How to Cope with Grief During a Pandemic

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Grief Wellness 101
15 min read

How to Cope with Grief During a Pandemic

How to Cope with Grief During a Pandemic
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Words by:

Kelsey Donk

Illustration by:

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Words by:

Kelsey Donk

Illustrator:

N/A

Contents

Almost a year after Kobe and Gianna Bryant died in a helicopter crash, Vanessa Bryant was ready to get real about her grief. “Grief is a messed up cluster of emotions,” the widow wrote in an Instagram story. “One day you’re in the moment laughing and the next day you don’t feel like being alive.” The ‘cluster of emotions’ that comes with grief is hard to manage even in the best times. But now, without the physical support of loved ones, it’s hard to know how to express and manage grief. But Eterneva has experience with how grief can impact individuals. 

We have been touched by more loss in the past year than in most of recent memory. That loss has impacted us all, regardless of background or status. As a result, more people—including public figures—have opened up about the losses they’ve faced and the struggles they’ve had coping during the pandemic. 

There’s Vanessa Bryant, whose husband and daughter passed on just a few months before the coronavirus hit the United States. 

There’s Amanda Kloots, who shared her grief publicly during the illness and after the death of her husband, Nick Cordero. 

There’s Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who wrote in the New York Times about the pain of suffering a miscarriage during the coronavirus pandemic. 

And there’s basketball player Karl-Anthony Towns, who lost seven family members, including his mother, to COVID-19. Towns is now trying to figure out how to play and grieve during the ongoing pandemic. 

Knowing others are struggling doesn’t make anyone’s particular experience of grief or loss easier. But when celebrities and public figures share their mourning, it can make it easier to start a conversation about grief with loved ones. We can look to these people and their experiences as we navigate our own losses for new approaches, conversations, and practices for managing grief. 

Acknowledge Grief’s Compounding Effects

Since this pandemic’s start, grief has been both everywhere and nowhere to be found. We see numbers that represent the coronavirus’ toll and we practice safe habits to keep it at bay, but many people have also been expected to work through loss and carry on—as if nothing has happened at all.  

If you’ve lost a loved one in the past year—whether from the coronavirus or something unrelated—it has probably been hard to know how to cope. We’re working without a playbook, in a time when our usual grieving rituals are on pause. But still, as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “the body keeps the score.” Grief is much deeper than just feeling sad. It has an impact on our spiritual beliefs, our personal and work relationships, and our daily routines. 

In fact, right now, the major grief you’re feeling is probably compounded by other stressors, losses, and fears. The loss of a schedule, safety net savings, or even work friends—those losses brought on by this pandemic all demand recognition along with the loss of a loved one. They are very real causes of sadness, and they lead to real fatigue, headaches, and other physical symptoms. 

We may also be feeling anticipatory grief, or the feeling that more loss could be coming. You might feel on edge or irritable without knowing why, you might dwell on worst-case scenarios, or you might feel exhausted and pull away from loved ones. 

It can be freeing to acknowledge that everything you’re feeling is normal, and it has a cause. The reaction you’re having to a tragic loss (or, in this case, a life-altering moment compounded by the stressors of a global pandemic) is natural. Recognizing that is an important first step in moving through grief. 

Set Boundaries and Remove Triggers

In moments of profound grief, it’s tempting to isolate yourself—and isolating has never been easier than it is right now. But grief experts say that isolation can lead to more anxiety. David Kessler, a grief expert and the author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, says that especially when we’re feeling loss that could lead to future losses, “Our mind begins to show us images ... We see the worst scenarios.” You might imagine your parents getting sick, or a child getting hurt. According to Kessler, that’s our minds being protective. 

While it makes sense to want to isolate and pull away from those thoughts while you grieve, that often doesn’t work. Kessler says you can’t ignore your thoughts or force them to go away. Your grieving brain won’t let you. Instead, if you feel the worst images taking shape in your mind, take a deep breath. You can set boundaries with your brain and try to bring it into the present. 

Amanda Kloots wrote on Instagram that she’s been working on “acknowledging what triggers me and trying to remove those triggers and set boundaries” seven months after her husband died of COVID-19. “This has been very helpful this month. Triggers seem small or something that ‘it’s ok, I can deal with’ but when they all add up it’s like a volcano that erupts and that’s not ok! You have to help yourself as much as you can.” 

Everyone’s triggers are different, and they’re not all what you might expect. But when you feel that something starts to make you spiral into paralyzing anxieties, Kessler suggests coming into the present. It sounds simple, but try to name a few things in the room around you. Feel the table in front of you, breathe in deeply, and remind yourself of what’s happening in the present moment. That actually will help your brain calm down.

