If we can name it, perhaps we can regulate it. A lot of people are unsure about how they feel on most days during the pandemic. They find themselves sad “for no reason” or anxious “out of the blue.” It’s important to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, how to manage it, and how you can find meaning in it.
What are some of the feelings people are experiencing during these trying times?
Grief, anticipatory grief, sadness, depression and anxiety. The truth is, our world has changed, our lives are different, and we don’t know if and when things will go back to how they were before COVID-19. Just as traveling has changed after 9/11 with a lot of strict rules around airport security, things may change forever post COVID-19. We are feeling the loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection and many of our loved ones are dying. This is hitting us hard and we are all grieving on a global and collective level.
We are also feeling anticipatory grief, on a micro and a macro level. Anticipatory grief is feeling we experience about what the uncertain imagined future holds and it typically revolves around death. We may be worrying about one of our family members or loved ones getting COVID, or imagining someone we love dying especially when we hear about all the deaths around us. It’s us thinking: “will I/my loved one/my family member be next?” With the uncertainty and open-endedness of this virus that is invisible to all of us, our sense of safety has been robbed, so our primitive minds want to protect us by preparing us for the upcoming storm. Many people are feeling anxious, and a lot of our anxiety is valid as long as it is managed in a healthy way. Anxiety is an evolutionary-based and adaptive response intended to help individuals survive environmental threats to the self, safety, or resources.
If anxiety and grief are common and valid feelings during these unprecedented times, how can people cope and manage their emotions?
As a start, we need to understand the stages of grief. Please remember that the stages are not necessarily linear and may not happen in this specific order. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. Acceptance does not mean approval, liking/loving that something has happened, passivity or agreement. It just means that we are acknowledging that this is happening/has happened and I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We need to accept reality, especially painful realities, for the following reasons:
1. Rejecting reality certainly does not change it.
2. Changing reality requires first accepting reality.
3. Pain can’t be avoided; it is nature’s way of signaling that something is wrong. Pain is part of life.
4. Rejecting reality turns pain into suffering. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional because it is pain (which is inevitable) plus non-acceptance of pain.
5. Refusing to accept reality can keep you stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, anger, sadness, shame, or other painful emotions.
6. Acceptance may lead to sadness, but deep calmness usually follows.
7. The path out of hell is through misery. By refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell.
The sixth stage of grief that was added is finding meaning, where people find a meaning and light in their difficult, darkest and most painful times and losses. For example, people are realizing they can connect through technology and that they are not as remote as they thought. Our freedom, health and even the simplest things in life such as taking outdoor walks are more appreciated. We are learning that we cannot take things for granted anymore. We are expressing to loved ones how much we care about them.
What are some of the techniques that are useful in dealing with anticipatory grief?
Anticipatory grief is normal, but it can become unhealthy when it results in an intense feeling of anxiety, with thoughts and images that are unbalanced, unrealistic, and catastrophic (only seeing worst case scenarios). Therefore, rather than pushing away and ignoring these thoughts and images (which is futile), aim to challenge these thoughts to make them more realistic by asking where is the evidence for and against this thought and consider alternative, more adaptive ways of thinking about the situation. For example, you can tell yourself: many people got the virus but did not die, not everyone I love dies, all I can do, and all that is within my control, is to take the necessary precautions and encourage my loved ones to do the same by wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing.
Another technique to deal with unhealthy anticipatory grief is mindfulness, where you gently and intentionally bring your mind back to the present moment and attend to the experience of each new moment, rather than ignoring the present by clinging to the past or grabbing for the future. When you practice mindfulness, you learn to push away nothing and to cling to nothing by controlling your attention, but not what you see. For example, you can practice observing your present moment by noticing your body sensations (coming through your eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue); paying attention on purpose, to the present moment; practice wordless watching: Watch thoughts come into your mind and let them slip right by like clouds in the sky; notice each feeling, rising and falling, like waves in the ocean.
You can also describe and put words on your experiences and observations. When a feeling or thought arises, or you do something, acknowledge it. For example, say in your mind, “Sadness has just enveloped me,” or “Stomach muscles tightening,“ or “A thought ‘I can’t do this’ has come into my mind.” Put a name on your feelings. Label a thought as just a thought, a feeling as just a feeling, an action as just an action. You can unglue your interpretations and opinions from the facts by describing the “who, what, when and where” that you observe. Just the facts.
Another skill is to let go of what you cannot control and to focus on what you can control. What your neighbor or anyone else is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is keeping a safe distance, avoiding crowded places and washing your hands.
It is very important to practice compassion to yourself and others. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it may be exhibited in different ways. So be patient and think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.
Last but not least, name what you are feeling as grief, acknowledge it, give it the space it deserves and feel it. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. If you have feelings about your feelings that are not valid, which we call secondary feelings, then we need to stop them. For example, if a loved one dies, and you feel guilty for feeling sad and you think “I shouldn’t feel sad, other people have it worse,” then guilt is a secondary feeling that is not valid. It is perfectly normal to feel sad about any loss, so stop at the first feeling, which is sadness. Let yourself feel sad, which is a completely valid and appropriate emotion to loss, because fighting the feeling of sadness is not effective and may dysregulate your emotions more. Your sadness will not evaporate, and feeling it is not dangerous or threatening.
Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.