Grief is a normal response to loss. We’ve all lost something during COVID-19, and it’s OK to grieve that loss.
By Shoshana Ungerleider, M.D., Founder, End Well Project
People around the world have experienced exponential loss over the past five months. The feelings of loss have been brought on by a variety of circumstances during this pandemic. People have lost jobs, missed seeing their child graduate from college or high school, and been separated from loved ones. The predictability of daily life is gone. We’re grieving the life we once knew, and perhaps the one we hope to live.
In addition, we continue to see the death toll caused by COVID-19 continue to rise. However, as we watch the news every day, it can be easy to become desensitized to it and dehumanize the situation. But I think it’s critical that, as a country, we build a new vocabulary moving forward to discuss this collective, societal experience of mourning individuals whom we have not met. We often forget that these numbers are actual individuals who had a life, a family, a job and a purpose in this world. We forget that family members and friends were forced to say their goodbyes via FaceTime or sit vigil with iPads at the bedside. Without the experience of actually being at the bedside, people can often feel no closure—as if the death happened in an abstract way that wasn’t real. Coupled with the fact funerals and burial services are not happening as they normally do, the grief is profoundly more intense.
It’s important and therapeutic to give ourselves the permission and freedom to grieve—whatever it is you’ve lost during this time. This is a messy period, and people should know that anything they’re feeling right now is OK. Grief is a normal response to loss, and it’s typical to experience feelings of shock, denial, anxiety, distress and anger, as well as loss of sleep and appetite.
Understanding Anticipatory Grief
Many people also have a lingering feeling that more change and loss are yet to come—leading to what’s called “anticipatory grief.” Anticipatory grief is commonly defined as “grief occurring before an impending loss.” Although it’s typically used to discuss the grief a person may feel before a loved one passes from a terminal illness, it can also be used to describe the feelings that people are experiencing during COVID-19. The world is changing, and we don’t know what other changes are coming in the months ahead, how long physical distancing will last or what events we can plan for.
I am a type A hyper-planner, and the past several months have been challenging for me. I can often feel emotionally and physically drained at the end of each day, just from being frustrated or angry at situations out of my control or feeling withdrawn from friends and family. But it’s important to allow ourselves to feel whatever feelings arise and to acknowledge that sadness and grief. These feelings often come in waves—it’s important to ride them out and let them pass.
During this season of anxiety, grief and loss, it’s critical that we take care of our mental health and well-being. People need to feel that they can reach out to the people they love and also to professionals for help. Online therapy has become a very safe and convenient option over the past five months, and, for a lot, of insurers, is being offered at a reduced rate or free of charge in some cases. There are so many ways that people can connect to ask for help—even anonymously.
If you’re experiencing grief because you’ve lost a loved one during the COVID-19 pandemic, or you feel distress from other types of loss, reach out for help. Here are some strategies you can use to cope with feelings of grief.
- Connect with other people. Although social distancing is important, you can still connect with other people through videoconference calls or phone calls.
- Find ways to express your grief. Find an outlet that helps you express grief and find comfort through art, exercise, cooking, gardening or other creative projects.
- Ask for help from others. Seek out mental health services or support groups—especially ones that are offered over the phone or online. If you are religious, seek spiritual support from faith-based organizations, or reach out to trusted friends and family members for support.
Want to hear more? Check out Dr. Ungerleider’s podcast episode on COVID-19 and end-of-life decisions.
About The Author: Shoshana Ungerleider, MD
Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider is a physician, founder, philanthropist and speaker. She works as an internist at California Pacific Medical Center and Crossover Health in San Francisco. She founded End Well, a first of its kind media platform and annual symposium on human-centered design and innovation to improve the end of life experience. She funded Extremis, a short documentary about end of life decision making in the intensive care unit by Academy Award-nominated director, Dan Krauss. The film was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award and nominated for 2 Emmy Awards. She executive produced End Game, a short documentary on hospice and palliative care by Academy Award winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award.
More posts by Shoshana Ungerleider, MD