With the emergence of COVID-19, we have gone through massive changes in our world and a deep collective experience of loss. As the Coronavirus emptied our streets, closed our businesses, threatened our lives, and isolated us in our homes, we have experienced profound losses; now we struggle with what the world will be like in the days ahead. Already there are massive numbers of people dead all over the world. We don’t know if there will be more surges, or if we or loved ones will get sick or die, if we will have work, if we will be evicted from our homes, if we will recover economically.
We’ve been so consumed with surviving and adapting to all the drastic changes in our world that most of us have overlooked and underestimated the impact of the losses we’ve experienced. Along with losing friends and loved ones to Covid, we’ve lost the world as we’ve know it, along with any sense of security, predictability, and normalcy that we counted on to go about our daily lives. We’ve lost our social connections/networks that nourish and support us in our families, communities and workplaces. Finally we’ve had to face the undoing of our dreams for the future. As we face all these losses we are all carrying an immense grief both collectively and individually. And yet true to our culture’s inability to deal with grief and loss in general, we are denying it.
It was shocking to see the whole world stopping and we cannot now conceive of what life will be like on the other side. We will never go back to the world we had known. We’ve also lost a sense of security and predictability in our daily lives. With businesses and schools closing, we have also lost the normal structure of our everyday lives. All too quickly, we’ve lost our routines; as we struggle to adjust to new patterns, we are often grieving for those simple, predictable moments of our old life. How many times have we longed for just one normal day that we used to have!
The world no longer feels safe. With a virus that is highly contagious and can be passed by people who have no symptoms or by packages delivered to our door, everyone and everything is seen as a potential threat. As the numbers of deaths mount, we are faced with our own mortality and the deaths of loved ones, friends and colleagues. Add to that the loss of financial security as jobs are lost, businesses close and investments plummet.
As we were forced into our homes to shelter in place, we found ourselves isolated from our communities. With social distancing, we feel a loss of physical contact—no hugs, handshakes or touching. The rituals that offer meaningful connection and celebration have been postponed or canceled: weddings, graduations, anniversaries, birthdays. It is inconceivable that we cannot be with sick loved ones in hospitals or in quarantine; we might not even be able to be at the bedside of a dying loved one. All of these are devastating losses to the social fabric of our lives—the ways we connect and share our lives with one another.
We can’t imagine what other losses might be in store, as we are told to prepare for an economic recession and for the strong possibility of this virus flaring up repeatedly over the next few years. What changes can we expect day to day as we emerge from sheltering in place; what will our new world look like? For example, many young people are faced with the possibility of not being able to leave home and have a college campus experience; many people have put off marrying or having children; anticipated growth in careers has come to a halt; retirees have had to adjust to a very different retirement than they had imagined.
Meanwhile, most of the avenues for sharing our grief have been immobilized in this time of social distancing—no funerals, church services or gatherings to grieve together. Our fast paced, materially oriented culture struggles with embracing the deep, slow, transformative pace of grief. This inability to grieve effectively as a culture is holding us back as we try to get on with our lives now. So instead of tending to the grief, we are struggling as a culture with anxiety, depression, anger and violence. We are fighting one another over wearing masks and whether Covid-19 actually exists.
As a psychotherapist specializing in grief, I have seen over and over how It can lead to depression, addiction, fearfulness, chronic physical ailments, overworking, social isolation and compulsive behavior. The CDC recently released figures that 46% of the population age 18-29 are experiencing mental health strains from the Coronavirus pandemic and shut down. It also said that Americans are facing a severe mental health crisis, with one-third of Americans displaying symptoms of anxiety and depression. Our population is showing increasing struggles with their mental health and adaptation to a changed post virus world. It is critical for our nation’s mental health that we embrace our grief.
To be human is to know loss; to open fully to life we need to actively grieve. Our grieving is what gives depth, aliveness, and meaning to our lives—qualities that are so lacking in today’s world. Grief is a wholesome and healthy response to the present crisis worldwide.
Here is one simple thing to do: In a quiet place in your home, set aside at least 10 (but not more than 20) minutes, turn off electronics/the phone, sit down, close your eyes and bring your attention to the grief as you are experiencing it right now.
Take a breath—feel where that grief is residing in your body, what feelings are coming up? Perhaps it's grief over a loss you are experiencing due to this pandemic, perhaps a tightening of your chest that feels like fear, perhaps a sense of sadness deep in your belly. Don’t let your mind and thoughts run away with fear and scenarios of the future. Just be present with your grief right now as it is moving through you. Honor your grief. Let it flow—that is the secret to healing. It’s important that after you ten minutes of embracing your grief, you get up and turn your attention completely to your daily life—have a cup of tea, call a friend, take a walk, etc.
Grief responds to your attention. By embracing your grief daily in small doses and letting it flow, you will find that you have the energy, clarity and strength to prepare yourself for a new world as you emerge from your sheltering in place.
Our grief can connect us to the deepest parts of ourselves where we will find the inner resources to be present to the truth of loss, to the preciousness of this moment, and to our interconnectedness with all beings as we face one of the biggest challenges of our collective lives. We are not alone. We all know loss. We can acknowledge and share our grief with one another with compassion and caring. We can then celebrate being fully alive, open to both the joys and sorrows in this fragile, beautiful world.