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Grieving the Loss of Life as We Knew It

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMarch 27, 2020

In what has felt like overnight, life has changed in ways most of us have never experienced, or even imagined.

While most of our focus this past couple of weeks has been on keeping ourselves safe from COVID-19 itself (and rightly so), it’s important to acknowledge the heavy emotional burden we are carrying right now. We’re trying to cope with not only the frightening threat of the illness itself, but the loss of life as we knew it.

If you’re feeling the weight of grief right now, you’re not alone. Grief is a normal reaction to losing something we care about, and much has been lost in the fallout from the coronavirus—even if we haven’t lost someone we love to the illness.

We’ve lost a sense of security.

While life is never completely secure or predictable, life’s uncertainty is baldly apparent right now. For many of us, that uncertainty causes stress and emotional discomfort; for others, the uncertainty of this time might be triggering crippling anxiety.

We don’t know how the virus itself will affect us: Will I or someone I love get sick? Will we be okay? 

And for many people, there is a loss of financial security. Parts of the economy have come to a complete standstill, leaving a staggering number of people unemployed and unsure how they’ll pay for food and rent. Countless individuals lost not just their job but the health insurance that came with it, at a perilous time to be uninsured. Financial markets have taken a huge hit as well, leading many to wonder if they’ll be able to retire when they had planned to.

Even home doesn’t feel entirely safe: What about packages? Should I sanitize them? And the mail? If I order groceries to be delivered, do I need to disinfect all the packaging? 

One way that we instinctively deal with uncertainty is to create routines that gave structure to our lives. But we have lost those, too. Your days probably look completely different from how they were just earlier this month. No more getting together with friends, no trips to the gym, probably no commute to and from work.

We’ve lost physical presence with others.

This is exactly the time when the presence of others would be so comforting, and yet unfortunately it’s much more difficult in light of the physical distancing requirements. Those who live alone may be completely cut off from direct contact with others, and even those of us who share a home with family members are probably craving closer connection with friends.

You might be deeply missing your work colleagues, too. A friend of mine stopped by her now-deserted office to pick something up, and as she passed by the cubicles where she and her co-workers had shared so many conversations and laughs, she burst into tears, missing those simple days that she had taken for granted and wondering if things would ever be the same again.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking isolation is that of individuals in the hospital or in nursing homes. They may well wonder if they’ll ever see their loved ones again, especially if their health is poor. It’s painful to imagine what it’s like for them and their families, including patients who enter the hospital with COVID-19. 

We’ve lost freedom.

The ability to choose our own actions is a basic psychological need. You need to feel that you have freedom in what you do, where you go, and whom you associate with. We always live with some constraints, of course, but those constraints have drastically increased, basically overnight.

You’re probably no longer free to go wherever you want whenever you want, with many areas restricting travel to only the most essential activities, like food shopping and medical visits. That loss of freedom can feel suffocating, especially when it’s unclear how long these restrictions will stay in place. The drive for autonomy may be part of what is compelling some people to defy expert recommendations (and common sense) and refuse to follow physical distancing guidelines.

We’ve lost the ability to contribute.

You may be suddenly missing opportunities to exercise your abilities. Actors can’t act, athletes can’t compete, therapists can’t lend a listening ear (at least not in the same room as their clients). From massage therapists to barbers, waiters to chefs, countless individuals suddenly find themselves out of work.

If you’re not able to work, your feeling of self-worth may plummet, along with your sense of self-confidence. You might also blame yourself for losing the opportunity to earn an income and provide for your family, even though it’s clearly not your fault. In one way or another—and perhaps without even realizing it—you’re grieving the fact that you can’t use your mind and hands to do what you’re good at.

We’ve lost our (imagined) immediate future.

Many of us had hopes and plans for upcoming events, perhaps things we’ve looked forward to for so long and dreamed about in such detail that it’s almost unimaginable that they won’t actually happen. High school seniors will miss the end of their senior year and may not have a prom or graduation. Many college seniors won’t see some of their friends again. Weddings have had to be rescheduled, or held virtually. Long-awaited vacations and conferences have been canceled, celebrations of golden wedding anniversaries postponed. These aborted plans leave a hole where our hopes once were, and lead to their own form of grieving.

We’ve lost a connection to self.

On a deeper level, you may even be missing a feeling of being connected to yourself—of knowing who you are and what your life consists of and what you imagine your future will look like. Stress, anxiety, and overwhelming uncertainty can cut us off from feeling grounded within ourselves. Who will we be in this new reality, however temporary it may be?

Make Space to Grieve

If you’re feeling grief about things you’ve lost, be compassionate toward yourself. Know that it’s normal to feel the way you feel. Expect there to be ups and downs—you may feel surprisingly normal, even joyful, at times, and then be blindsided by sadness (like my friend when she saw her cubicle). Talk about how you’re feeling with people you care about, and meet them in their grief, too.

If you’re feeling lost and disconnected from yourself, take time to pause and sit in stillness. Close your eyes and take ten slow, smooth breaths. Feel your awareness come into your body. Come home to yourself.

You might also consider writing about your experience, which can be a very constructive way to work through thoughts and feelings. There’s no need to try to “solve” anything through the writing—use it simply as an outlet to express what you’re going through.

Don’t worry if you think you’re more affected by all the life disruption than the people around you are. Others may be feeling things you’re not aware of, or their grief may emerge over time. Or maybe it’s just hitting you harder than it hits others. People have all kinds of reactions to loss and change—let yours be what it is.

Finally, take care not to criticize yourself for feeling sad when so many others have lost so much more. It’s common to feel guilty for grieving when life is still good in so many ways (as I hope yours is), and to tell ourselves we should feel gratitude, not grief. Know that the two are not incompatible; even the grateful can mourn.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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