The Mighty Logo

Hey You: It's OK to Grieve the 'Small' Things You've Lost During the COVID-19 Outbreak

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

My son and I were talking yesterday about the amount of trauma and loss the coronavirus (COVID-19) will bring. COVID-19 is the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system, and its quick spread has led to canceled events, school closures and disruption of life as we know it.

He is a young adult and is often the one to bring balance to my knee-jerk A or Z reaction to many things. I wondered aloud about the long-term negative emotional impact of this on young folks, as he too was sent home from grad school just months before finishing. We talked about how impossibly hard it must be for so many kids, missing the last months of their senior year, especially because it’s a time where all the reward and fun happens. It was supposed to be when they would say their goodbyes, only to be forced to do so prematurely and in days. We talked about other losses such as a friend’s wedding coming up, and about his sister who works in sports, losing her job. And how in this season of celebration, lots is lost.

He is wise, always has been. He offered his perspective that this loss would change a generation, especially a generation to whom nothing like this has ever happened. And he is right. It will. But it will change all of us, even those who lived through 9/11 and other wars. No one is exempt.

I am a psychologist who deals with trauma issues daily in the kids I see. Suffice it to say it’s not rocket science to recognize the high-level trauma that will result in this pandemic.

On that level, there will be a horrific residual impact and psychic toll for our healthcare workers as they are overworked and faced daily with the existential trolley problem of deciding who lives and dies. The agony for healers who have no miracle drug to throw at this and not enough ventilators for all might haunt them. The impact of exposing themselves to a virus that could kill them could echo for years. Trauma and its slimy insidious smoke will creep into the corners of all of our brains. Many of us will lose loved ones and lose our homes. Children will lose elderly caretakers, and families will face eviction and financial ruin.

But that trauma stuff is a story for another day. After this is over.

But, where there is trauma, there is the sentinel event of loss.

And where there is loss, there is grief.

And where there is a sudden shocking loss, there is the ambiguous loss of so many things.

I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge this right now, and spend some of our time while quarantined or distanced talking about it. It will be, as they say, an ounce saved toward a pound of cure.

I pointed out to my son the layers upon layers of loss people are experiencing now, and how folks really don’t know what to do with it or how to express it, this floaty/dread/angry/loss/sad/shock/weepy/pit in your stomach/lonely feeling.

People don’t understand that the complex constellation of feelings I just described is grief. Grief for ambiguous losses. We must open some talk about this now.

Imagine if you will when a bomb goes off. We hunker, we hide, we deal with the explosion. It is often months later when we come out and start picking up the pieces that we begin realizing all that was lost. This might be what will happen after the crisis of this pandemic is over.

Often, it is then we begin to grieve the more intangible losses. This happened to me with cancer treatment, during the crisis I survived. But a year later, as I began tiptoeing around the shards on the ground, I realized all the ambiguous losses I had, and which I needed to grieve. The loss of the sense I would live a long life, the loss of school plays I had not seen, the loss of the sureness that I would see my daughter walk down the aisle. The intangibles. And with each of those very wispy losses, all the stages of grief would have to happen: shock, anger, denial, bargaining and depression.

Today, what is happening this moment, as we distance in our homes, as kids scramble to pack up dorm rooms, as workers are told to stay home and as a myriad of joyful and fun and social events are canceled, we are in shock. We are talking about how wild this is, how frustrating this is. We are in the first stage of grieving these ambiguous losses. But many of us don’t recognize it yet.

We have lost so, so much already. And no one has really talked about it.

An ambiguous loss is a loss we can’t quite get our hands around. The ambiguity speaks to the loss of dreams and futures imagined — the loss of things hoped for and for feelings anticipated. It’s the loss of those wispy, hard to get your hands around yet real beliefs about the metrics of the world. The loss of the steadfast feeling of our safety, and a sense that we live in a world where things are just, people do the right thing and rewards are fairly certain.

This loss often happens when bad things happen to good people. And right now, lots of bad things are happening to good people.

The grief attached to these things is real, whether you prepared for and anticipated the losses, or if you were blindsided by the enormity of this pandemic this week. I for one had time to prepare mentally, I saw it coming. But admittedly even I, an anxious little information junkie soul, had no idea the immensity of all that I would lose.

For others, it was a complete t-bone blindside this week when things ramped up exponentially because they had, for months, avoided consideration of loss, thinking, it’s “just the flu, people are overreacting.”

The word ambiguous doesn’t mean it’s confusing or not real, but more so that it’s something you can’t easily get your hands around. It’s a loss that doesn’t have the defined edges and protocols like the loss of a parent or spouse does. It’s likely more like the loss people who miscarry children feel. It’s kind of like walking around with a pit in your stomach, wondering why you feel like crying. It’s under-recognized. A lot of us felt this in our gut the days after 9/11, but for some young adults, it’s a first.

With this pandemic, we are experiencing these losses right out of the gates. The loss of things we looked forward to and the loss of things we dreamed about for years, over our lifetime, or even for just months. The pandemic has snatched these dreams away from us. It has stolen events like vacations, weddings and celebrations like graduations.

We have lost the experience of human connection that fulfills us found in sports and church, where for some, it was the only human interaction of the week and the connection was greatly anticipated.

Here is the rub. These losses are deep and hard but are considered “first world problems.” And that is where we have lost permission to grieve and to talk about it.

This is the season of reward for many. The last months of our kids’ senior year, no matter what or where, is the cherry on top of years of hard work. Special ceremonies, senior nights, parties and spring breaks. All “the lasts” have become ones we did not anticipate, they have happened when we didn’t know it. Our kids didn’t know it would be their last dinner at the dining hall together, the last time in the student union or maybe even the last time on campus.

