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Is That Grief You're Feeling?

When someone says, “grief” the first thought might be that someone has died. Yet experts tell us that grief can happen for all kinds of loss and this past spring has led to a lot of change in everyone’s life and therefore loss for people across the globe.

“I think one of the main reactions since the onset of the pandemic, at first was just shock, and soon after that a lot of sadness and people have missed a lot of things,” said Barry J. Jacobs, Psy. D., of Health Management Associates.

Dr. Jacobs explained that he has observed the loss of a sense of safety in the world, as well as the loss of routines, relationships, and for those who were severely ill as a result of COVID-19 but survived, perhaps a loss of functionality as they continue to recover.

“I don’t know when I’ll see my daughter again,” he said from his home in Philadelphia about his daughter who lives in Denver.

When it comes to changes in how people can interact, there can be a mix of feelings but another expert says it’s important to pay attention to all of them. “Sometimes with caregivers there is an anticipatory grief when someone is still living, but not able to engage,” said Dr. Natalia Skritskaya, a staff member at The Center for Complicated Grief and a researcher at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. “That’s because a relationship is about communicating with the other person, sharing experiences, and when there is that loss—from illness or the current situation—then there is that loss of direct connection.

Is It Grief?

Within grief, there can be many other feelings, Dr. Jacobs said. “People might be sullen, irritable, have a difficult time focusing, and just be going through the motions each day,” he explained. For example, Dr. Jacobs has remained healthy and so have his loved ones during the pandemic. However, he is feeling his own loss. “I’m really grieving the sense of freedom that I had before,” he said. “I’m older now and I have mild asthma and I’m really aware that when I see scenes of people returning to beaches, they aren’t people my age.”

These experts recommend that people check in with themselves about what they are feeling to identify what’s happening in order to cope.

“Instead of pushing away the pain, allow it in because feelings are signals there to communicate about what is happening,” said Dr. Skritskaya. “Do you feel guilt, anger, anxiety, and what is it about?”

How to Cope

Once you have identified what you are feeling, there are ways to process and move forward.

“I think it’s really important for people to accept that it’s normal and recognize that there have been sweeping change in their lives,” said Dr. Jacobs. “People might say to themselves, ‘I don’t deserve to have these feelings because no one close to me died’ and that sense of loss may linger.”

Dr. Skritskaya echoed that grief is normal, and added that people can work through the stages of grieving. “Most people are instinctively able to adapt so believe that your body and mind are trying to help you deal with this difficult situation,” she said.

She also recommended that people know it’s okay to feel positive emotions while grieving and it’s important to increase those. “Grief doesn’t mean the person cannot experience any pleasure or joy,” she explained. “You can try to build in some things for positive emotions by taking care of yourself and do things that are self-soothing.” Some ideas might be a bubble bath, a walk in the park, or a conversation with a good friend.

And for those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic, but were unable to participate in traditional mourning and grieving rituals, Dr. Skritskaya said that adaptation is useful. “We don’t grieve well alone,” she said. “It’s better if you have people who are going through it too. I have heard of people getting creative with a memorial service on Zoom or livestreaming a funeral, and given the circumstances, something is better than nothing.”

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