L is for loss, grief and the pandemic
The last few years have brought about a lot of changes, and experiences of loss have increased. As well as the more obvious loss of family, friends, co-workers and neighbours there have been other losses too:
Economic (loss of security, safety, job etc)
Social (loss of social life, time spent with family and friends, holidays, travel, participation in sports, cultural outings - theatre/concerts, restaurants, concerts, religious services etc… )
Physical (loss of exercise, loss of hugs, physical contact etc)
Mental (loss of routine, learning, cognitive abilities) and
Emotional (loss of connection with others, loss of confidence, fear re the future).
Loss is the feeling associated with losing someone or something of value and these can lead to associated feelings of grief.
To date (16/01/2022) there have been 5,554,829 people who have been registered as having died so far from the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak and there have been 327,002,063 registered cases though in reality, this figure is likely to be considerably more. Behind these figures there is another, more important statistic, the number that represents each and every family member, loved one, friend, colleague etc. who mourns the loss of each individual represented.
Even if we have been fortunate not to have lost someone directly to COVID-19, there are few whose friends or family have not been touched by it. People who have been affected, particularly those with what is called long COVID, may still grieve the loss of their sense of smell or taste, or a general loss of energy and sense of well being.
It is not uncommon either to experience a more general pervasive sense of collective grief* for everything that’s been lost over the last two years. There have been occasions in the past where individual communities or countries have mourned a specific event, be it a natural disaster, death of a loved public figure or a terrorist attack but it is not really since the previous World Wars that something has had anywhere near such an impact worldwide as the current pandemic.
Grief is not just limited to death, it may manifest in a myriad ways. There are many different types of grief and we grieve for lots of reasons. Throughout the pandemic we’ve all experienced grief in a broader sense to a lesser or greater degree and the pandemic, not being a common event, has sometimes left us struggling to identify and find the language to describe our feelings let alone find practical ways of coping with an ever changing scenario.
There has often been no specific date we have suddenly felt a sense of loss but rather it has been a cumulative build up of multiple things over time. (Sometimes described as ambiguous loss**)
“Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size.” Mark Twain
Below are some descriptions of the various types of grief:
Abbreviated grief is a short-lived response to a loss. A response could be short-lived due to someone or something immediately filling the void (e.g. a job, or a new relationship), the previous experience of anticipatory grief beforehand or the sense of closeness or importance to the person or thing concerned (an acquaintance rather than a loved one).
Absent (or inhibited) grief is a term used when someone does not acknowledge a loss and shows no signs of grief either because of complete shock or denial of a death or change in scenario. When this is a short term response, it may be a healthy coping mechanism for someone to get them through a difficult period but when it continues over and extended period of time then it can lead to concerns. One thing to bear in mind though is that just because someone does not grieve in the way you would and you can’t see any visible signs of grief that you would expect, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is not grieving.
Ambiguous** (Disenfranchised) grief relates to uncertainty and the lack of being able to plan because there is no definite end in sight either for yourself or for e.g. a loved one who is suffering an incurable condition.
Anticipatory grief refers to our feelings of worry and grief even before a loss occurs; be it concern for loss of income and financial security or loss of a loved one and thoughts about what life will be like without them
Chronic grief manifests through feelings of hopelessness, a sense of disbelief that the loss is real, avoidance of situations that might remind someone of the loss (e.g. avoiding work colleagues, mutual friends etc) and can be accompanied by a loss of meaning and value in a God or other belief systems. Those who experience chronic grief can experience pervasive thoughts which if left untreated can develop into clinical depression and give rise to suicidal or self-harming thoughts and actions.
Collective grief* ( see above) is that felt by a group of people.
Complicated grief (traumatic or prolonged) refers to normal grief that continues and then significantly impairs the ability to function. Normal grief lasts as long as it needs to, complicated grief is grief that has outgrown its usefulness and has begun to have an unhealthy impact on the present and the future. This type of grief is more common where the nature of a loss (e.g. job/house/partner) or death was sudden, unexpected or violent where the ‘rug feels pulled out from under one’s feet’ and of course previous life experiences of loss or other social or mental health issues will come into play. Complicated grief shows itself in self-destructive behaviour, deep and persistent feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, violent outbursts or erratic and radical lifestyle changes.
