Last year, I experienced a great loss, one which has not left me and never will – but which has nonetheless become easier to live with. The COVID-19 pandemic has signalled loss for many people on many levels and scales. You may be grieving directly due to COVID-19, or for other reasons in a context where the pandemic is forcing us to engage with death and loss in a different way. You may be experiencing grief for something other than a person, for example climate grief or loss of our way of life pre-Corona, loss of purpose or stability or freedom – these types of grief are equally valid, but this blog speaks more directly to cases of personal bereavement.
I am not a psychologist. I am a person who has experienced one particular kind of grief and who wants to use my writing craft and my own experience to bring comfort to others. I am also trying to hold on to the lessons I learnt in the early days of personal grief, to apply to our current state of shared loss.
Grief exists. Grief is real. Grief is. Don’t deny yourself or try to push away the feelings. Whether you have lost someone you loved, or someone you had a difficult relationship with; whether you are grieving a relationship that is changing due to illness; whether you have lost a child who did not yet live, breathe or exist to others; you are grieving.
You may feel bewilderment, hopelessness, helplessness, anger, rage, frustration, regret, relief, self-pity, guilt. You may feel emotional pain that manifests as an intense physical pain, the hollowness aching and hammering inside you. Feel it. Shout, rant, scream out loud if you want to. Cry, if you need to. Let it out. You may be shocked at the sound of your own crying; it might be loud and messy. It might scare you to hear the sound, the volume of your pain. You might be afraid of upsetting others. Nevertheless, let it out.
You might not feel you want to cry, or not yet. You may be numb. You may be someone who has been taught not to cry. That is okay too. Grief is not measured in the way you express it.
You may need to talk, about your loss or of other things. Reach out and talk to the people you love and trust. Assure them that they probably can’t say exactly the right thing, but that it is important they are on the other end of the call to hear you. If you are a creative person, or even if you are not, writing or drawing can be a good outlet – whether you are doing it to reflect on your loss, or to escape it for a while.
Whatever your reaction, your grief is real, it is valid, and it must be acknowledged.
Grief is navigating other people
At first, if you have made public your loss, you may receive an outpouring of sympathy, offers of support. Be grateful for these, but do not feel you have to respond to messages straight away. Grief eradicates the normal rules of obligation, of politeness. Your family and friends will, or should, understand your silence. Speak to them when you are ready.
Sympathy is not always empathy. People may misjudge the right thing to say. Or you may find yourself managing other people’s reactions, your grief reflected in their faces and voices. Don’t spend your energy educating or explaining, not at this stage. For those who don’t listen, avoid them. For those who mean well and are trying to understand, forgive them.
Accept that you cannot do this alone. Those who really listen, those who let you cry and rage without judgement, and those who let you know they are thinking of you, without expectation, might well be your lifeline. Let them in; they will also need you one day. These are the people you will rely on in the months to come.
Grief is a black pit that plunges you into darkness.
You may have moments when all can see in front of you is a kind of abyss. Your world has gone black and you can’t find the light switch. You are consumed by a feeling of absolute despair.
Nothing will ever be the same; your hopes and dreams are destroyed, and there is nothing positive to cling to. Your head pounds, your ears buzz, you forget sometimes to breathe normally. You are overwhelmed by an emptiness that you imagine as a mouth screaming in the dark. In the mirror, you are startled by the deadness in your eyes.
Be patient. Your here and now is unbearably, unimaginably awful. But it will not always be awful. It will get better, but it will take time. Eventually you will each day will become a little less awful, a little more bearable. There will be fewer moments of hopelessness, horror, despair.
You will smile again. I promise you, you will smile again.
Grief is exposure
You are more sensitive these days; after all, your shell has been cracked. You might feel joy and sadness more deeply, you might see things more clearly, you might live more in the moment. I did. I do. I saw – see – the world in technicolour. Everything has more meaning; this can be both beautiful and painful.
In those early days, I felt exposed, vulnerable, and fragile, but eventually it has made me both more empathetic and more resilient.
The fact is that being in close proximity to death makes you feel more alive.
Grief is one-day-at-a-time
Take the moments. Do what makes you happy, and you will be amazed at exactly how much pleasure you can take from the smallest things. A cup of tea. A cake. A book. A walk. A song. A run. A hug (or a chat online). Take your time.
If you have something you need to do, but you are enjoying this moment right now, delay the other thing if you can. These moments of comfort and happiness are crucial and they are worth a thousand of the moments spent ‘getting things done’.
Or perhaps you can’t get any pleasure from anything right now. That is normal too. That pleasure will return. Keep chasing it.
