It’s All Grief: COVID-19 and Layers of Loss

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has hit the globe like a whirlwind. The impact of the novel illness is not only affecting people physically, but it’s bringing up numerous mental and social issues as governments, communities, and individuals try to cope with the far reaching toll of the virus. Large cities such as New York and Los Angeles have their residents sheltering in place, and people all over the country are encouraged to physically distance themselves in order to decrease the spread of the virus. School buildings have closed with classrooms moving to virtual platforms, and over 10 million Americans are unemployed. And to top it all off, hospitals are immensely overwhelmed with an increased need for personnel, resources, and equipment for critically ill patients.

Grief on a Spectrum

There are almost no words to describe the many losses taking place during this moment in time. Grief in its simplest definition is a reaction to a loss, death related or non-death related. It is felt daily and for many people, grief adds up and multiplies rapidly as environments, routines and social structures change. And while COVID-19 ravages our world, many are feeling grief for a variety of reasons. What is important to say here is that there should be no shame in talking about the various experiences individuals, young and old, are having during this time.

Throughout news and social media outlets we are bombarded with grief. Politicians, journalists, and healthcare workers are displaying their genuine feelings as they work tirelessly to help the sick and keep the public informed. Daily, we hear and see families and friends mourning the deaths of loved ones they were not able to see in hospitals, nursing homes, and penitentiaries. Financial burdens swamp households as many are forced to stay home unpaid. And the constant changes the virus is bringing physically, emotionally, and financially are presenting an ever widening spectrum of grief. What we must be careful of during this time is not to allow ourselves to put loss on a hierarchy validating some losses to the neglect of others.

Somewhere guardians are frazzled because children with special needs have had their schedules interrupted, a couple’s birth plan is disrupted, a senior student has several milestone events unexpectedly cancelled and an individual with few social connections feels isolated and alone. And more issues still arise. Like the grief of losing purpose when there is no longer a place of work to travel to, the grief of missing self-care activities like hair appointments, the grief of losing feelings of safety and security all in a time where the unknown looms. But we must remember that all grief matters.

What Grief Looks Like

In many ways, the various griefs caused by COVID- 19 parallel what grievers have been saying for years about the deaths of special persons. There is no sense of control and people who feel out of control express their grief in many ways. Cognitively there can be a loss of concentration, forgetting of tasks, many idle hours scanning the internet not retaining much information, and a need for technological screen time to escape. Physically there can be more headaches, uneasiness in the pits of stomachs, and increased anxiety which can manifest physically and cognitively. Emotionally, feelings of anger, frustration, and fear may present as new challenges arise.

For many, less talked about feelings develop, like guilt. Some have the privilege of being able to continue working while others cannot, and some are able to retreat to homes that they consider safe spaces in contrast with others who must stay in spaces where they are abused or battered. There are individuals who feel the grief of no choice, as they risk unsafe conditions at work versus risking financial stability. Furthermore, many feel inadequate and less productive as they struggle to keep up with daily changes and stressors. This is what makes grief layered and complicated. It’s possible to experience one and numerous manifestations of grief all at once. Loss may also be compounded as individuals find their regular mechanisms of coping inaccessible or not comforting while trying to meet the various new challenges of the day.

New Normal

Amidst all these aspects of grief lies another core experience and question for many grievers, particularly those of death related loss: will my life ever be ‘normal’ again? For grievers the answer is often no as they begin their journey to find what the new normal will be. Although anticipative that cases of COVID-19 will decline and that the virus will be further studied and cured, scientists and doctors predict that the worst is still ahead of us. With much more death and loss still to come it can be argued that this pandemic will leave a lasting imprint in the American psyche.

Loyola Medicine employees have a daily prayer over a basket of messages reflecting the hopes of patients at Loyola University Medical Center at the chapel in Maywood on March 31, 2020. Sister Xiomara Mendez-Hernandez, from left, COVID-19 unit nurse Tiffany Fulton and chaplain Robert Andorka. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

As we continue to experience loss we will forever reflect on how these changes have transformed our individual lives and our communities. Over the last few weeks we have certainly seen a surge in compassion as people band together to offer one another support. And the ingenuity around virtual weddings and funerals, phoning in loved ones at hospitals, and the many other ways people have created to connect have bonded the human family as we all try to navigate grief nationally and globally. Just this week, The Chicago Tribune reported of hospital chaplains praying over notes from patients, and using creative means to make sure that “no one dies alone.”

As new normals are created there is often the need to find meaning in one’s situation. The truth is, for some, the whys of grief may always outweigh any answers received. What’s important to accept is that it is ok to recognize and name the losses that are impacting your own life. For a moment, forget comparing your loss to that of others and just let yourself be and feel. In many ways we are all grieving. In these times let’s support one another. Instead of analyzing and creating hierarchies of loss, let’s focus on how to stay connected and validate each other in the most vulnerable parts of our personal experiences. It’s all grief.

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