Understanding Grief During COVID-19

Many of us think of grief as it pertains to the loss of a loved one, but grief can pertain to loss of any kind. When we define it more broadly this way, it opens the door to view any life transition through a grief lens. If we look at difficult life events and transitions through this lens, we can often see that grief and loss are at the root of our emotional distress – perhaps more accurately than conventional ideas that someone is “anxious” or “depressed.” Although loss and its grief can be very emotional and overwhelming, there is a very resilient component in our human nature that allows us to survive this and continue to live our lives.

With grief comes many emotions. We’d like to offer two models of grief that may help to make sense of these emotions. First, many of us may be familiar with The Five Stages of Grief made well known by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s worth noting that these stages don’t occur in a nice linear trajectory as we once thought. They can cycle back and forth over time and some people might not even experience one or two of the stages. However, understanding the grief process can help us characterize our emotions better understand our experience.

A second model in understanding grief, developed by Dr. William Worden, is The Four Tasks of Grief which are as follows:

  1. To accept the reality of the loss.
  2. To work through the pain of the grief.
  3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased (or other life loss) is missing.
  4. To emotionally relocate the deceased (or loss) and move on with life.

Both models have important things to teach us. In our clinical experience, we have found that every person has unique needs and agreement with these two models. Here are some points to help you decide what might be best for you:

  • Timing: The 5 stages of grief are usually focused on looking forward and anticipating a loss in the near future or future ramifications of a current loss. Indeed, this era of the Coronavirus has all of us dealing with immediate changes – and ever changing almost on a daily basis – and distressed by the anticipation of future losses. In these instances, the 5 stages model can help us understand our thoughts and emotions during this time. The 4 tasks of grief may help us and our family members in the immediacy and aftermath of such a loss.
  • Understanding vs. Action: Grief and bereavement can be overwhelming and decrease our cognitive functioning. When the “weight” of grief starts to lift, many people like understanding what they are going through. It is good to know that we all have unique aspects to our grief and know that our experience can also be universal at the same time. The 5 stages model can be very good for this. Conversely, some people might have the wish or personality to “move forward” during this time. The 4 tasks model can be helpful with that. When compared to Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages, many respect that Worden’s model is action-oriented and energizing.
  • Which one allows you to engage with and discuss your experience with others? Grief can be lonely. Our losses and grief might make us feel alone, distant or different than others, and create difficulties in re-engaging with our friends, family, or workplace. Using the information from either of these models might instill hope that gets us through this difficult phase.

Now that we can better label it, how can we be aware of our own needs and support those around us who are grieving during this pandemic? Here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. Allow time and space for it. When offering support around a loss, listen and validate feelings. We can be quick to want to “fix it” and offer suggestions, but often in the early stages of grief just listening is powerful and more effective. It may also “keep the door open” to later help that person problem-solve when they are ready.
  2. Avoid the reflex to suggest “it could be worse”. For anyone experiencing loss, it is all they know. It is very real and personal to them. While perspective will come with time, initially it invalidates their grief and the need to experience both emotionally and physically. As someone adjusts to their “new normal,” they will be more open to perspective taking.
  3. Try and adopt a “We’re in this together” mentality. As previously stated, grief can be lonely. Even more challenging, we are grieving at a time when we are isolated from many of the people and communities from which we seek support. The more we can support one another and “make room” for all losses, big and small (rather than suggesting “deal with it” or “get over it”), the less alone we may feel.

The pandemic has brought about losses for many – from postponed graduations and weddings to job loss, loss of our usual social gatherings and daily interactions in our places of work, loss of sports seasons and the access to the activities and hobbies we enjoy. It has brought about the loss of our sense of safety, daily routines, certainty, predictability, and sense of control. While much hope can be generated from the assurance of rescheduling these events and, in time, being able to return to our usual routines, at the same time make room to grieve the losses and be sensitive to those around you who are taking on those same stages and tasks of grief.

Authors: Drs. Elizabeth Robinson and Matt Bitsko