It was a chicken-fajita meal kit that pushed Amy Ortega over the edge. Or rather, the missing spice packet that was supposed to be included with the kit, which Ortega had planned to cook and feed her two kids after a long day working as a nurse in ChicagoStart a journal.. “When I realized the spices were missing, I got so angry I threw the empty box across the kitchen,” she says. Only when her husband came rushing in did the anger flare-up strike her as both silly and surprising.
It’s also the kind of emotional outburst many of us have experienced in the age of COVID-19.
When most of us think of grief, we think of the pain of losing a loved one. Grief, though, isn’t just the sadness caused by a death — it means mourning a loss. And with all the changes brought on by COVID-19, many people have experienced a loss of some sort, whether it’s a loved one, a job, social connections, or everyday routines.
“Losing anything that gives us a sense of identity, security, and meaning can cause grief,” says Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition and a psychology professor at the University of Memphis.
Right now, the entire world is connected by a mourning of the past. It doesn’t mean all the changes have been negative, just that any major upheaval can be unsettling. You may be feeling anxious, scared, angry, depressed, or even numb to feelings. The important thing is to recognize that any of your feelings are valid, even if you and your family are fortunate to be healthy and financially secure.
“Just because your loss doesn’t sound significant, doesn’t mean it’s not significant to you. Your feelings are important and your loss means something,” says Gretchen Kubacky, PsyD, a psychologist and certified bereavement facilitator.
And while there is no one right way to deal with your emotions, here are some ways to help make coping with loss easier.
Allow yourself to grieve
Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief popularized by the book “On Death and Dying” by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, MD.
These stages can provide a help framework, but everyone grieves differently, meaning these stages may not apply, or you might experience them in different order. What’s most important, according to Kubacky, is to give yourself the time and space to experience your feelings.
“People grieve very differently — some emotionally, some practically. Some share confidences with others, and other people go it alone,” Neimeyer says. “And grief is more than just a series of unwelcome emotions; grieving is also an attempt to reconstruct meaning that has been disrupted by loss.”
Essentially, you’re trying to make sense of your world and how you will function in it going forward. Seeking support from those who care about you, talking to a professional, and processing your emotions through art or writing exercises can all be beneficial.
Focus on the present
COVID-19 has made the future fraught. Right now, you might be asking yourself a lot of unsettling questions: Will you or someone you love get sick? Will you keep your job or be able to pay your bills? When can you get back to some of the activities you enjoy? Fear of the unknown can be debilitating, which is why it’s more useful to “live more fully in the present moment,” Neimeyer says.
“Life deserves your attention in the present and that’s where you’ll find beauty and hope,” he says.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action. Just the opposite: Making decisions on what you can control will give you a sense of stability. Keep up with health-protecting practices like handwashing and social distancing, eating well, and getting physical activity. And limit how much news you follow or how much time you spend on social media if it makes you feel bad afterward.
Find ways to cope
To deal with the new normal and the emotional roller coaster COVID-19 has created, you need to find coping strategies. Different methods work for different people, so try multiple ideas to see what’s best for you. Here are a few suggestions:
- Start a journal. Kubacky recommends putting pen to paper as a way to process your emotions, thoughts, and fears. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, writing a to-do list about the tasks you’re worried about could make it easier for you to fall asleep.
- Meditate. Meditation is a great stress and anxiety buster. Find a few minutes every day. If you need some guidance, there are countless free apps to download.
- Take a walk. Physical activity can boost your mood and reduce stress, but walking also comes with a side of sunshine and fresh air. Just be sure to social distance.
- Stay connected. One of the painful side effects of the pandemic is the loss of social connection at a time when many need it most. Schedule regular video chats with friends and family, or take an online class, or join a virtual book club. “Video coffee dates or happy hours, dinner parties, or good old-fashioned phone chats can be amazing in the feelings of joy, positivity, and optimism that they generate,” Kubacky says. “This is also a wonderful time to revisit the almost-lost art of letter writing.”
If you’re having a hard time coping, try talking to a professional, starting with your primary care doctor. You can also check with your company to see what programs and resources might be available.
The kids are not all right
If you have kids, you may have noticed that quarantine has changed them. Maybe they’re climbing the walls, giving distance learning the cold shoulder, eating less (or way more), or sleeping poorly.
Just like you, your kids are also feeling the impact of loss. Their schools are closed, they can’t see their friends, maybe they’re missing their grandparents. It’s a good idea to acknowledge their emotions and losses and also try to give them as much routine as possible, Kubacky says.
Much of your own feelings of loss, grief, disappointment, and sorrow may be connected to your kids. Maybe it’s the sadness that your high school senior won’t get to attend graduation or the disappointment of having to cancel a family vacation. Allow both yourself and your kids to grieve these losses, but also find ways to recognize and celebrate the lost moments, too. For example, a virtual birthday party might replace your kids’ usual backyard bash, or cooking with Grandma might happen over videoconferencing, with everyone in their separate kitchens.
Find moments of happiness
Part of allowing yourself to grieve is to give yourself room to feel negative emotions, Neimeyer says. But it’s also important to make room for joy. You’ve likely already experienced moments of gratitude and happiness like having a less hectic lifestyle or reconnecting online with an old friend.
Keeping a gratitude journal is one concrete way to mark these moments. Practicing gratitude has been shown to help people feel less lonely and stressed.
COVID-19 has disrupted many of the moments and celebrations that bring us joy. It’s understandable to grieve those losses. But it’s also a good idea to find happiness in the small things: feeling the sun on your face, making a friend laugh, or even snagging a roll of the good toilet paper at the grocery store.