Cumulative grief can occur when multiple losses are experienced, often within a short time frame, not leaving sufficient time to properly grieve one loss before experiencing the next (Loss of job, resulting in a loss of house, resulting in marriage break up etc) . It is not uncommon for multiple losses to occur simultaneously, particularly during major crisis events like the pandemic. This often translates to postponing of ‘mourning’ , accommodating and assimilating etc in order to take care of self & family in the immediate and deal with more pressing needs.
Delayed grief is used to describe when reactions and emotions in response to a loss or a death are postponed until a later time. They can then be triggered by another traumatic event or even something that seems completely unrelated. People then react disproportionately often not realising that a previous event has added weight to their emotions.
Exaggerated grief is an intensification of normal grief responses which have a tendency to worsen over time and may result in self-destructive behaviour, abnormal fears, nightmares and even trigger the emergence of underlying psychiatric disorders.
Latent grief is often associated with caregivers/family of individuals with dementia, Parkinson’s and other such debilitating diseases. Each time a deterioration is acknowledged – loss of memory, speech, physical ability there is a deepening loss of relationship. During the pandemic, those in care homes became inaccessible, information re health of a loved one became scarce and families often did not see their loved ones for long periods of time. Losses, connected specifically with the diseases and loss of contact or access builds up and can lead to overwhelming feelings of loss, powerlessness, sadness and worry which in turn can lead to depression.
Masked or distorted grief exhibits itself usually through extreme feelings of guilt or anger, physical symptoms or other noticeable changes in behaviour that are out of character. Someone experiencing masked grief is often unable to recognize that the symptoms or behaviours they are exhibiting are connected to a loss and it can sometimes present as hostility towards a particular person or other self-destructive behaviours.
‘Normal’ grief (often defined as the ability to move towards acceptance of the loss) has been made harder because often the circumstances surrounding e.g. a death has not been normal – restricted contact, choices made because of the unusual times we are in with respect to who ‘should’ and ‘can’t be allowed to’ live because of not enough resources and a shortage of beds and staff.
For a lot of people there has been a sense of loss or at least diminishment of self.
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.” Søren Kierkegaard
It has been hard to put one’s finger upon but the pandemic has not often created a sense of flourishing (in the true sense of the word)
“No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”. Adam Smith
When we resist something, by holding on to what we want to be true or to happen, rather than embrace the reality of what actually is happening, the potential opportunities of the present moment are being missed.
There are endless situations that can result in resistance which can be painful or difficult to accept and get through but there is no movement or growth in being stuck. Instead it is essential to spend some time processing and accepting the change or loss, and look at the opportunities we have that this scenario offers us for new ways of thinking and growth.
“We learn the value of things in loss, of messing things up, of getting things wrong”
S C Lourie
When the pandemic first hit and the world stood still, it was an opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty of the world. The first year particularly with its good weather and lack of travel meant that some of the world’s natural beauty that hadn’t been seen for years was once again seen – mountains, wildlife approaching, etc (It is a shame that more was not done to retain what we had lost and regained anew rather than the rush to return to ‘normal’)
“The issue is not simply one of needing to save the world, but also of needing to solve the problem of the loss of soul throughout the modern world. Part of what has been lost in the reckless rushing of modernity is the sense that each life has an authentic interior that shelters important emotions as well as inherent purpose, and that the dignity of existence includes a necessary instinct to unfold the unique story woven inside each living soul.” Michael Meade
There was a unique opportunity to find the silver lining in the cloud and turn back the clock which was squandered through lack of forethought and greed, poor values etc
Although we were restricted in the amount of social connections that we could make in person we were grateful for modern technology and the ability to communicate via phone calls, video calls, Zoom etc and not only that, but to have opportunities to watch free cultural events online when we couldn’t attend in person.
Despite this, it doesn’t make up for face-to-face contact and many who lost loved ones couldn’t hold their hand or say goodbye or even attend a funeral in person which added another layer to the sense of loss.
