In our society, there’s a common misconception that grief is sadness. This is most likely due to the fact that we have an ingrained societal tendency to utilize grief and mourning as coping skills to help us deal with death. In practice, however, humans grieve and mourn every loss of something important to them, whether it’s a person or pet or even something more practical like a home or job.
In fact, grief is present in the wake of even the small losses people may not deem as significant. Everything from falling out with friends to dropping a scoop of ice cream on the ground can spark varied levels of grief followed by a period of mourning what could have been. However, as we head into summer 2021, just over a year since COVID-19 was first declared a global pandemic, loss looks a little different. So does the way we grieve.
Watch this video by Sage Therapist, Lesley McKinney who discusses the grief of lost time and what you can do to move forward if you are grieving right now.
Grief and COVID-19
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines grief as emotional anguish experienced on the heels of a substantial loss, usually the death of a loved one. When it comes to conversations surrounding the losses experienced in 2020-21, the key word in this definition is “usually.” Why? It’s important to realize that, while not everyone is grieving the loss of a loved one to the pandemic, many of us are certainly still experiencing pandemic-related grief.
This past year, we’ve seen a total societal upheaval. Worse, many of the changes occurred so quickly that a significant portion of the population experienced a new world overnight. Events were cancelled, travel was restricted, businesses had to adapt or shut down, and families had to stay separated at a time when they were experiencing a deep urge to be together.
The Grief of Lost Time
Through these losses and many more experienced on an individual and societal level, we are all connected. Their compounding effect is what is causing the secondary wave of communal grief washing over the world right now—grief over the loss of time. Over the past years, we’ve lost:
- Time with friends, family members, teachers, colleagues, and innumerable other important people whose lives were cut short this year.
- Time celebrating, mourning, and just being with loved ones on important occasions.
- Time to yourself when your home has essentially become a school, an office, and gym.
- Time to take care of ourselves while working overtime as an essential or at-home employee.
How We Experience Grief
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The events of the past year have dealt a major blow to most American’s social, familial, financial, and mental stability. As a result, many people admit to feeling robbed of an entire year of their lives. However, many others simply don’t know how they should feel or how to react during this time.
Breaking down the psychological aspects of the losses brought on by COVID-19 can seem simple when we’re considering others. Sometimes, however, we’re too close to our own emotions to properly identify the signals of distress.
If you’re not sure how you’re feeling in this uncertain time, here are some of the ways grief may actually be presenting itself in your life:
- Thinking too much/too little
- Sleep troubles
- Lack of energy
- Lack of motivation
- Increased substance use
The Seven Stages of Grief
If you are unfamiliar with the way that grief works, how it presents itself, and what we do to process and get over it, the concept of the seven stages of grief is a great place to start. In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who worked closely with terminally ill patients, observed the effect of grief on the human psyche. Her theory, dubbed the Kübler-Ross method, suggested grief could essentially be divided into stages.
With this theory, we can begin to assess how people are dealing with the losses in their lives. Kübler-Ross believed the following stages occur after a loss:
- Shock and Denial. When you first learn of a loss, your mind can go into a state of shock and deny the loss actually occurred, regardless of proof or explanation.
- Pain and Guilt. Next, pain and guilt about the circumstances begin to set in gradually or can seemingly strike out of nowhere.
- Anger and Bargaining. Once the loss starts to feel real, you may begin to feel angry or affronted by the unfair circumstances. You may feel like bargaining with a higher power to “fix” the situation, even when a loss is permanent and cannot be fixed.
- Depression. When anger and bargaining are unproductive, depression often begins to take root, manifesting in several symptoms that can impair your ability to live life “as normal.”
- The Upward Turn. When the sharpest emotional pains have eased into a dull ache, an upward turn indicates the pathway to healing is a little clearer.
- Reconstruction and Working Through. Unpacking the loss with a clear mindset only comes with time and distance. Working through your loss with a mental health professional can help you frame your situation in a healthy light.
- Acceptance and Hope. The light at the end of the tunnel: once you’ve reached acceptance, you are ready to move forward with the hope that things will eventually be okay.
Steps to Move Forward
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When you are beginning your journey of healing from the grief of lost time, the first step is always self-care. Proper self-care is a cumulative process, so many small habits and lifestyle changes like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, focus, and intentionality are bricks helping to strengthen your emotional foundation. Just remember, foundations are little more than a solid structure you must further build upon.
Fortunately, many of us can benefit from the help of licensed mental health professionals. Therapists and counselors stand ready to help you work toward rebuilding your life the way you imagined it. Then, you can make peace with the grief of time lost and find joy in looking forward to your future.
For those times when you are struggling even after establishing self-care routines and professional guidance, here are some tips to help you get through the grief of lost time in the moment:
- Give yourself some recognition. Remind yourself of all the difficulties you’ve overcome. This past year has been difficult, so focus on the steps you’ve taken to get through it.
- Don’t avoid your grief. Setting aside time to take stock of your losses and parse through how you feel about them outside of a stressful or triggering environment is important to be able to look at them objectively.
- Don’t shoot the messenger. While you’re experiencing loss, your brain generates the signals but your emotions are just the messenger—and they’re trying to tell you something. Don’t shut them out. Not allowing yourself to process your emotions can result in a buildup of anxiety, resentment, and more.
- When in doubt, time it out. If you’re worried taking the time to let yourself feel grief will completely derail your day, try setting a timer. The moment you feel an episode of overwhelming emotions coming on, look at a clock and allow yourself a set amount of time to deal with it. Spend that time acknowledging your feelings, give them room to breathe, and pull yourself back into the present when time is up. Deep breathing can help with the transition back to a clearer mindset.
- Avoid “doom scrolling.” Try to strike a balance between keeping up with current events while dealing with your emotions and practicing self-care. If you find yourself scrolling endlessly down a social media feed, reading story after story of depressing news, close those apps/tabs and go get some fresh air.
Take Care of Yourself… and Each Other
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As we continue the transition into a more normal, post-COVID-19 world, it is important to remember that it is okay to experience feelings of grief, whether over lost time with loved ones who have passed from the virus or simply loss of what could have been over this past year. Stay mindful of these losses, acknowledge your feelings about them, practice self-care, and remain compassionate as others travel the same path. Along with professional counseling, these steps are key to maintaining mental health as we come back together once again.