The Nature of Grief
Grief is our emotional response to loss. Many emotions, including anger, guilt, sadness, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, and numbness may be present after the death of a loved one. While grief is a universal experience and all of us will experience grief many times over the course of our lives, every grief experience is also unique. We do not grieve in the same way over different losses, and individual survivors grieve the death of one person differently.
At this particularly difficult time, it is important that you give yourself permission to feel the emotions you are feeling, which may change from day to day or even from one moment to the next. There is no “wrong” or “right” way to grieve because your emotions reflect both your special relationship to your loved one and the circumstances of their death.
Losing a loved one in the midst of this pandemic is a traumatic experience. If we lose someone suddenly, or if we were not able to be with them while they were dying, our grief responses are complicated by the traumatic nature of the loss. Survivors may feel overwhelmed with thoughts of their loved one’s death. They may experience intense distress in yearning or searching for the deceased due to their sudden separation. The bereaved may also experience emotional distress along with their other grief emotions, including feelings of emptiness, disbelief, and distrust in other people.
If you are experiencing any of these feelings, know that they are normal responses to the abnormal circumstances of your loss and that, with time and support, they will lessen. Talking about these feelings with close family and friends may help you recognize, sort out, and understand your emotional responses to loss and to trauma.
Traumatic Loss Triggers
A loved one’s death during this pandemic can lead to both grief and trauma, which may cause survivors to experience triggers of their loss that can temporarily disrupt them as they begin their mourning process.
A trigger can be anything that provokes distressing memories of the loss – from an image on the news or the sound of a phone ringing, to the sight of a loved one’s clothing or the scent of their perfume. When we are confronted with a traumatic loss trigger, we might feel immediate, high levels of fear and anxiety, like being suddenly on guard, or physical reactions, such as our heart pounding, our palms sweating, or our mouth going dry.
As a survivor, you might be experiencing some of these responses or other kinds of responses to triggers that cause distress. Responses to trauma vary, and everyone’s reaction is different. Even painful reminders of your loss experience are all ways in which the mind and the body are trying to process your loss and integrate it into your life. While your instinct might be to try to avoid potential triggers, you should try not to isolate in your grief. Most people who experience traumatic loss triggers will find that they gradually lessen over a period of days to months.
Grief following a loved one’s death can be complicated during this public health crisis because we are all experiencing non-death losses at the same time. Some may be concrete and easy to identify, such as financial or employment insecurity and lack of social interaction. Other losses might be harder to recognize, like no longer having the comfort of our normal routines or freedom of movement in public spaces.
We may also be experiencing the losses of our “assumptive world” – the set of core beliefs that stabilize, ground, and orient us and make us feel secure in our daily lives. Pandemic, like other forms of traumatic and mass casualty events, can threaten our belief that the world is, or ever will be, a safe and secure place.
Grieving a death while dealing with non-death losses can feel overwhelming for several reasons:
- Many of the non-death losses you are experiencing may have directly impacted the degree to which you could be with your loved one prior to their death, which might prompt feelings of anger and regret
- The death may make the effects of your non-death losses feel stronger, particularly losses of interaction and movement
- You might feel that your grief isn’t being recognized and supported as it would have been if your loved one had died at another time because everyone is currently experiencing non-death losses
While you grieve your loved one, try to recognize and validate the other losses you are experiencing as a way of making sense of how these losses impact one another for you personally.
Risk of Disenfranchised Grief
In addition to other complications to grieving the loss of a loved one during this pandemic, survivors are at risk of experiencing disenfranchised grief. Anyone suffering a loss whose grief is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly observed can experience disenfranchised grief, including survivors in a pandemic. When the number of people who die of a single virus is extremely high, one may feel that their loved one’s death is not receiving attention or is only being treated as a statistic.
Your grief responses may include feelings of helplessness and powerlessness if you believe that your individual loss is not being acknowledged, validated, or treated with care. Here are steps to take to reduce these effects:
- Practice emotional self-care by identifying your losses and validating your feelings about them
- Ask for support from the friends and family who will respect and listen to your individual grief experiences without giving you unsolicited advice
- Plan memorials and tributes to your loved one, both now and in the future, that will help you feel recognized and acknowledged in your grief