have dinner together as a family. Focusing on these silver linings is the secret to deriving meaning from one’s grief experience.
Bracey pointed out that other positive news about grieving is that the intensity of one’s grief should lessen with the passage of time. It’s also important to remember that we all grieve differently and even the same person may grieve different losses in different ways. She recommended the website speakinggrief.org as a valuable resource to help us “get better at grief.” It is an outgrowth of Penn State’s WPSU public television station’s production and recent release of the documentary “Speaking Grief,” aimed at creating a more grief-aware society.
“It’s absolutely a process,” said Bracey, noting that we need to monitor the grieving in our own lives, as well as in our loved ones. On a personal level, an individual must face his or her own feelings of grief and then find which coping mechanisms work best for them. Seeking out the people in your life who make you feel better when you’re with them and pursuing activities that you enjoy are two good options. If a loved one is grieving, talk to that person, be supportive of them gently and check in on them periodically.
Some individuals will have a hard time getting past their feelings of grief. This is not just a matter of timing, but a concern about whether they’re moving forward gradually and able to function in daily life. For those who seem lost in their grieving, Bracey suggested they speak with their doctor, a counselor, their clergy person or make use of an employee assistance program.
Bracey concluded the webinar with this advice to those experiencing the grief of COVID-19’s losses in their lives: “Don’t be afraid not to appear strong. We have the right to be sad and to ask for help.”
Assistance with mental health issues is available from the following resources:
• Human Services Support and Referral Helpline (available 24/7 to Pennsylvanians with anxiety and other emotions due to the pandemic): 855-284-2494
• National Alliance on Mental Illness-www.nami.org or 855-879-5439
• Plain Communities Helpline: 717-989-8661
• National Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741
• National Suicide Help Line:
1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) and 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
• Prevent Suicide Pennsylvania at