Understanding and coping with grief

By Kirsty Lilley, Mental Health specialist at wellbeing charity CABA

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives in ways we could never have envisaged. For many people, this overwhelming change has brought with it a deep sense of grief and loss.

From the heart-breaking loss of loved ones, livelihoods and future plans, to the missed moments with friends and family, we all have a lot to grieve about. At the same time, we may also be experiencing anticipatory grief as we realise that the world will never be quite the same.

This type of grief is often confusing. There’s an intangibility about it that hinders our ability to process our experience or its impact on us. But it’s important that we label this experience as grief so that we can begin to understand and learn from our emotions, work together to support each other and tend to the very personal nature of our losses.

What is grief?

Grief is the very normal response to loss and bereavement. Every person will grieve in their own way within a time frame that’s personal and meaningful to them. A process involving several different stages, everyone will experience it differently. However, it’s useful to understand the steps:

Stage 1: Denial

A refusal to accept or difficulty accepting a situation. If you recognise yourself as being in denial, it’s important that you try to take small steps towards understanding the situation fully.

Denial could go some way in explaining why some people refused to comply with official guidance as the pandemic began to unfold.

Stage 2: Anger

During the pandemic, lots of us have felt frustration at being unable to continue many of the activities that make up our life such as seeing family or going to work.

In this stage it’s vital that you find ways to express those emotions, as unprocessed emotions can lodge in the body causing pain and discomfort.

Stage 3: Bargaining

We have all said to ourselves, ‘Ok, if I socially distance for a while, everything will be fine?’, only to be faced with the reality that we don’t know how and when this will end.

It can be helpful here to try, whenever possible to acknowledge any silver linings or things that remain a constant in your life such as the love and support of family, friends or supportive co-workers.

Stage 4: Acceptance

In this stage we can simply be with what is happening and start to figure out a way to move forward.

Take time to understand which stage of grief you may be experiencing. You may find that you move backwards and forwards between the stages over time. This is normal. Grief is a messy, non-linear process. And the unending nature of the pandemic prompts much anticipatory anxiety and grief.  It’s normal and understandable to feel angry, sad, frustrated and scared. Also, it is normal that this experience may bring back feelings associated with previous periods of loss or grief.

Coping with grief

How can you help yourself and your loved ones through their grief:

  • Take care of your physical health

Grief and feelings of loss can feel very physical and processing these difficult feelings takes energy and time. When grieving, changes in appetite and sleep patterns are common and it’s important to remember that your wellbeing isn’t an infinite resource, so restock and manage your energy levels.

  • Stay connected

Loneliness can exacerbate feelings of grief and loss so it’s important that you try to stay connected to other people, especially if the current situation has meant that you’re more socially isolated than usual. Although sadness and anxiety can prompt you to withdraw, see if you can instead gently turn to others for support when you feel distressed.

  • Practice mindfulness

Anticipatory grief can take our minds hurtling into an imagined future which we are likely to populate with the worst possible scenarios and outcomes. The brains’ job is to keep us safe, predicting outcomes gives us an illusion of control over otherwise overwhelming circumstances. Try to recognise when your thoughts are focusing on that worst case scenario and gently pull them back to the present using a mindfulness practice or simple breathing exercises. 

  • Stay hopeful

If you’re finding it difficult to stay in the here and now, perhaps you could try to imagine a best-case scenario. Then plan on taking small steps each day toward this positive outcome. Remaining realistically hopeful will help you cope in times of uncertainty. While keeping in mind that life is a continual flow of loss and gain. The reality is that most things are uncertain, most of the time. And that’s ok.

  • Be kind to yourself and others

Remember to stock up on compassion during this time and no matter what you’re feeling, be kind to yourself. Support yourself as you would a good friend and ease up when things get tough.

Equally, show compassion to others and be generous in your interpretation of their behaviours. Allow people to be where they are in the process and balance this with tending to your own needs. Although grief is a completely normal process it can be harder for some than others.

Supporting those who are grieving

Many people find it difficult to support others who are grieving. It can feel awkward and a little too close to home. But most people who are grieving just want to be seen and heard, rather than ‘saved’ or ‘rescued’. The important thing is to make yourself available. Often, a kind word or thoughtful gesture and an acknowledgement that you understand how overwhelming it can feel is all that’s needed.

It’s ok to grieve for the way life used to be and to feel anxious about the unfolding new normal. These feelings are completely understandable as we reintegrate back into the world from the shelter of our own homes. Remember to keep talking about how you feel and try to support others in their journey. If your feelings of loss remain overwhelming and you’re finding it increasingly difficult to manage how you feel, perhaps consider speaking with your GP.

As lockdown continues to ease and new challenges emerge, we want to help you maintain a sense of balance and control in your lives. That’s why CABA has launched a new campaign site called ‘Keeping Yourself Well’, which will feature a collection of self-help articles on topics such as returning to work, socialising, and managing increased workloads, along with information on all of our support services. Our content will cover all areas of wellbeing – mental, physical, career, financial, care and relationships – and we’ll continue to add more useful resources in line with what’s happening in the world.