The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it and we are experiencing a sense of grief collectively and individually. There is a misconception that grief only occurs in response to death. Grief is not about death, however. Grief is about loss. Of course many people are grieving loved ones who have passed away during this period, either from COVID-19 or from other causes. Sadly, their grief is complicated by the fact that they are unable to congregate to practice important rituals, like funerals, that help in the grieving process.
People are also experiencing grief in response to the loss of a world they once knew. People are experiencing a loss of normalcy, a loss of connection with others, a loss of a sense of safety, a loss of economic stability, and a loss of a sense of freedom. These are all important aspects of how we relate to the world and to society, and to lose any one of these can have a significant impact on personal wellbeing. So how do we move through grief? How can we experience our grief while continuing to move forward?
Know the Symptoms of Grief
We can begin by recognizing the symptoms of grief. Grief encompasses a wide range of feelings that can pop up unexpectedly. Some common emotions include: sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, numbness, relief, and guilt. Grief can affect your thinking and your behaviours. Some people find that they have difficulty concentrating or making decisions, others experience disturbances in their sleeping and eating habits, and some people find that they want to isolate themselves. Grief can also have physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, feelings of weakness, fatigue, and even temporary feelings of strength and invincibility.
We can also learn to develop certain skills that can help with grief symptoms. One skill that I find particularly useful when coping with grief is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a skill that originates in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Put simply, it is the practice of acknowledging reality as it is in the present moment. Accepting a situation does not mean that you agree with it or that you like it - but it does mean that you acknowledge it as reality. When we learn how to practice radical acceptance we learn how to stop fighting reality. When we are fighting reality and living in anger, denial, or fear, our pain is increased to suffering and our resources are depleted. When we practice radical acceptance, we conserve our energy to be used for situations that are actually within our control.
Like any learned skill, radical acceptance requires practice. One of the keys to practicing radical acceptance is to learn to recognize when you are fighting reality. If you are struggling with control and becoming upset when others are not behaving the way you want, you may be fighting reality. If you are regularly irritated and frustrated by every day situations, you may be fighting reality. If you are having thoughts of self-pity and thinking things shouldn't be the way they are, you may be fighting reality. If you notice that you are suffering ask yourself - am I fighting reality? Once you notice when you are fighting reality, turn yourself towards acceptance. Make an active choice and commitment to accept the circumstances as they are. You will most likely have to make this commitment over and over again. Create an internal dialogue with yourself. Tell yourself, "This is what's happening right now" or "they are who they are."
Being able to practice radical acceptance and recognizing our thoughts and emotions requires a certain level of mindfulness. Mindfulness goes hand in hand with radical acceptance and is another skill that requires practice. A quick Google search yields a wealth of information on mindfulness and ideas for practicing it. One of the simplest and easiest ways to start is by giving yourself 5 minutes a day to practice sitting quietly, focusing on your breathing, and being aware of the thoughts and feelings that enter your mind. Your mind will wander and it is an expected part of the process. The point is that you are able to recognize what is going on within yourself and shift your focus back to your breath. Even doing this for 5 minutes a day can have a significant impact on your ability to recognize and name your thoughts and feelings.
Focus on What You Can Control
Many people are feeling powerless in the face of COVID-19. It is important to begin to recognize what we can and cannot control and to focus our energy on what we can control. For example, we can control what safety measures we choose to take in response to the pandemic, such as wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and staying informed. We can also control our reactions to situations. We can choose to practice radical acceptance of our current circumstances and engage in self-care strategies that we know work for us. We can use our emotions as signals that there is something we need and act accordingly.