Submitted by the Whatcom County Health Department

Grieving loss is a painful life experience made more difficult and lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has taken hundreds of thousands of lives across the world and complicated the grief process for millions more. 

Almost all of us withstand some sort of loss during our lives: a loved one, a marriage or partnership, a beloved pet, an unfulfilled dream, or good health. The family and cultural traditions that carry us through such challenging times have been upended by the pandemic. 

At a time when physical presence is the comfort we seek most often, we need to keep our distance from extended family, friends, and neighbors. Isolation further complicates grief and makes it more difficult to heal. Your loss may not be connected to direct exposure to COVID-19, but your ability to express your distress is likely to be impacted by the restrictions of the disease outbreak. None of us will “get over” the grief we are feeling, but we can support each other in the way we live with it.

What does grief look like?

We experience grief in unique, personal and sometimes unpredictable ways. It may not unfold in a straightforward or reliable timetable. Emotions can bubble up at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Many people respond with denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance. And these responses may feel more like riding a roller coaster than an orderly ride on an elevator. Whether you are the sad or sick person, or trying to support that person, some common emotions are:

  • Profound sadness or despair
  • Shock, disbelief, or numbness
  • Guilt or regret
  • Anger, irritability, resentment, or blame
  • Fear, anxiety, or panic

You might also experience these behaviors or physical symptoms:

  • Trouble sleeping, no energy even after resting, or nightmares
  • Nausea, change in eating habits, weight loss or gain
  • Lack of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
  • Pain, headaches, or risk of a new or existing illness

For some people, grieving is a temporary emotional state, but others may experience grief over a period of months or even years. This is known as complicated or traumatic grief. Without help and support, such grief can lead to isolation, chronic loneliness, as well as poor physical health. Seek help if you have signs that your grief is more complex:

  • Unhealthy use of alcohol or drugs
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Unable to enjoy or maintain daily activities

What does help look like?

Caring for the grief-stricken includes taking care of both the person facing profound loss or death and the people supporting them. Many people find that having support helps build resilience and flexibility, skills that can help when navigating the new “normal.” Whether you are seeking or offering support, these are healthy ways to weather grief:

  • Always approach with kindness, compassion, and respect.
  • Maintain communication and remember that listening is often more helpful than talking. Speak if you are offering comfort, not advice. Follow the lead of the person grieving and embrace silence if that is the support they need.
  • Acknowledge the death or loss. Because we can’t gather to bear witness to grief, find other ways to mourn the loss and celebrate the love that connects you. Send a note that shares a specific memory. Put together a photo album or short video. Ask family members and friends to do their own small ritual at the same day and time. It doesn’t have to be shared online; thinking of each other at the same time brings connection.
  • Keep up regular routines. Sit down for meals. Stay hydrated. Move your body, even a walk around the block can be helpful. Stick to your normal sleep schedule.
  • Be gentle with yourself and others. It’s okay to not grieve all the time. Some people find balance in setting aside time to grieve and time to not grieve. Creating a small space of remembrance in your home can provide an area to focus your feelings.
  • Honor and validate the many ways that someone expresses grief. There is no one right way.

When dealing with grief, many of us find it hard to know what to say and who it’s okay to share it with.  A helpful image to keep in mind is psychologist Susan Silk’s circle of grief or ring theory.  At the center of the circle is the sad, sick, or dying person. That person can cope with distress in any way that works for them. Each circle that surrounds that person are the layers of support, from those closest to the grieving person to more distant friends or community. It’s a simple concept: “comfort in, dump out.” This means if you are talking to someone in a ring smaller than yours, your role is to be a helper, a listener, a supporter. When seeking support, look to those in your same circle or an outer circle.

Finding support

Love and loss come hand in hand. The tender side of loss is learning about how deeply we care for those around us, especially when life is threatened. Grieving is a time of intense emotions that can feel unbearable at times. While the grieving process is not a problem to be fixed, many people find it beneficial to connect with a grief support group or work with a mental health professional. If you would like help with healing, contact the resources below.

Featured image credit: fabafter40.tumblr.com

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