The coronavirus pandemic has made not feeling OK the new normal. Most of us are feeling stressed on the regular, missing our friends and family, worrying about people we love who are ill or on the front line caring for those who are. Or maybe we’re even on the front line ourselves and struggling to stay resilient.
But what if you feel sad all the time about losing your pre-pandemic way of life? What if you’re constantly irritable? Or what if you just suddenly burst into tears for no clear reason?
These could all be signs that you’re grieving. And even if it may seem like you don’t have much to grieve in the traditional sense, feeling a sense of loss is also part of the new normal. Here’s why.
Why grief is normal right now
If you lost someone you love to COVID-19, your grief probably comes as no surprise. Neither does feeling the loss of a small business you built or a job you supported your family with.
We’re primed to understand grief and loss in this more traditional sense. The loss of your daily routines and social experiences, however, isn’t something many of us even fathomed could happen before the pandemic began.
“What’s unique about this is it’s not a single loss like the way we’re used to thinking of loss, but a protracted losing of the way things were, a loss of what we’ve come to expect, and it constantly changes,” says Barbara McCann, a clinical psychologist who sees patients at Harborview Medical Center.
For her, feelings of grief or loss right now come as no surprise — though many people may not realize they have these feelings.
“I think people tend to minimize losing normal life, but it’s important. It’s how we define ourselves,” says McCann.
It’s more than just day-to-day activities, too. McCann also emphasizes how we’ve lost many of the celebrations, ceremonies and traditions that shape our lives and connect us with our communities, like weddings, graduations, religious gatherings and even funerals.
“Everybody’s life has been upended in some way,” she says.
How grief can vary
For some of us, grieving the loss of our normal life may look like struggling to get out of bed in the morning to face another day of quarantine. Or spending a lot of time just wishing you could be with your friends.
For others, grief can look very different, like feeling constantly irritable and having anger outbursts over small incidents or feeling fine and then suddenly bursting into tears. It could mean feeling emotionally numb all the time or sleeping a lot or only having enough energy to do the bare minimum.
What McCann wants you to know is there’s no “right” way to grieve.
Still, you may have seen those “Five Stages of Grief” charts and wonder why your feelings don’t line up.
“The stage models are appealing because they give us something to expect in a situation that’s really ambiguous, but I always try to avoid a one-size-fits-all for something as complicated as this,” McCann explains.
Everyone processes feelings of grief and loss differently. There’s no universal “normal” — only your normal.
What you can do to work through grief
It’s important to acknowledge whatever grief or loss you’re feeling instead of trying to push it away, McCann says. Ignoring your feelings will only make them worse long-term. To that end, here are a few tips for dealing with your emotions.
Don’t obsess over resilience
Since the pandemic began, you’ve probably heard a lot of people talk about resilience and how it’s key to staying productive right now.
While resilience isn’t bad, putting pressure on yourself to be resilient will only stress you out more. Since the loss many of us are experiencing is continued, not short-term, it would be extremely hard to maintain resilience 24/7. It’s OK to let yourself just get by sometimes, McCann says.
Be patient — with yourself and others
If there’s one new skill that’s worth learning right now, it’s patience, McCann says. Patience with yourself, with people you care about, with family you’re living with — and with your own expectations.
“It’s a human drive to make sense out of ambiguity and one way we do that is develop expectations where none exist, then get disappointed in ourselves if we don’t meet them,” she says.
What she means is if you set quarantine goals for yourself — like learning how to bake bread, writing a novel or exercising every day — but then don’t actually accomplish those goals, that can put added pressure on you during an already stressful time.
Social media in particular can contribute to this pressure, McCann believes. If you see all your favorite social media influencers — or even your friends — posting photos of their quarantine accomplishments, it might make you feel like you aren’t doing enough.
Those posts are only part of that person’s reality, though, and don’t show the struggles they are undoubtedly facing right now, just like you.
So if you learn how to make bread, great. If you don’t and just end up watching TV on the couch, that’s fine too.
You can even take it a step further and give yourself permission to fail.
Allow yourself to abandon a project you took on but aren’t interested in anymore. Lower your expectations for what you want to get done each day. Go ahead and bail on that Zoom happy hour with friends — and don’t feel bad about it.
Stop comparing your situation to others’
People throughout the world are all facing different consequences of the pandemic. Some have lost loved ones to it. Some are separated from their families. Some lost jobs or their financial security.
And others, while not dealing with major losses, are still dealing with the loss of their normal life and the mental health challenges that the pandemic presents.
If you’re one of these people, it may be tempting to compare your losses to others’ and feel guilty for feeling sad about things that aren’t permanently life-altering.
But comparisons are largely unhelpful, McCann says. Each of us is dealing with our own problems in our own way. And ignoring your feelings because you think they’re unwarranted won’t make them go away.
“You need to allow space for both. Acknowledge things could be worse and that you’re lucky for what you do have, but at the same time you can feel a loss because you can’t do your usual things,” McCann says.
If you feel bad for people who have lost more than you, do something to help rather than use them as a bar to judge your own suffering by. Donate to a local charity, support a small business to help it stay afloat or offer to grocery shop for a coworker who’s going through a rough time.
Take a moment to just breathe
Many of us are juggling a lot right now. Trying to be productive while working from home. Managing your kids’ schoolwork and serving as a substitute teacher. Serving as mediator when family members stuck inside all day grow irritable with each other.
“People may not realize how much stress they’re carrying in their bodies during this time,” McCann explains.
Sometimes just taking a moment to breathe can help. It won’t solve your problems or make your negative emotions vanish, but it can help things feel more manageable.
When you can, take a moment to drown out the outside world and close your eyes. Take slow, deliberate breaths and focus your attention on them. Notice where you feel tense in your body.
Even just a minute or two each day can help when things feel overwhelming.
Talk with someone who will understand
If you miss the life you used to have, talk with someone you’re close to and who you know will listen. Chances are they’re feeling similar and may be grateful for the opportunity to share, too.
“We derive a lot of our strength from sharing our reactions with others and seeing that they’re having similar reactions,” McCann says.
When life is turned upside-down, your “fix it” instinct may turn on. For things you can fix, this might be helpful. But when it comes to the current way of life, it’s important to recognize that there’s nothing you can do about it — and that’s OK.
Recognize which situations can’t be changed, acknowledge the frustrations that come with it and that you’d like to fix it, and then remind yourself that you can’t. Teach yourself to accept it — and move on.
“My colleagues and I have studied how people can build better means of coping, and acceptance is a really important one,” McCann says.