When watching the news we felt gratitude when we saw tales of families stuck in small apartments on top of each other in cramped quarters (and particularly those without outdoor space) if we were not among that number. For those in those conditions there was perhaps also a sense of gratitude; that despite their situation that they did have a roof over their head unlike poorer countries in the news with thousands in squalid conditions with no sanitation and no visible means of isolating and protecting themselves
“Anyone who has experienced a certain amount of loss in their life has empathy for those who have experienced loss.” Anderson Cooper
I like to think that there has been an increase in empathy during the pandemic and despite some of the global ‘me, myself and I’ attitudes, there has been a true connection and concern for those that have been suffering – be it from Covid-related illness, financial insecurity, isolation or for those working long hours in hospital scenarios particularly those in the high dependency/critical care units even if it has not always come from the top.
There has been much loss centred around lack of choice – various aspects and at both ends of the spectrum. Some examples include:
Those who lost jobs or became ill and the accompanying loss of autonomy and ability to manage one’s own life and affairs without relying on support.
Those who were forced to work at home and missed the social interaction
Those who were forced to home-school their children and the loss children experienced of a ‘normal’ school life and opportunities to make healthy social relationships
Those experiencing a loss of identity because of a lost role in society or affiliation to a club or group.
Those experiencing a loss of dreams or unfulfilled hopes and expectations for themselves or their children, family, friends etc
Those who missed first milestones, grandchildren growing up, children who live far away or in other countries graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, spending time with older family and friends, funerals, festive celebrations
Those who felt they had little freedom of choice whether to get vaccinated, which vaccination they could choose and at the other end those where no vaccine is available
Loss of a sense of personal safety due to the unknown nature of and unpredictability of who Covid is going to affect and how.
Loss of the sense of being able to support others or be supported ourselves because of distance or restrictions
Loss of a sense of an ‘ideal closure’ with associated feelings of helplessness and powerless particularly when a loved one died alone
The lost sense of physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
We are all unique and as such what some might consider a loss (e.g. having to stay at home) others might not (at least not for a short time). The majority of us rely on social support and having to isolate and keep away from people, with little physical contact for an unknown protracted period of time is stressful in its own right.
“While there’s life, there is hope.” Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything
To have hope is to desire an outcome that makes your life better in some way. The act of having hope can help make a current difficult situation more bearable but can also generally improve our lives because envisioning a better future motivates us to take the steps to make it happen. There are times when it is easier than others but our values make life worth living and can help us overcome challenges when life is difficult.
“Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have - life itself.” Walter Anderson
Your feelings and responses are valid regardless whether they are different to those around you. It is useful to remember The Fourth Toltec Agreement:
Always Do Your Best Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.
The one statement ‘Your best is going to change from moment to moment’ is like a release from self-imposed pressure. If we allow ourselves to stop judging, and don’t make assumptions about what ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be happening, we can increase our happiness dramatically by default. This notion is similar to that discussed under O is for the Observing self.
"By celebrating the small stuff and feeling gratitude for it, things you never noticed before will come into focus." Jane Trumbull
We all have varying thoughts – some helpful others not so helpful. Our thoughts create our reality. Thoughts are not facts they are judgments, evaluations and opinions by the Thinking Self but by ‘defusing’ our thoughts we can become more objective and see things more accurately which gives us greater freedom in how we respond to the feelings associated with them and helps us avoid making decisions based on all-or-none thinking.
"No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are,
raise your sights and see possibilities -
always see them, for they are always there"
Norman Vincent Peale
It has been a difficult few years. We have all faced problems. We can help ourselves by reframing our experiences and looking for ways to see them as opportunities for us to learn and to grow rather than fail to recognise them as such because our attention is too focused on the problem itself. Each opportunity we are being presented with offers us unique challenges and opportunities for growth or patience, acceptance and re-framing.
A final thought summed up beautifully here
“The reactions of grief are not like recipes, with given ingredients, and certain results. . . . Grief is universal. At the same time it is extremely personal. Heal in your own way.” Rabbi Earl Grollman