Grief and bereavement are words we often use interchangeably to describe the feelings of those affected when someone dies. When my mother died, I used “bereft” and “desolate” to attempt to convey what I was feeling. But I just wasn’t able to describe that black hole of agony.
The truth is, it’s impossible to truly understand what it is to lose someone forever until it happens to you. As one friend put it, grief is “the club you never want to join”.
Pandemic grief: grieving the loss of normality
The pandemic has left many of us bereaved through the death of a loved one. Others are grieving too, not because someone has died but because grief is a normal human response to loss.
Loss is everywhere because of the COVID-19 virus. We can give it all the names, from alpha to omega, but the truth is that normal life has been on hold for two years because of one virus: we’re grieving the loss of normality. Normality is ski holidays, dinner parties and theatre trips for some. For others it’s work, seeing family and helping kids get to school.
The truth is that normal life has been on hold for two years because of one virus: we’re grieving the loss of normality
Grieving the loss of normality is allowed, and yet I hear my clients time and time again berating themselves for feeling grief. “I shouldn’t be sad about the ski holiday being cancelled when people are dying” and “other people are far worse off than me” are sentiments I often hear, which add unnecessary shame and guilt into the miserable mix.
If you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it. In other words, whatever emotions you feel, you are more likely to defuse their hold on you by acknowledging, naming and accepting them, rather than shutting them in a shameful box labelled “emotions I shouldn’t feel”. Just because you’ve been told that your fear (or any other emotion) is “irrational” doesn’t make it any less real to you, and using the word “irrational” can be demeaning and dismissive. Furthermore, self-flagellation will not improve the vaccine rollout in Africa or help those around you to cope.
Whatever emotions you feel, you are more likely to defuse their hold on you by acknowledging, naming and accepting them, rather than shutting them in a shameful box labelled “emotions I shouldn’t feel”
What is grief?
So, if we are now accepting of our feelings of grief, let’s look at grief more closely.
Anticipatory grief is described by grief expert David Kessler as the feeling we get about the future when the future is uncertain. At the moment, our jobs, our health and our plans are all under siege. As vets and nurses, maybe our jobs are more secure now that there are an extra 3.2 million pets in the UK, but our risk of burnout in our job these days is higher than it ever was pre-pandemic.
The five stages of grief are well known: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance … a good exercise would be for us to identify any of the above emotional stages the pandemic has created within us
We’ve talked before about how allowing ourselves to feel an emotion and giving it a name can help it to exist within us, albeit in the background, while we get on with other often more enjoyable bits of life. And the five stages of grief are well known: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. So, perhaps, a good exercise would be for us to identify any of the above emotional stages the pandemic has created within us.
I will never forget, for as long as I live, the evening in January 2020 when my then 11-year-old daughter expressed her anxiety about something she had heard regarding a virus in Wuhan, China. As far as we knew, we had one case in the UK and they were in quarantine (ironically a term we used to use relating to pets, which we had banned due to its inhumanity).
I reassured her. I told her the stories of bird flu and swine flu which came and went in a flash despite huge media hype. Now neither of my kids will let me forget that conversation and they laugh hysterically when we remember it.
Maybe we were all in denial. Maybe some still are, and maybe some are saying “I told you so”. But what matters is that you identify what degree of denial (if any) you are feeling.
Will we ever forget toilet-roll-gate, such an outpouring of anger and frustration?
Still, the car horns blare outside my house at the width restriction as they never did before. People are irritable. Social media can be vile, and posts are being taken down at an alarming rate because they are so angry and offensive.
Domestic abuse rates in the UK
Refuge recorded an average of 13,162 calls and messages to its National Domestic Abuse helpline every month between April 2020 and February 2021, a statistic that is up more than 60 percent on the average number of monthly contacts at the start of 2020 prior to lockdown, it says. Seventy-two percent of these calls were from women who were being attacked in their own home.
Anger has been rife these last two years, and it is important to acknowledge that we may be suppressing it. Hopefully if you are feeling anger, you’re recognising it (you don’t have to analyse or justify it), and choosing what to do with it, if anything.
Emotional intelligence, self-awareness and self-regulation are key at times like this.
Some people respond to grief by negotiating with themselves: “I’ll practise social distancing for a week,” or “It’s okay to hang out just with close friends.” Or even, “There has to be some trade-off between people’s lives and the health of the economy,” or “I’ll wear a mask over just my mouth.”
What bargaining have you done? How have you justified bending the rules for the sake of you or your family?
Do you ever feel a wave of sadness wash onto you these days for no particular reason?
Perhaps it’s like it’s always in the background. Moments of clubbing or laughing hysterically are few and far between. Holidays are snatched between lockdowns if we’re lucky, but no holiday is guaranteed. Planning anything is asking for disappointment and seen as futile or self-teasing by some. Maybe it’s seen as “winging it” by others of us with a smile.
Yet, if we could accept that lots of (now “potential”) plans can still be made with the true stark knowledge that they may be cancelled at the last minute, maybe that would lead to a more spontaneous way of being and living and holidaying: planning the future with the pre-acceptance that things may change.
Wouldn’t that be mindfulness in action? Living in the moment.