Stare at trees, flowers, animals, pictures. Look at every detail. Lose yourself in them. Find the beauty. Nature can be a balm for even the biggest wounds. Read, if you’re a reader. Write, if it helps.
Step by step, hour by hour, day by day.
Grief is exhaustion.
You will feel a kind of tiredness you have never felt before. You will find your eyes closing often. Give in to it. Your body is telling you to rest. Accept that you will need daytime naps. Accept too the sleepless hours – breathe deeply to still the panic, close your eyes and rest them. Sleep will come eventually. And if it doesn’t, be gentle with yourself the next day. Do not expect too much of yourself. Above all, do not feel pressured by others into doing things that feel exhausting or overwhelming to you. Your priority is to look after yourself, your wellbeing, and your recovery.
Grief is a laugh that starts deep inside and erupts when you least expect it.
Grief is hilarity. Your laughter may feel inappropriate, it may startle you. Enjoy that moment of lightness. You need it. You are allowed it. Do not convert it into guilt at being happy. Humour is one of the tools of recovery. Laughter is a great healer. Take the moments. All the moments. After a loss, when you first smile again, you will notice it. One day, you will smile and not notice you are smiling.
Grief is personal.
Your grief is your grief. It is unique. Take comfort in the universality of experience, but do not let anyone tell you how to grieve. You are depleted emotionally and a thoughtless word, even if well-meant, can cut deeply. Don’t let others diminish your loss. Feel what you feel, but remember more anger will only exhaust you.
Whatever you need is valid. Whatever you are feeling is okay. There is no right way to grieve.
Grief is friendship
Grief has shown you your true friends. They are a light through the fog. You will forget the details, but you will remember their kindness all your life.
Grief is an occupation.
At some point, you will return to work, or to whatever new routine the pandemic has given you. You may find it helps to set yourself goals – but only do this if it really helps you. Don’t do it for other people, or out of a sense of fear that you are not performing well.
Any decent human being will understand that you cannot do everything you usually do. If you set goals and do not achieve them, forgive yourself – remember it is incredible that you are doing anything at all, since grieving a recent loss is all-consuming.
Other people might soon forget you are grieving. It can be good to have normality, to not be treated like a glass doll, but it can also be overwhelming, baffling, and hurtful. Remind them you need time and space. Walk away if you need to.
Grief is everywhere, grief is change
It is likely in the time of Coronavirus that you will be either sharing the same grief with others close to you, or be aware that others in your family or circle are dealing with their own grief.
Be supportive of each other, but do not bury your own grief or disregard it in in the process. Being surrounded by others’ anxiety, fear and grief is likely to compound your grief, or it may make you re-live past losses and traumas. The vividness and strength of those memories may shock you.
Be there for each other, admire each other’s strength, and encourage one another, but accept that you cannot be each other’s only support. Be aware your emotional resources are depleted right now. A text message saying you are thinking of someone has great power when you are not in the right place to offer a conversation. If you live with someone you love, hug them often; you will draw strength from their touch. If this is not possible, have a phone call with someone who is able to sit in silence with you.
After experiencing loss, your perspective will change. You will not feel like the same person. Part of grief is adjusting. You need to reset before you can give much to others.
Grief is unpredictable
Grief is not a straight line returning to non-grief. Grief-time stretches and contracts. You may feel you have taken two steps forward and three back. Yesterday you were competent, in control, full of joy; today you’re a mess, you can’t think straight, simple tasks feel insurmountable. Any moment, a year later, years later, you may be triggered to feel that grief as raw as ever. Someone told me the grief analogy of a ball in a box, with a pain button on one of the inside walls. At first, the ball is huge and hits the pain button randomly and uncontrollably, then eventually the ball becomes smaller and hits the button less often.
This analogy helped me understand that the grief never goes away, but that it becomes easier to live with. That my grief is a part of me now, but it is not all that I am.
Grief in the time of Coronavirus
COVID-19 has shown us a bigger picture of humanity. In bringing us all so close to the reality of death, it has illuminated life, thrown into focus our relationships, our shared fears and hopes. Take comfort in that shared humanity, but remember that other people’s experiences do not negate yours. Empathise, but take the space and time you need to heal your own wounds.
When I experienced my loss, I often thought about how other people had experienced worse, and how much I have to be thankful for, but in the end it made no difference; I still needed to grieve. I needed to take the moments, to take it step by step, to smile again without noticing.
Even at a time when many others are bereaved, the loss you feel is valid, it is real, and it is yours to grieve in your own way. However deep your pain, remember it will get easier.