It is the season of rewards which won’t likely come, like a sporting event final for a hard-fought-for season and the Olympics.

And yet again we get chided if we feel sadness for our “first world problems.”

The most profound ambiguous loss we are experiencing is the loss of safety/security. Some folks are for the first time in their life realizing the boogeyman is real. There is such loss in realizing that he can indeed get under your bed, despite what you felt were certain insulating factors.

The loss of jobs, the loss of health, the loss of a home and the loss of sureness that this could never happen to you is profound. I wrestled hard with this when I got cancer. Security being gone is an enormous loss.

The loss of your very first world ability to go to a hockey game safely, without possibly dying weeks down the road, is a profound hit to the psyche. Yet we might feel small for admitting it.

We have lost beliefs and ideals. Our beliefs about the rewards of working hard will offer us secure housing, financial stability and the ability to retire. That belief that if you work hard and pay your rent, if you are a good employee, you will keep your job. If you diligently put into your IRA all your life, you could retire one day.

The belief about who you are is another loss. The belief that you of all people would never be one of those people who defaults on car loans, gets evicted or files bankruptcy, and yet, whelp, here you are.

The loss of your belief in the security that hospitals will be equipped to give you all the care you should need when you need it has evaporated as we watch the medical teams in Italy have to make impossible decisions about who gets treatment.

The belief that our leaders will protect us mentally, physically and emotionally is shaky right now, and that is core loss stuff right there.

The loss of the belief that you of all people don’t have to worry about having toilet paper to wipe your kerdunkerdunk sounds funny and silly but is quite profound.

It’s shattering to lose innocence, it’s traumatic to feel things were stolen from us and it is very sad to miss the things we hoped for and anticipated.

All ambiguous losses.

These losses are not validated, they are often not shared and they are lonely losses. These are the kind of losses people don’t show up with casseroles for. The kind we are sheepish to admit.

My point is this. There are a million floaty wispy losses in this pandemic. There is lots to grieve here already. Recognize that, and recognize it is OK to cry and talk about it, even if you think, “Gosh, I feel shallow weeping about not going to the NCAA finals when people are dying.” It’s OK.

Often the hardest part about ambiguous losses is the “compare factor.” As if somehow you shouldn’t feel sad because well, it could have been worse, or geez, other people have kids with cancer and have relatives dying, and you missing your kid’s graduation is, well, small potatoes honey. The notion that because “these are first world problems” we shouldn’t be entitled to feel sad about them and grieve them makes the loss complex.

We aren’t given permission to cry over them, and at times, are made to feel silly for even saying it out loud. We even admonish ourselves (I know I have), telling ourselves that these things are silly to cry over.

Instead, we are quietly crying in the shower over canceling that Disney graduation from college trip cause it seems silly and shallow and first world of us. I will say it. I am sad about not seeing my son walk across the stage, I feel robbed. I am sad about my daughter losing a job she worked her fanny off to get and was thriving at. I am sad that I may not get to retire as soon as I want. And I cry about this nightly. It’s not fair.

Right now, the world is telling us, well, the bigger picture is the health of the nation and it is.  But trust me, in the long run, so are these losses, and so is the need for us to be talking about them and about our sadness. This blunting and ignoring of our grief is happening all over social media in the crisis. While keeping perspective is helpful, so is saying, “I know this is hard for you. I am sad. I looked so forward to this and am just beside myself.”

In all the memes and jokes on social media, in all the “take a walk” and “distance” and “flatten the curve” posts I have seen, I have yet to see one that has said, “Hey! You out there, missing your senior year of basketball, hey, you out there, missing seeing your kid walk across the stage, you out there, having a meltdown about making rent and facing eviction, you out there, getting yelled at by your boss for not coming to work cause your kids are out of school, you out there, with asthma and over 60 and feeling like a target is on your back, you out there, lonely now because your only socialization was church or sports, you out there, who had to cancel a trip longed dreamed and planned for, you out there, set to retire next year and can’t, you out there, feeling sad and scared and robbed and cheated out of something and in grief. Hey you, it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to feel sad and disappointed and grief.”

So I will say it, and we all need to say it.

Hey! You out there. It is OK to cry over what others may call first world problems. It is OK to grieve these things and talk about them. You out there, these are not small potatoes at all.

I am here to say go ahead and cry and talk about it. The loss and grief are real, and it is a really sad time. Let’s catch each other’s tears in this.

And hey, you out there, remember this. Both things can be true!

You can be deeply sad and grieving, and simultaneously understand the need for the greater common good.

So weep, kvetch, scream and complain.

But keep silver linings in mind too. Life-changing losses and events like these almost almost hatch good things later. Forest fires always encourage young things to grow. Not “having” makes you realize the joy and privilege of “having.” It makes it sweeter.

And as my wise kiddo noted, empathy emerges when we find ourselves in a place we have never been and walking in shoes we have never worn. Laser clarity comes with loss and illuminates what is important and not. It can be a reset. Especially methinks, when the loss is of the first-world variety.

In a pandemic, no one is immune from the loss of things we were excited for and looked forward to. No one is immune to the gutted feeling that the loss of safety and security stirs up.

So grieve. Cry. Comfort one another. Discuss the sadness and anger of these first world losses as we quarantine. Recognize the complex intertwining of fear and anger and loss in all this. Cry and do all the things people who lose people to death do, support, listen and drop a note. Teach our young adults it’s OK to cry and go, “Yes. This absolutely sucks and is not fair.”

Say for all to hear, “I feel uncomfortable saying this given all that is at stake with this virus, but I am sad about not going to my kid’s graduation, wedding, whatever it is.”

And listen for how many echoes your very permission-giving proclamation harkens. Echoes over and over of, “Me too, me too.”

Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles:

Getty image via Katrin Vasileva



Originally published: March 18, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home