Dealing With Grief During and After COVID-19

With most of the world’s population dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, collective grief has surfaced for many.

Grief doesn’t always mean loss of a loved one, and it isn’t only experienced after the big, life-altering changes such as divorce or terminal illness. Amongst the many losses from the pandemic, death, job loss, and homelessness have emerged as major issues that are impacting many Americans.

Even if you aren’t directly impacted by a major loss, grief can emerge from smaller things too. If the pandemic, and subsequent quarantine, has left you tired, listless, unmotivated, unhappy, or unable to focus, you might be experiencing grief. Maybe it’s a feeling of simply not being able to live life as usual.

Grief can show up in situations that might not feel obvious, according to Kendea Oliver, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.

The loss of routine, predictability, a sense of safety, and missing out on events like prom, graduation, a wedding, a vacation, or holiday celebrations are just some of the things causing grief during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It can be helpful to remember that things that may not feel very important to you, may actually feel like a really big or meaningful loss to someone else,” Dr. Oliver said. “Here’s where it can be really helpful to try and expand on our compassion for others. Within reason, try to give others the benefit of the doubt if they’re acting more irritable than usual or otherwise out-of-character, because they may be dealing with more than you realize.”

Grief is, of course, an individual experience. There is no blueprint for it.

It might be felt as sadness, irritability, anger, anxiety, loss of interest, disbelief, or may show up more as physical symptoms, such as a heaviness, fatigue, tension, stomach upset or physical pain, Dr. Oliver explained.

“I don’t know that there’s one way that grief presents, and honestly it tends to change and fluctuate over time and depending on what’s causing it,” she said.

When we experience increased stress, Dr. Oliver explained, it can directly impact our ability to focus, problem solve, or think critically. This is because the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain involved in these processes, is somewhat less engaged, while older parts of our brain that helps us manage stress, including the amygdala and HPA axis, take the lead.

That being said, there are strategies you can use to help accomplish tasks when concentration, focus, or motivation is running low.

Be realistic about what you’re able to do right now and set a start time and date. If cleaning your home feels overwhelming now, start with a simple chore — the dishes, vacuuming the floor (even just one room), or one load of laundry. Breaking tasks into smaller chunks, either by task- or time-based goals, helps them feel less overwhelming.

“We know that action helps to build motivation, not so much the other way around, so it often helps to get started with a small but achievable goal,” she said. “Accomplishing small goals can help increase motivation to keep going, and even if it doesn’t lead to more activity in that moment, you’ve still accomplished the original goal.”

Additionally, practice some self-compassion right now. If you’re not “on-track” like you were prior to the pandemic, that is okay.

“We’ve gone through so many major events throughout our history, and we always come through to the other side,” Dr. Oliver said. “What that will look like is unknown, and as tempting as it can be to guess or worry about what the future will look like, it can also be a really unhelpful approach.

Research shows that anxiety and stress cause us to view things in a more negative light.

“We tend to catastrophize and have an easy time imagining a bad outcome, while often struggling to imagine a positive or more neutral, but manageable, outcome,” Dr. Oliver said. “It helps to remember that we do not yet have enough information to predict how this will all work out and to remind ourselves that there are many possible outcomes that might be much more manageable than what our anxious brains are predicting.”

Taking care of yourself in the darker months of the year when less daylight can add to feelings of grief is especially important. When things feel overwhelming, it can help to focus on a shorter timeline, getting through the next day or week. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. As more of us get vaccinated, we will get closer to reaching herd immunity and some semblance of normal life, but until then, continue to do what you can and reach out to those around you.