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Grief and Loneliness During Uncertain Times

As we move through the stages of grief, finding meaning is an important part of our healing journey.

I know this is ridiculous but I can’t bring myself to watch the farewell episode of Modern Family that has been sitting in my DVR since April 8th. Every time I see it on my list, I feel sadness and incredible resistance to watching it. I have grown with that family for 10 years and I realized that this is one loss that I have some choice about, amidst all the grief we are experiencing during this COVID-19 pandemic.

And yes, we are experiencing grief. Expert Dr. David Kessler defines grief as the loss of something—it can certainly be the loss of a loved one but it can also be the loss of a marriage, or a job, or the way we used to live. He says, “This (pandemic) is a collective loss of the world we all lived in before the pandemic… We’re experiencing the loss of physical connection, routine, work, touch, gathering for meals, gathering for worship… The world we knew is now gone forever. And like every other loss, we didn’t know what we had until it was gone.”  Ooof.       Sigh.      Yes.

Grief and Loneliness During Uncertain Times

Grief is so thick and heavy in the air that many people feel it, both physically and emotionally. A few days ago, I found myself crying throughout most of the day. There was no clear reason or incident that set it off—just the totality of all the things that are missing. Then yesterday, I was doing fine but my daughter was really struggling with missing her friends and school, so I held her while she cried. Last week, my husband broke down, finally processing his own experience  with the disease and the 3 weeks he spent isolated, feeling miserable and, at times, fearing the worst possible outcome.

And unlike other times of sadness or crisis, when we might give in to the temptation to distract ourselves from these hard feelings, we have lost the ability to do that too. We just have to be in them and feel them every day. It’s exhausting.

If that wasn’t enough, we are also experiencing an unprecedented time of loneliness. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former US Surgeon General, has written a very powerful book titled Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. In it, he writes:

“Researchers have identified three dimensions of loneliness to reflect the particular type of relationships that are missing:

  • Intimate or emotional loneliness is the longing for a close confidant or intimate partner—someone with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust.
  • Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support.
  • Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.

These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us feel lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community.”  

During this pandemic, most of us have lost our accustomed access to one or more of these relationships, which is another type of shared grief. We might be trying to fill the void with video calls, but our body knows the difference between being in person and seeing a 2-dimensional image on a screen, which has led to “Zoom fatigue”. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for these tools that allow us even this small semblance of connection, but what we really all need is to hug and hold hands with the people we care most about.

Last year, I wrote a post about Grief at Work. In it, I said:

“Grief is the great unifier and offers us all the opportunity for deep and authentic connection. In Santa Barbara, as we gathered at the water’s edge, we grieved together. We cried for people we had never met, and we hugged strangers, bonded in this shared moment of worry, fear, and loss. In times like this, our ancient tribal instincts call to us and we gather. We see this urge to gather play out on TV after every natural disaster, mass shooting, and horrible accident. We need each other and we open to each other in ways we don’t otherwise normally do so.”

We can’t even do that now, so we are grieving the ability to grieve together too.

Effects on Mental and Physical Health

Sustained grief and loneliness can take a toll on us, both physically and emotionally. Many people are struggling and in recent weeks, calls to crisis hotlines are up by nearly 900%. Because of the threat of COVID-19, people are feeling fear and anxiety on an almost daily basis due to the threat of illness, economic loss, and uncertain futures. Others are experiencing increased domestic violence as stay-at-home orders create the environment for “intimate terrorism”. And others are staggering under the weight of severe depression, sometimes attempting or committing suicide, including healthcare workers who have been the lifeline for those struck by the disease .

