Experiencing loss during pandemic times
Prepared by Linda Churchill (she/her), MMFT., RMFT., Counsellor, Student Counselling Centre, University of Manitoba
The list of losses is substantial
Many are talking about how this pandemic has brought much loss—loss of loved ones, loss of familiar routines, loss of certainty, and loss of the world as we knew it. Students talk about loss of the campus experience they had looked forward to, loss of the opportunity to make new friends when there are in-person encounters. Many have expressed concern about the loss of their jobs or prospective employment. Some are experiencing financial hardship within their families. The list of losses is substantial and virtually everyone has experienced loss.
Grief is natural in the face of loss
With most experiences of loss comes feelings of grief. Grief is how the mind and body naturally react to loss. The more significant the loss, the more painful the grief. It is normal to have grief and to be struggling with it.
Common features of grief and a few antidotes
In order to better understand the nature of grief, it helps to know some of its features.
- Denial is the dimension of grief that is not ready to absorb the enormity of a problem. In March 2020, when most of us first heard about the pandemic spreading in parts of Asia and Europe, most of us thought “This can’t happen here.” That’s denial for you. It was hard to believe until it actually arrived on our shores.
- Anger is another common aspect of grief. I know someone, for example, who is very angry about all that she has lost in this pandemic. She’s angry because she lost her job, she lost relationships because of different beliefs about the pandemic, all of her social activities are now restricted and she is the most sociable person you will ever meet. Perhaps you know people who are angry because of the unwanted changes that have come. Perhaps you are angry. Anger can show itself in irritability, loss of motivation, and discouragement. “I didn’t sign on for this”, many students convey about an altered campus experience such as exclusive online learning, to name one example.
- Bargaining is the phase of grief in which we struggle to adjust our expectations within a changing reality. At the outset of the pandemic, many people may have believed that two weeks of quarantine would be all we’d need to do and then we’d get back to normal. I recall thinking this way. That is, until the magnitude of the danger became clear. When setting expectations that do not match reality, many people have been challenged to change their expectations. Ask yourself: what am I angriest at? Reality or my expectations of reality? It might be both. And that’s part of the grief experience.
- Sadness is another phase of grief. Many people have experienced sadness to some degree within the past year. They ask, “When will this end?” “I miss my family and friends.” “I miss my partner.” “I am so lonely.” Loneliness has become a most unwelcome visitor. Grief can already be a very lonely journey even in normal life. And now it’s compounded by being further alone in this pandemic.
- Anxiety is another way grief can manifest. Some people ask, “What if this never ends?” or “What if this is our permanent new normal?” Anytime you hear a scary story starting with ‘What if’, you are in the land of Anxiety. Anticipatory grief tends to produce anxiety. Our mind creates worst case scenarios. One antidote to the anxiety is to balance this thinking with best case scenarios. For example, the thought “What if I lose all my loved ones because of this?” can be balanced by “There’s a good chance we will be fine if we follow the safety standards.”
- Anticipatory grief is like time travel into the future. But no one can predict the future. One way out of this kind of anxiety-provoking state is to come into the present moment. Folks who meditate call this mindfulness. I’ll say a bit more about that further on.
- Acceptance is that part of grief when we have learned to live with our altered circumstances. I’m not saying we will have learned to like it; just that we are ready to be creative with it; to make the best of it. As you may surmise, there is power in acceptance. “Okay, I will practice physical distancing, I will wash my hands thoroughly and frequently, I will wear my mask in public indoor spaces, I am prepared to work remotely, etc.” And we have seen an uptick in creative ways to cope: the increase in local outdoor activities, for example, the rise of new hobbies and online gatherings, concerts, and, well, just about online everything.
Taking care of yourself while grieving
There is tremendous loss right now in the world and virtually everyone has lost someone or something important from their lives. While many have experience with how to cope when grieving, it is common for many people, even those with experience with significant grief, to struggle with grief and to be unsure of how to care for self or others. Below are some suggestions we have for you to help you with grief. Please expand the field to learn more about each suggestion and also consider watching the video link at the end of this page for more on managing grief.
How to use your "superpowers" with grief
Let’s go back to the present moment idea. I often tell students that they have “super-powers” to help them live in the now—you and I each have a body, senses, and our breath. Have you noticed that your body, your senses, and your breath are always in the present? For example, you can’t breathe yesterday’s breath or 5 minutes from now breath. Your body is always now. We can use it as an anchor to the present. Right here and now, try using your senses to notice a few things.
- Sight: Notice with your sense of sight the various colours that you see on and off the screen. I can look outside my window and see a blue sky and some trees. You’d be surprised at how much this can help. It gets us out of our thoughts and into our surroundings.
- Hearing: What do you hear going on around you?
- Touch: Notice the sensations you can feel, such as the soft fabric of your shirt or your feet on the firm floor.
- Smell: Focus on the aromas of the food you’re cooking, a candle burning, or another comforting smell that reminds you where you are right now.
- Taste: Instead of letting your mind wander as you eat, why not focus on eating mindfully? Really taste your food and enjoy the experience.
These five senses are your trusty anchors to the present moment. I knew a young woman who was struggling with anxious thoughts and bad memories. She was practicing how to live in the present and one summer day (pre-COVID) she said to me, “I know I’m getting better because today I noticed the pretty flowers on campus.” So, whenever your mind is jumping around like the monkeys at the zoo, try using your senses to bring you back to reality.
Mindfulness and your breath
Your breath is a wonderful way to anchor mindfulness to the present. When you take a nice, deep breath, you engage your parasympathetic nervous system—that part of your body that calms you and tells your brain that it does not need to be in high alert for the ‘what ifs.’ You are in the now and the now is safe and okay.
