5 ways to cope with grief while living through a pandemic
If you’ve been hit with personal hardship during the coronavirus pandemic, you might be experiencing a mixture of sorrow, anger, and fear right now. Or you may feel numb, exhausted, and detached from the normal rhythms of life. Such emotions are natural in these circumstances—all are common expressions of grief.
Though many people think of grief as something that can only be brought on by the death of a loved one, this deeply human response can happen on the heels of any meaningful loss, says Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. In addition to the devastating human toll of the pandemic, millions have lost relationships, jobs, and homes—and with that, a fundamental sense of safety and stability, he says. Many of us are mourning as we navigate an altered reality.
That grief, while natural, can undermine wellbeing in the absence of effective coping tools, says Toni Miles, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist in Athens, Georgia, who specializes in bereavement. Complications such as sleep problems, disruptions to healthy eating patterns, substance misuse, and withdrawal from normal activities are not unusual, she says. Such shifts may partially explain why bereavement is associated with an increased risk of developing depression, heart disease, and cognitive issues such as memory loss.
Coping strategies for grief
Taking steps to manage grief can support your wellbeing by helping you process hard feelings, understand and find meaning in loss, and prioritize self-care, Dr. Neimeyer says. Below are some simple ways to facilitate healthy grieving, along with links to resources for additional support, if you need it.
Let yourself be human.
“Individuals experiencing grief may feel like they need to stay strong and hold it together, or be as mentally present and on top of things as they were prior to a loss,” says Elizabeth Crunk, PhD, a grief researcher and therapist in Washington, DC. “But this added pressure can heighten stress and prevent engaging with and releasing the pain associated with loss—a crucial part of processing grief.” Give yourself permission to mourn, and know that it’s OK to not feel your best right now.
Get comfortable seeking support.
Grief can feel isolating. When we’re hurting, we may worry that we’re burdening people with our sorrow or lack the energy to reach out at all. But sharing experiences of loss—along with memories of what we’re missing—can ease loneliness and enrich our social bonds, Dr. Crunk says. Plus, research suggests that social support helps regulate the body’s stress responses.
To reduce the strain of staying connected, consider setting up a recurring phone call or weekly outing with friends and family (in keeping with Covid-19 safety guidelines). It may also help to connect with an online support group or spiritual community that convenes regularly. And just know there’s no “right” way to speak of your pain; it may come out messy or disjointed, Dr. Crunk adds. The important element is the act of sharing.
Move in a way that makes sense for you.
To be clear: There’s no pressure to start or maintain a major fitness regimen while mourning. If sweating through an hourlong cardio class is the last thing you feel like doing, let yourself dial it back. Dr. Miles's research suggests that even brief interludes of regular, gentle physical activity—such as a 10-minute walk or mini yoga session—could protect against health declines. The effect may stem from reduced inflammation, as well as the release of neurotransmitters linked to improved mood and cognition.
Bring structure back to your days.
Deep loss can ratchet up stress by underscoring life’s unpredictability, Dr. Crunk says. For this reason, she recommends blocking out time each day for an activity you find enjoyable or calming. Ideas include meditation, prayer, or journaling; listening to your favorite music; or noodling with a creative hobby. Not only do you get the soothing benefit of the activity itself; you get a measure of daily consistency as a reminder of what you can control.
If you’ve gotten off track with larger routines, such as those for sleep or meal planning, don’t be hard on yourself. Simple steps often can help people start againand move in a positive direction.
Know when a pro might be helpful.
Grief has no time limit. That said, mental health professionals generally find grief concerning if it interferes with self-care or meaningful participation in social, work, or family life for longer than six months, Dr. Neimeyer says.
The ongoing nature of the Covid-19 pandemic means many of us may be struggling for longer than we would be in response to a one-time event. If at any point you are feeling overwhelmed by loss, connecting with a grief therapist might be a move to consider, Dr. Neimeyer says. Grief counselors provide tools to help people manage turbulent emotions associated with loss; process and draw meaning from loss; and renegotiate identity in the wake of loss. You can search for a grief specialist on Grief.com, or via The Center for Loss and Life Transition. The American Psychological Association also offers this useful guide to getting started with therapy.
And remember: Your feelings are not abnormal or wrong. Grief can take many forms and may feel different from day to day. “We need to cry, reflect, laugh—all of it—to fully cope with loss,” Dr. Neimeyer says. Honor where you’re at today, and know that you are moving toward healing.
Katherine Schreiber, MFA, LMSW, is a social worker and freelance journalist in New York City. She is the author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration. Follow her on Twitter @ktschreib.