Now, more than ever, we need active strategies for helping ourselves and others. May is mental health awareness month and I cannot think of a better time for us all to focus on mental wellness. Here are some strategies:

Name it and talk about it

The best way to process any difficult emotion is to name it and talk about it. So, let’s put grief and loneliness on the table—these are normal emotions that most of us will feel at some point (many points?) through this challenging time. Dr. Kessler reminds us that every loss matters and that one type of grief is not more worthy of recognition than another. He states, “The worst loss is always your loss.” Losing a loved one is devastating, and so is losing your livelihood, and for children, losing access to their friends is perhaps the greatest loss they have faced. We must be careful to not compare our grief or judge how others express their grief.

One of my favorite sources of solace right now is the new podcast by Dr. Brené Brown called Unlocking Us. She started recording it during this pandemic so it has become a living workshop for these times. Her guests have included both David Kessler and Vivek Murthy along with many other notable thought leaders. In one powerful episode, she talks about the dangers of “comparative suffering”, which can block our path to connection and healing.

Take turns giving and receiving support

The challenge when we are all grieving at the same time is that it can seem like there is no one to lean on when we need support. But the truth is that these feelings come and go in waves so on a day when you are feeling especially sad or lonely, there is likely someone in your life who is in good enough shape to listen.

Make a list of the different people you can turn to for help. Connect with each other about being that circle of support and also give each other permission to pass. The other day, a friend called for support but I was also in bad shape, so I said, “I’m so sorry but I don’t have the bandwidth to help right now” and I encouraged her to call another person in our circle, which she did. We can also lean on the wonderful people who staff crisis hotlines. Right now, we have to take turns giving and receiving support.

Look out for each other

Now more than ever, we need to pay attention to how others are doing. This certainly includes checking in frequently with family, friends and your circle of support. But you can also help others by sharing resources. If you are a leader or a manager, put together a list of resources for your current and furloughed or laid off employees.

Focus on the good

One of the ways we can manage the difficult emotions of grief and loneliness is to focus on good news. And while this pandemic has been challenging, it has also brought some wonderful stories of love, connection and hope. Certainly, our essential workers are doing an amazing job of taking care of us so join the nightly ritual at 7:00pm to applaud the people in your area. While it started in Europe, it has spread around the world.

Another great source is the Good News Network that features daily articles about good happenings around the world. My personal favorite is watching episodes of Some Good News started by actor John Krasinski. Every episode features heartwarming and uplifting stories from around the world with spin offs popping up in different countries. 

Dial up self care

When we are under stress, we can all benefit from more self care. While your go-tos might be inaccessible right now, it’s a great time to find creative substitutes or “good enough” Plan Bs. Also be sure to include the basics of better nutrition, choosing the healthiest and wholest foods you can find. In addition to eating more out of boredom, the stress of the pandemic is actually telling our biology to pack on some pounds. So, our body is likely holding on more tightly to the calories we are consuming if we don’t counterbalance it with exercise. Exercise also helps us by giving us an active release for some of the difficult emotions we are experiencing as well as giving us a boost of the feel-good chemicals of serotonin and dopamine.

And don’t forget about play. Play is a vital part of how we manage stress because laughter is a great emotional release as well as giving us a shot of oxytocin, another feel-good chemical. Use apps to play with friends or get creative with video calls for charades and boardgames.

Search for meaning

Dr. David Kessler wrote a book titled Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, after suffering the loss of his own 21-year old son. While many of us are moving through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, finding meaning), he reminds us that finding meaning is a powerful part of our healing journey. He states, “The meaning is not in the death. The meaning is what we do after. The meaning is in us—that is what we can create…The idea of meaning did not take away my pain, but it did give me a cushion that I had not noticed before.”

All of us have the opportunity to find meaning in this experience—to find the hidden blessings in these dark and challenging times. This is personal to each of us but I know that I am finding meaning from slowing down the pace of my life, spending quality time connecting with my husband and daughter, getting clear on what really matters to me, and offering help to others where I can.

At some point, I will watch that farewell episode of Modern Family. But not now—it will still be waiting for me when I’m ready. Instead, I am going to spend my energy doing things that make me feel calmer, stronger and more connected. Join me?

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