COVID-19 Has Upended Our World; It’s OK to Grieve

Giving voice to our losses is important to understanding them—and then moving past them
April 2, 2020 Updated: April 2, 2020

On weekday evenings, sisters Lesley Laine and Lisa Ingle stage online happy hours from the Southern California home they share. It’s something they’ve been enjoying with local and faraway friends during this period of social distancing and self-isolation.

On a recent evening, I shared a toast with them.

We laughed and had fun during our half-hour FaceTime meetup. But unlike our pre-pandemic visits, we now worried out loud about a lot of things—like our millennial-aged kids, their health and jobs. And what about the fragile elders, the economy? Will life ever return to “normal”?

“It feels like a free fall,” said Francis Weller, a Santa Rosa, California, psychotherapist. “What we once held as solid is no longer something we can rely upon.”

The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe has left many anxious about life-and-death issues, and others struggling with a host of less obvious, existential losses as they heed stay-home warnings and wonder how bad all this will get.

To weather these uncertain times, it’s important to acknowledge and grieve lost routines, social connections, family structures, and our sense of security—and then create new ways to move forward—interfaith chaplain and trauma counselor Terri Daniel says.

“We need to recognize that mixed in with all the feelings we’re having of anger, disappointment, perhaps rage, blame, and powerlessness, is grief,” said Daniel, who works with the dying and bereaved.

Left unrecognized and unattended, grief can hurt “every aspect of our being—physically, cognitively, emotionally, spiritually,” said Sonya Lott, a Philadelphia psychologist specializing in grief counseling.

Yet with our national focus on the new coronavirus, as it spreads and brings chaos, these underlying or secondary losses may escape us. People who are physically well may not feel entitled to their emotional upset over the disruption of normal life. Yet, Lott argues, it’s important to honor our own losses even if those losses seem small compared with others.

“We can’t heal what we don’t have an awareness of,” Lott said.

Recognize Our Losses

Whether we’ve named them or not, these are some of the community-wide losses many of us are grieving. Consider how you feel when you think of these.

Social connections. Perhaps the most impactful of the immediate losses as we hunker down at home is separation from close friends and family.

“Children aren’t able to play together. There’s no in-person social engagement, no hugging, no touching—which is disruptive to our emotional well-being,” Daniel said.

Separation from our colleagues and office mates also creates a significant loss.

“Our work environment is like a second family. Even if we don’t love all the people we work with, we still depend on each other,” Lott said.

Habits and habitat. With the world outside our homes no longer safe to inhabit the way we once did, Daniel said, we’ve lost our “habits and habitats.” We can no longer engage in our usual routines and rituals. And no matter how mundane they may have seemed—whether grabbing a morning coffee at the local cafe, driving to work, or picking up the kids from school—routines help define your sense of self in the world.

Losing them, Daniel says, “shocks your system.”

Assumptions and security. We go to sleep assuming that we’ll wake up the next morning, “that the sun will be there, and your friends will all be alive, and you’ll be healthy,” Weller said. But the spread of the coronavirus has shaken nearly every assumption we once counted on.

“And so we’re losing our sense of safety in the world and our assumptions about ourselves,” he said.

Trust in our systems. When government leaders, government agencies, medical systems, religious bodies, the stock market, and corporations fail to meet public expectations, citizens can feel betrayed and emotionally unmoored.

“We are all grieving this loss,” Daniel said.

 Sympathy for others’ losses. Even if you’re not directly affected by a particular loss, you may feel the grief of others, including that of displaced workers, of health care workers on the front lines, of people barred from visiting older relatives in nursing homes, of those who have already lost friends and family to the virus, and of those who will.

Ways to Honor Your Grief

Once you identify the losses you’re feeling, look for ways to honor the grief surrounding you, grief experts urge.

Bear witness and communicate. Sharing our stories is an essential step, Daniel said.

“If you can’t talk about what’s happened to you and you can’t share it, you can’t really start working on it,” she said. “So communicate with your friends and family about your experience.”

It can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling a friend or family member, Weller said. He suggests simply asking for and offering a space in which to share your feelings, without either of you offering advice or trying to fix anything for the other.

“Grief is not a problem to be solved,” he said. “It’s a presence in the psyche awaiting, witnessing.”

For those with robust social networks, Daniel suggests gathering a group of friends virtually to share these losses together. Using apps such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or Facebook Live, virtual meetups are easy to set up daily or weekly.

Write, create, express. Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, keeping a written or recorded journal of these days offers another way to express, to identify, and to acknowledge loss and grief.

And then there’s art therapy, which can be especially helpful for children unable to express themselves well with words, and also for teens and even many adults.

“Make a sculpture, or draw a picture,” said Daniel.

Meditate. Regular meditation or just taking time to slow down and take several deep, calming breaths throughout the day also works to lower stress—and is available to everyone, Lott said. For beginners who want guidance, she suggests downloading a meditation app onto your smartphone or computer.

Be open to joy. And finally, Lott urges, make sure to let joy and gratitude into your life during these challenging times. Whether it’s a virtual happy hour, tea time, or dance party, reach out to others, she said.

“If we can find gratitude in the creative ways that we connect with each other and help somebody,” she said, “then we can hold our grief better and move through it with less difficulty and more grace.”

This story was produced in partnership with NPR and Kaiser Health News. Stephanie O’Neill is the recipient of a journalism fellowship at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado–Boulder, supported by Direct ReliefKaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.