Grief and Loss in the Age of Covid

By Liza Johnston, APC, NCC, MS

In today’s modern world, our culture does not dwell on the private pains and losses that we all experience. These losses are not only about the death of a loved one, but also the losses felt in losing a job, divorce, and dealing with health issues.  Some do not even consider the loss of a vacation plan, the loss of a pet, the loss of time spent with friends, or the loss of an enjoyable routine as losses to be recognized.  We certainly do not talk openly about these losses, but we do carry them around with us.  At times they just add a saddened mood to our day, and at other times, they are debilitating, taking away our energy and our ability to have hope. In a culture encourages us to “move on,” it is often hard to find the support we need to grieve.

In the past year, our sense of possibility and control has been totally disrupted by Covid.  How do we cope today with so much loss when the threat of loss still looms large?  Do we feel we have a right to our pain, or are we ashamed to admit that we are impacted by the losses of once comforting routines and faded friendships because so many others have endured more loss than we have? What about our grief over “lost time?” How do you grieve for the celebrations that never happened, the holiday traditions missed, the rituals we have been unable to participate in with friends, family and even our community?  Furthermore, our desire for control and certainty has been forever upended.

When relationships with people, things, places, animals, or even time end, we can’t help but experience some pain.  Since Covid, our world does not seem fair or logical.  We need to be able to express verbally or in some other fashion, the emotional hardships that this past year has brought on.  We don’t necessarily need closure from these losses or mastery over them.  We can function more fully with hope if we can manage to accept what has occurred and find a new pathway forward.  Our new roles can be fluid, and we can find a freedom in that fluidity. 

To be frank, we are a society of winners, and we tend to associate loss with blame. “What did I do wrong to deserve this?”  “My kids are suffering from isolation, and I can’t add enough activity and fun times to their lives.  We’ve lost our support system, but I am a failure! What a bad parent I am.”  Covid has been lasting so much longer than anyone thought it would, and the longer we experience loss the more impactful and long-lasting it thus becomes for us. 

Loss is anything that changes our perception of ourselves, ourselves in the world, and the meaning we derive in the world.  Loss can affect our sense of what family means, who we are, and what our role in life is.  Some losses naturally coexist with hope and gain, such as a child’s first day of kindergarten. The parent mourns the loss of the baby, toddler, and preschooler, but the parent also smiles and cries to celebrate the child’s growth and movement forward in life and the fun the child will have in the year ahead.

Sadly, even these small, transitional losses have been aggravated during Covid. We could not celebrate the same way this past year when our young child started kindergarten as most children were having online school. The parents might now be grieving their free time lost to online school managing, their child’s inability to meet new friends and learn more social skills, and their child’s first play dates at the playground that did not happen.

Other losses we may be experiencing this past year involve a loss of identity.  Losing our job or our marriage is an intangible loss, and we can no longer think of ourselves in a certain way or has having achieved a certain title.  We might be in a no man’s land where our roles are hazy and who we are is uncertain.  If we lost a loved one, our identity as a spouse, sibling, or child might feel questioned too.

One vital pathway forward, especially as vaccinations are multiplying, is more social connections within our communities.  Establishing new relationships and affirming old ones, enacting our old traditions and routines with our loved ones, and creating new rituals within our relationships helps us to gain meaning now.  Honoring our former rituals while also imagining and implementing new ones encourages us to balance our limited control over our lives with creativity and invention through our new routines.

Another way to heal is to both accept our emotions and also to use distraction skills to limit our ruminations over what we will not experience anymore.  Distraction tools can include walking, listening to music, making art, completing crossword puzzles, or any activities that lend enjoyment to our lives.  Our mindset can turn to one of “both … and,” a mindset that rejects absolute thoughts and instead recognizes the validity of opposing ideas.  One might think, “I am devastated that my children did not attend in person school this past year and that they missed out on so many foundational events this year.”  And also, “I am thankful I got to spend so much time with them.”

Finding acceptance for all we could not control this past year and resisting a need for certainty and a sense of closure can help us find the flexibility to be resilient.  Along with recognizing what we have lost, we can also begin to hold dear all we did to improve our lives and all the strengths we exhibited in the face of adversity.  Sharing these difficult emotions and these strengths with a trusted loved one can give us hope for a new life forward, a life that is forever different due to Covid.

Based on the books, Recovery from Losses in Life (2006),by H. Norman Wright and Loss, Trauma, and Resilience:  Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss (2006) by Pauline Boss.