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What to Do With Feelings of Grief During COVID-19 (From Someone Who Gets It)

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I see you. Posting photos of better times on your social media. That concert you went to. That trip you took. Nights out with friends. Birthdays. Graduations. Lunch with co-workers. That trip to Target where you bought a really cool lamp. Occasions, big and small. Two years ago, last fall, last month or just two weeks ago. But it all feels like a lifetime away.

For most of us, the coronavirus, the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system, outbreak has caused a sudden, drastic and totally unexpected change in day-to-day lives. Such change often brings trauma and loss. And where there is trauma and loss, there is grief.

You may be grieving right now. Maybe you don’t realize it. All you know is things you once took for granted are now gone. And we don’t know when we’re going to get it back.

And it’s confusing. It’s confusing to know what we’re feeling. It’s confusing to know what it means. Maybe you are hesitant to call it grief. Maybe you don’t know what to call it. But it’s there. That feeling. That discomfort. That loss.

Maybe you’re like my dad, who last week offered this answer to how he was doing, “I’m fine. But sometimes, I stop and think. And, you know, you get a little sad, you just…”

Grief doesn’t happen only when someone dies.

When relationships end, we grieve. When plans change, we grieve. When opportunities are lost, we grieve. When our assumptions about the word or ourselves are taken away, we grieve.

Like many in the chronic illness community, I have much (unwanted) experience in mourning sudden losses, both big and small, both painfully ambiguous and oddly specific. Much like now, my losses came slowly, but all at once. After a night of unrelenting stomach pain, I walked into the emergency room one Saturday morning and everything went dark.

It was two weeks before I opened my eyes. And when I did, I was on a ventilator, IVs up and down my arm, over half a dozen tubes draining various colored liquids from my abdomen. A hidden stomach obstruction meant a stomach rupture, which meant a cascade of complications.

It was seven months before I walked out of the hospital. And when I did, I did so with a walker, attached to two feeding tubes, several drains and bags and my mom as my full-time caretaker.

It was three years before I was able to eat or drink anything again. Three years before all the tubes and bags came off.

My tragic medical saga and eventual triumphic recovery, however, is a story for another time. What is a story for today is that feeling. That discomfort. That loss many of us are feeling now.

This feeling is all too eerily familiar to me.

Feeling a sense of loss of your autonomy, your independence? I can relate, I spent three years attached to a feeding pump on a wall. Overnight, I went from a highly independent and mobile young person to a homebound patient who needed 24-hour care. There was no time to adjust.

Maybe for you the tougher losses are the large and more ambiguous ones. The loss of a future you planned or hoped for from canceled plans or lost income. The loss of a sense of safety — every surface or person is now a possible contamination danger, our medical system may not be able to help us or loved ones and many are not able to house and feed and care for our families. The loss of your sense of identity — from jobs and businesses that vanish overnight, or losing our ability to be a carer or protector for our families.

Maybe it’s the small losses that hit the hardest. The canceled playdates, the canceled senior class trip. The familiar faces as you walked into work or class each day. The familiar sounds of rush hour traffic, children laughing on the playground. That’s OK. Smaller losses don’t hurt any less than the larger losses. Once I cried at an orange juice commercial.

I wish I had talked (or posted on social media) more about the all-encompassing grief that enveloped me every day in the years when my life was upended by health struggles. But I did not. So today, I offer my wisdom.

I think one of the main things we can do to cope with our collective grief is to name what we’re feeling. It took me a while to learn and accept the confusion, sadness, emptiness and hopelessness I was feeling after I left the hospital was grief. Only by acknowledging and naming our grief, can we sit with our grief and allow it to move through us. Notice I didn’t say move past grief, because grief is not something we can move past or leave behind. It’s something we will always carry

I also urge you to not let your inner voice or others tell you that you shouldn’t feel sad because “others have it worse.” Someone may have it worse. But that doesn’t invalidate the very real sense of loss you’re feeling. Whether someone drowns in 30 feet of water or three feet, they still drowned.

So, what else can we do to deal with our collective grief?

Don’t let go of what made you you. Find activities, find people or anything else that allows you to feel like you. Our circumstances might be changing, and everything feels upside down and different, but you are still you. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly meaningful. During my three years where I couldn’t eat, drink or leave the house much, I relished in brushing my teeth twice a day — it was the only daily activity I still did in the same way.

Find moments of joy. Even when the world sucks, it’s OK to find happiness or joy in small things. In fact, you need to. A good cup of coffee, a funny meme, a new flower outside your window.

And lastly, remember different is OK. Make peace with the fact the world and your view of it might never be the same, even when everything goes back to “normal.” But that doesn’t mean it will get worse, or even better. It will be just different.

And in the end, remember, we will get through this. One day you will step outside on a bright sunny day, green leaves rustling in the wind, you’ll put a travel size bottle of sanitizer in your pocket and you’ll go about your day. Shops will be open for business, kids will be playing outside, neighbors will be rushing to work. We’ll get back to a new normal, maybe a little rougher around the edges, but also a lot wiser and more grateful.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by ilyaliren

Originally published: April 7, 2020
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