Life in and After the Pandemic: Grieving What Was and Welcoming What Will Be
“Do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” —Rumi
If you’re feeling sad, tired, or hopeless now, you’re not alone. From Carl, who lost his job as a waiter; to Juanita, who couldn’t tell her dying mother goodbye in person; to high school senior Reid, whose dreams for prom, graduation, and senior trip vanished—the losses are adding up.
In the U.S., we don’t like to dwell on sad topics. We are grief-avoidant. And while our crisis phone lines are receiving a record number of calls, few callers are saying directly: “I feel sad right now.” Most are, instead, using words like “overwhelmed,” “frustrated,” or “stressed.”
As a bereavement trauma specialist, I believe those words are often euphemisms for "sad," "despairing," and "hopeless." My friend Corina put it best: “I might cry today—I just want to go back to bed.” It’s a common reaction to grief to believe that climbing under the covers is a desirable solution. At least it feels like something.
Grief is a reaction to loss, and loss almost certainly involves a smack in the face by a situation—often involuntary—that turns the life we know upside down and inside out. Nothing feels familiar, our regular routines are disrupted, and even our sense of identity is shaken.
This is how most people now describe their current experience as a result of stay-at-home directives, school closures, and remote work. We are a world in mourning—all of us losing something or someone from the pandemic environment.
Paradoxically, it might be long-term grief survivors who are best prepared for what’s erupting as a result of COVID-19. As one widower said: “It hasn’t impacted me emotionally that much. The worst thing already happened in my life and that was losing my wife. This won’t feel any worse for me.”
Yet for those of you who’ve lost loved ones recently, the sorrow of an open wound or the inability to say goodbye when a loved one dies may test any resilience left in your hearts. Circumstances in which COVID-19 victims die alone in a quarantined space or a nursing home heighten the risk of ambiguous loss.
In her book Ambiguous Loss, educator and researcher Pauline Boss defines ambiguous loss as loss without closure because of a lack of facts surrounding the person’s death, often precipitated by something in the environment in which the death occurred. Even trained professionals like chaplains and health care workers are reeling with grief from the magnitude of what they are witnessing while providing care. Cumulative grief—in which multiple losses occur in a short span of time—leads to grief overload because there isn’t sufficient time to emotionally process all the feelings.
How can we find solace in this desperate situation? What sustains us and helps us get out of bed on challenging days? How do we find hope when it seems out of reach?
My work with other grievers, as well as a string of personal losses, has provided clues. Many people indicate the emotional toll of what we’re experiencing as making them feel uncharacteristically fatigued and worn out. This is a time for self-nurturing rather than extreme productivity. This is not the moment to rush full speed ahead into new endeavors. That kind of growth will come in due time.
Taking naps, immersing in nature or forest bathing, cooking and eating nourishing food, taking walks, and listening to music are examples of excellent self-care. Now is the time to regain and maintain equilibrium in the face of new routines and challenges. Daily rhythms have been interrupted—even put on hold—and lives have noticeably changed. Stay in the gap and take time to let things settle and to find balance. This is a prerequisite step for those who grieve before they can move forward.
It’s common to feel weighed down with negative thoughts and feelings during grief. Allow those feelings to surface, and name them rather than pushing them away. It’s useful to keep a timeline of losses and write about the attachments that hurt the most to lose. But recognize all thoughts and feelings are impermanent, so negativity doesn’t have to be in the driver’s seat.
This realization is significant since, according to psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman, the brain has a built-in negativity bias. Simply put, psychological processes are more influenced by negative emotions and thoughts than positive ones, creating the possibility of cycles of distress. One way to challenge this negativity bias is to create phrases or mantras that elicit what I call the three C’s needed for equanimity: calm, compassion, and curiosity. Repeating a phrase several times and even saying it aloud helps shift the energy and vibration from negative to positive.
While the suffering is real, so too are the potential gifts. We may be faced with less money but more time, greater isolation but more compassion, bouts of adversity but moments of creative endeavors, and times of sorrow spelled by laughter and joy.
On April 1, 2020, in The Atlantic, Alan Lightman observed: “This terrible disaster has freed us from the prison of our time-driven lives.” We now have an opportunity to live at a slower pace, to listen, and to notice what emerges. What may appear is an awareness of what’s truly essential in our lives versus what we can live without.
Living at a slower pace sheds light on the disparities of our society. What can we do about societal conditions that make COVID-19 far more dangerous for our African American brothers and sisters? What is our responsibility as compassionate citizens to help the millions of fellow travelers who have lost jobs and health insurance, and who have no food in their bellies?
As Saint Exupéry wisely said: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly—what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The illumination from living at a slower pace and being more mindful can reveal obscured patterns. It’s much easier to impact issues when they are visible than when they are closeted.
A major energetic shift is occurring during this pandemic. On the surface, this appears as destruction because our systems are destabilizing, and our viral toll is rising—as is our angst. Yet, alongside this mammoth change lies an awakening of hope. Chaos and transformation occur almost simultaneously. Most growth happens after something comes completely undone.
Change may feel messy or frightening. But we know from cycles of nature—trees, plants, animals—this is how growth occurs. We are in the middle of painful contractions now, like birth, and yet with every contraction lies an impulse toward growth. Like mother eagles who push baby eaglets to the edge of the nest to fly, we adapt to new paradigms most fully when we are pushed out of our comfort zones.
As the mystic poet Rumi said: “Do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”
Want more? Read “COVID-19 and the Truth About Happiness.”