Take this time as often as you can, and don’t rush the process of feeling “okay” again. You may feel pressure to bottle up your emotions and go back to daily life. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Bringing yourself into the present allows you to take time to process your grief without being swallowed up by it. (Or without feeling like you’re inside an erupting volcano, as Amanda Kloots said!) 

You don’t have to pretend like nothing in your life has changed. Something earth-shattering has changed! Don’t pull away and try to “recover” on your own. Grief is a process best shared with friends and family, but you may sometimes need to step back, take some time, and bring yourself into the present. If you need some inspiration, Eterneva shares how friends and families grieve their loved ones on their Instagram.

Get Help for Grief-Related Symptoms

Grief is a normal, natural response to loss, and it doesn’t follow a linear timeline or predictable formula. But if you find yourself having a hard time functioning in everyday life or if your grief is keeping you from carrying out daily tasks, it’s important to get help. 

Symptoms that might suggest it’s time to reach out to a doctor, mental health professional, or faith leader include: 

  • Numbness, detachment, and a refusal to think of or acknowledge loss
  • Repetitive or disruptive rumination
  • Alcohol or substance use that gets in the way of daily functioning
  • The feeling that life is no longer worth living

It’s normal to feel sad, have a hard time sleeping, and be angry after a loss. In fact, in a recent study on grieving Americans, researchers found that 83% experienced sadness, 42% experienced depression, 31% faced an inability to sleep or sleep disturbances, 29% felt anger, 19% had anxiety, including PTSD, and 5% had suicidal thoughts. There’s no one right way to grieve, and mental health practitioners can help you find productive outlets and coping strategies that are just right for you. 

Just as it’s normal to experience sadness and anger, it’s normal to get help with grief. “I am actively searching for help,” Amanda Kloots said in an Instagram caption. “I am trying out different therapists, different therapies, massages, healings, prayer, anything that might give me some peace.” 

Show Up for Loved Ones

One of the hardest parts of this pandemic is that everyone is experiencing loss all at once. It can be hard to know what to do for friends and family members who are grieving—especially as you also grieve! What do you say? What do you do? Right now, it’s not possible to hang out or hug in a way that might feel natural. But maybe you can write a letter, send a text, Venmo a few dollars for coffee or groceries, or order a fun book or treat to be delivered. 

The important thing is to show up without burning out—especially if you’re also experiencing loss. So you have to find the happy medium between what you want to do for those you love and what you’re physically and financially capable of doing. Nora McInerny and Dr. Anna Roth of Still Kickin recommend starting with two questions

  1. What are you physically capable of doing? 
  2. What are you willing to do? 

The best you can do for those you love is something small that you’re both able to do and want to do. Often, the first step when showing up for others is to care for yourself. Take a look at your own grief and be compassionate toward yourself. That way, you’ll be ready to share that same level of care and compassions with those you love. 

Then, when you do talk to loved ones who are grieving, be a compassionate observer before you share your own experiences. Make sure those you love know they aren’t alone, and you see and feel their pain. 

It can be hard to know what to say, but platitudes like “Everything happens for a reason” or “I know how you feel” may make those you love feel worse. Grief is universal, but everyone’s experience of grief is different. Instead, it’s important to bring up specific memories of a person’s lost loved one. Say that person’s name! You might be worried that you’ll remind them of their loss, but they haven’t forgotten! In fact, they may be worried that others have forgotten. Mention their loved one’s name as much as you can to keep their memory alive. 

Importantly, showing up for those you love will look different over time. The important thing is to keep checking in, keep listening, and do what you can. 

Honor Remarkable Memories

Everyone’s grief process is different, but at Eterneva, we’ve found that sharing our grief with others is the most important thing. We’ve been so inspired by the vulnerability of Amanda Kloots, Vanessa Bryant, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Karl-Anthony Towns, and other public figures who’ve been open about their losses over the past year. We know that when we share our stories with others, it helps ease the grieving process for everyone. 

Grief counselors often say that it’s important to process and release grief. What they mean by that is that when we’re vocal about something that makes us feel pain, shame, or sadness, it takes away some of the power of that feeling. Contrary to popular belief, when you’re able to voice a “dark” or “negative” thought, it doesn’t make you seem like a negative person. Instead, it often opens up a conversation that lightens everyone’s load. 

If you’re feeling grief today, call a friend or send a text to talk through a memory. Write those memories down in a journal, or write a letter. Get your thoughts outside of your brain and into the open. No matter how you choose to process and release, what’s important is that we remember the person, relationship, or experiences we’re grieving and honor our memories. Let’s start the conversation and lean on each other to have a safe, open conversation about grief. Let’s share our stories and help each other feel a little lighter. 

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