COVID-19: Coping with the grief and loss associated with change and isolation

The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to disrupting our normal routines and everyday life, and to feelings of uncertainty and impending doom. We are afraid for our children, parents, grandparents, and our shared future. We are worried about our work, our health, our country and way of life. We are grieving the loss of our freedom, a predictable future, and the lives and roles left behind, as we isolate to protect ourselves from coronavirus. These feelings are completely normal. While individual reactions to such concerns vary, it is apparent there is a shared world-wide grief response to this unprecedented event.

The five stages of grief, which are part of the grieving process framework, as identified by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross may assist you in understanding, and to explaining what you are feeling.  These stages are not fixed, they may not occur in order, and some stages may be avoided altogether.

Denial

Denial is the intellectual and emotional rejection of something, which is clear and obvious. We deny physical and emotional pain for a short time for self-preservation.

In our current world Denial could sound like:

  • The whole thing is blown out of proportion
  • It’s just a flu, people don’t usually die of flu
  • I’m not old, or susceptible to respiratory illness, so I’ll be OK

Anger

Anger is an empowering feeling, which we use to gain control over our fears. We tend to blame others, externalise the issue, and may refuse to comply with rules.

In our current world Anger could sound like:

  • This is all his/her/their fault
  • I don’t care what the Premier says about isolation, I’m going to work.
  • I’m bored so I am going to invite some friends over

Bargaining

Bargaining occurs when we start to acknowledge reality but are not ready to give up the illusion of control. We try to find an easier, less painful way out.

In our current world Bargaining could sound like:

  • It’ OK to visit my friends as long as they wash their hands before they see me
  • I know how people look when they’re sick, I will be OK if I just stay around healthy people

Despair

Despair occurs when reality fully sets in, when there is no more denial. We experience a sense of hopelessness and feel disempowered. We think nothing can help now despite evidence to the contrary.

In our current world Despair could sound like:  

  • This is the new normal, I can say goodbye to my hopes and dreams
  • I can’t go to work to earn money so I will be broke and homeless
  • I am high risk and likely to get sick, no one will be there for me

Acceptance

Acceptance occurs when we acknowledge and surrender to the facts. We can stop denying and fighting reality and start dealing with what has happened, and the fallout of the event. In our current world Acceptance sounds like:

  • I can’t control the pandemic, but I can isolate, wash my hands and stay positive
  • Even though I can’t leave my house, my life doesn’t have to stop; I can connect with family and friends, and I can work from home
  • The world is going to change, but maybe when this is over, we will be kinder to one another

Signs that you might not be coping with the grief and loss associated with the coronavirus pandemic include:

  • Difficulty focussing on normal tasks
  • Sleeping much more, or less than usual
  • Feelings of anger and irritability
  • Headaches and upset stomach
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Engaging in activities such as over eating, drinking, or excessive online shopping to cope with anxiety
  • Avoiding thinking or talking about the pandemic

During this time of uncertainty, it can be helpful to focus your attention on staying in the present and taking good care of yourself; make sure you are eating, staying hydrated, and getting enough rest. Consider mindfulness, meditation, and journaling activities to help you cope with the anxiety, stress and anger you may be feeling. Write about your experiences; what’s happened but also about how you are managing the situation. Check in with others through virtual meetings, regular phone calls and text messages. Listen to others without judgement or criticism

Take care, stay well and keep in mind this unprecedented event is temporary, it will end.

If you have any questions about this article, please do not hesitate to contact me via email bzjones@mgs.vic.edu.au

Barbara Jones
Head of Counselling and Psychological Services