Control vs. no control
When we grieve our losses, it may feel that much is out of our control. Perhaps even our emotions. Let the emotions flow through you. If we are gentle with our grief, our grief will be gentle with us.
We can also get in touch with that which is and which is not within our control. When I ask students to name a few things within their control, they say things like, studies, nutrition and other health practices, interests and hobbies, online visits and more.
And with that, we turn to what is not within our control. There is much that is not within our control. For example, we cannot control how long it will take for this pandemic to end. We also cannot control other people. We cannot control the weather, etc. Our best strategy is to control our own actions and behaviours. For example, I may not be able to control whether or not someone wears a mask in enclosed public spaces, but I can mask up and observe all the protocols. We also should remember that it is very rare for everything about a situation to be out of our control; look for what you can control in any given situation. And... accept that which you can’t control.
Self-compassion is another way to apply comfort at this time.
Self-compassion, a term coined by Dr. Kristin Neff, is the act of treating ourselves as we would a friend; being a friend to ourselves. Self-compassion consists of 3 basic steps:
- The first step is simply noticing when we are struggling or suffering. For example, if we noticed our friend was suffering, we’d be moved to show empathy and compassion; the opposite of judgement.
- The second step is to recognize that suffering is common to humanity. There are few humans who are exempt from suffering in the human lifespan. We share common humanity in our moments of suffering.
- The third step is applying compassion to the self just as if we were a true friend. Perhaps you experience moments of sadness because you miss your loved ones. You can notice, “Hmmm, this hurts. Ouch.” Then you can tell yourself, “Many people are sad like this right now. I’m not alone.” And then, as an act of self-compassion, you might even place your hand on your heart and say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself. May I be understanding. It’s okay to feel sadness. May I find creative ways to reach out…”
Compassion for others is helpful, as well. For example, some people haven’t been at their best lately. Some families are cooped up together too much and showing signs of irritation with one another. It helps to realize that everyone is dealing with this as best they know how and to show them some grace.
This is temporary
Let us be reminded that this, too, shall pass. The world has gone through this before. In fact, science is better equipped to help us now than it did during the far more devastating pandemic in 1918 when there was little science and lots of deadly superstition.
Find meaning and connection
Many therapists and helpers of all kinds encourage us to find meaning and connection in these times so that we can look back and recall the good. How many of you have done a Zoom happy hour? A social-distancing visit outside? Any acts of kindness? How about phone conversations in real time using voice instead of text? If you haven’t done these things, I recommend it. Create the opportunity for connection in safe, pandemic-friendly ways.
Making friends with your emotions
Let’s go back to the emotions people experience now. Many people don’t know what to do with their emotions except maybe judge themselves and say “I shouldn’t feel this way." Actually, emotions are embodied so they are not meant to be judged. They are meant to be felt. We can judge behaviours as good, bad, or neutral, but not emotions.
I’ll give an example. Say I get really angry and I lash out at you. My anger is not the thing to be judged as bad. The lashing out we can judge as bad. I don’t apply the words good, bad, negative, or positive to emotions. Maybe pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe comfortable or uncomfortable. Emotions are signals. Emotions need motion. We can let ourselves feel them fully and once they are acknowledged, they tend to subside. Just remember the last time you enjoyed a good laugh or experienced a good cry. It was like a wave with a beginning, a crescendo or peak, and a gradual waning. So when we allow ourselves to feel our feelings and remove judgement, we actually recover faster because we haven’t expended energy blocking the wave from swelling, cresting and subsiding through us.
R.A.I.N. - Comfort grief
Another way to comfort grief is to use Dr. Tara Brach’s RAIN process. RAIN is an acronym for Recognizing emotions, Accepting emotions, Investigating emotions with curiosity, and then Nurture emotions with compassion. It’s similar to Dr. Neff’s approach.
From the positive psychology research, the practice of gratitude has been proven to cultivate hope, decrease the negativity bias, alleviate low mood, and contribute to well-being. Many of us take a lot of things for granted. What if you made it a conscious effort to notice and record the good you spot in everyday life? What do you imagine would be different if you actively expressed gratitude for such things as clean sheets, the taste of your favourite food, the sunshine, etc.?
Perhaps keep a simple note on your bedside table to remind you to reflect on the good things, people and moments in your day every night before you go to sleep. Express it out loud to a friend you miss, the cashier who went out of his way for you, your aunt for calling you. In short, giving thanks and being thankful makes tough times more tolerable and making it a habit will be valuable. We suggest trying to find one thing each day that you’re grateful for. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing either – I sometimes am grateful for how easy it is for us to get clean, safe drinking water.
Getting in touch with our values can also save us from sinking into self-pity. What do you want to stand for? What’s important to you? What guides your choices and decisions? To know your values can help during good times and bad. For example, if you are committed to the value of a good work ethic, this will probably keep you going even when you don’t feel like studying.
What energizes you?
Even during a time of loss and grief, we can still engage with what makes us feel good, energized and renewed. Take a moment and consider what gives you energy and renewal. I’ve asked students and received some great answers, including:
- Taking a walk in nature (when weather permits)
- Baking cookies for my family
- Talking with friends
It is common for people to disengage from activities they enjoy during times of grief and, unfortunately, sometimes people get stuck and don’t return to those activities. I encourage you to re-connect with what you enjoyed before, even if it may remind you of the loss.
Remember the basics
Finally, do not underestimate the value of basic health practices; nutritious foods, a bit of exercise and ample sleep go a long way in keeping us going when the going gets difficult.
Additional resources for grief
We invite you to watch a video on grieving and taking care presented by Linda Churchill (SCC counsellor).
Please reach out for support if you are having a hard time coping. If in need of professional assistance, you can contact the Student Counselling Centre at 204-474-8592