Note to the reader: This article is in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and discusses death and dying. It also explores how we may experience grief and loss when no one has died.
As the number of deaths continues to rise in the U.K. and around the world, many are facing grief in ways they never imagined.
Alongside the loss of someone we love, this current crisis reminds us that grief doesn’t just belong to death; we can experience it when anything that matters is no longer here.
You can grieve for the job you’re currently unable to do, the family you can’t hug, the holiday you really needed but had to cancel.
We are all looking at life through our own lens. What feels insignificant to one, will be a huge concern for another. All feelings matter. And all grief is valid.
We are also being confronted with our own mortality every day. We are seeing stark messages that death comes to us all, when many aren’t ready to think about that.
It accompanies war-talk of an “invisible enemy”, “field hospitals” and “fighting a battle”, which gives a sense of the unpredictable yet invasive nature of our times. The language of war when highlighting illness – which has been proven to be unhelpful – creates an understandable anxiety.
It’s no wonder if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
The greatest mystery in life is why death chooses a particular moment.Mitch Albom
There will be those who were grieving for loved ones who died before COVID-19, and those whose hearts are breaking because of it.
There will be those with considerations like poor mental health and those faced with domestic abuse, that make them more vulnerable and more at risk following the outbreak, in ways authorities have been slow to recognise. (Here is a list of links to agencies that may be able to help). Trauma can form part of the picture, particularly where people have been witness to or affected by what they’ve seen, heard or experienced.
All while parents, grandparents and care givers around the world will be trying to find the words to explain to young people what this all means.
The pandemic also brings consequences some nations have never seen before, when we talk of loss and bereavement. Families not being able to say goodbye at the bed side. The funeral being delayed as a result of the virus, and those closest not always able to attend. Daily death totals and worldwide images of mass graves can feel like they’re stealing our sense of identity and individuality, when grief is such a personal and unique experience for us all.
The media talks of a “new normal”, but normal will feel different to each of us, and how we feel now will be influenced by what life was like before the pandemic.
Your relationship may have broken down, or you’d started a new one. You may have been made redundant or started a new business. Events may have taken a turn for the worse, or things were starting to look up.
So grief can highlight how different we are, and that our situation can impact how we feel and respond to it. It’s not one emotion, but many that can change from moment to moment.
You might experience anger, frustration, a strong need to blame.
You might feel overwhelmed or completely numb.
You might have little concentration, or finding the simplest things a chore or challenging.
Perhaps you feel you’ve lost or are struggling with your identity, wondering where you fit in, in a world that seems unrecognisable right now. You might even feel like you’re “ losing your mind ” , with so much seeming out of our control.
There is no ‘right’ way to feel when you’re grieving. All of it matters, and our feelings help us make sense of what we’re going through. It’s what we do with those feelings and how we channel them that makes the difference to how we cope. But as Rachel Wilson says in this article, “Britain is woefully ill-equipped to cope with bereavement because our grief culture is a stifled one.”
So what helps (and what doesn’t) when grieving?
How you grieve will depend on many things including your personal circumstances, the amount and type of loss you’ve been through in life, what support networks you have, how close you were to the situation, any ‘unfinished business’, and how you’ve been able to process your emotions.
The following might not fit for everyone, but can give you a place to start if someone has died or if you’re recognising loss and feelings of grief right now.
1) Recognise the feeling
Pushing pain away rarely works in the long-term, it just finds a place to hide, and rises up at a later date. Grief, after all, is love with nowhere to go.
It can help to recognise you’re feeling something – even if that’s feeling nothing at all – and even if you’re not ready to process it just yet. Megan Devine explains the importance of acknowledgement in her video “How to help a grieving friend”. This is relevant to anyone who has suffered a loss, as it is if you’re trying to help a friend or family member who has.
2) Avoid minimising if it’s not helping
You might be tempted – or told – to feel grateful for what you have. Well-meaning people will tell you to “think of the good times” or “look on the bright side”, or start sentences with “At least…” that offer little comfort. Or you might soothe yourself by saying there are people “worse off”.
Whilst all that may be true, it can offer little consolation when faced with the rawness, complexity and confusion of grief. As Nora MicInerny says in her TED talk, “Grief is a multi-tasking emotion.” You can feel sad and happy at the same time, and what you experience won’t always make sense.
Don’t feel you have to justify or hide what you’re feeling to make others more comfortable. Tell yourself the truth, rather than telling yourself to shut up.
3) Give yourself permission to cry when it helps
When a grieving person cries in British culture, they often feel they have to follow it by saying “sorry”, as if it’s wrong. But we know crying helps.
Grief can feel like a wave of emotion; you might feel “fine” one minute, then hear a song on the radio and burst in to tears.
If you feel you can’t cry yet, that’s ok, just as if you find yourself laughing at something on the telly. Laughter helps too, and you don’t need to feel guilty for forgetting, in that moment, that life has changed.
It’s the same when processing feelings of anger. Know your warning signs of what anger feels like for you, and reach out to people who can help you channel the emotion in a way that’s healthy, rather than harmful.
Experiencing grief doesn’t always mean crying will help or feel possible, but it’s important you can when you need, rather than believing you shouldn’t.
4) Make room for self-care
Self-care looks different to everyone; it might be spending time in your garden, reading a book, watching a video that makes you chuckle, or having a warm bath. Create a well-being plan that’s tailored to you that you know feels manageable, which includes daily restorative acts of kindness towards yourself. Self-care doesn’t mean “Me first”, it means “me included. That means making your well-being – including sleep – a priority.
Practical things like childcare arrangements or social circles may have changed. It’s ok to accept offers of help where you can, even if it’s someone getting a few essential things from the shop for you.
Routine can be helpful, making sure you get up and dressed at the same time each day, eating regular meals, taking time for your daily allowed exercise when you can. But it’s ok to have a “duvet day” now and then too.
Speak to your doctor if you feel you’re having more bad days than good over time, or call the Samaritans on 116 123 if you need someone to talk with, especially if you’re awake in the early hours.
5) Manage your environment
It’s important your environment lends itself to a place of sanctuary especially when you’re grieving and definitely during lockdown, when we are being told to stay at home unless it’s for one of four reasons.
You may feel under pressure from others to make changes or alter something about your circumstances, or feel the need to “do” something. People may tell you to dispose of your loved ones belongings, or you might decide to clean out old cupboards. An important thing to consider is that you go at your pace, and that how you cope feels within your control.
If you’re affected by domestic abuse, here is Women’s Aid Safety Advice.
6) Reach out
Connection matters, whether it’s having contact with the outside world or having the opportunity to speak with people who understand. There are organisations that specialise in feelings of grief and loss, and again the Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123.
You might decide to join an online bereavement peer support group, or connect with like-minded people who understand loss. You might consider a Death Café where you can talk about your thoughts and fears surrounding end of life. There will be people who understand, even when your situation is unique.
7) Take your time
People often say things like “you’ll get over it” and “time is a great healer”. Research by Dr Robert Neymeyer actually suggests that it’s not necessarily the passing of time that helps in our recovery from loss, but how we spend the time we are grieving.
Despite what some will try and tell you, there are no stages of grief (something misquoted for years). Bereavement is not linear; it might feel more like a rollercoaster than it is a flight of stairs so it will look different to everyone. Your grief is as unique as you are, but help is available.
Don’t feel under pressure to put a time frame on your grief. Be gentle on yourself. Take your time. And reach out if it helps.
Copyright Delphi Ellis 2020