It's quite normal to be experiencing grief during the coronavirus pandemic—even if you haven't lost someone to the virus. Here, experts talk about why you might be feeling this way, the stages of grief, and how to process your emotions.

By Ellie Trice
July 20, 2020
woman sitting with head in cloud as concept for grief during coronavirus
Credit: Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has us all learning to grapple with unprecedented and incalculable loss. If it's tangible—loss of a job, a home, a gym, a graduation or wedding ceremony—it's often accompanied by a sense of shame and confusion. It's easy to think: "when over half a million people have lost their lives, does it really matter if I have to miss my bachelorette party?"

Actually, it's very fair to be mourning these losses, according to grief expert and therapist Claire Bidwell Smith. Luckily, there are some tactics that can help mitigate the pain.

As a global community, we're living through a situation unlike anything we've ever witnessed, and with no end in sight, it's perfectly normal for you to be experiencing unprecedented feelings of fear and loss.

"I've noticed during this time, that many people continue to run from their grief because there are plenty of ways to be distracted," says Erin Wiley, M.A., L.P.C.C., clinical psychotherapist and the executive director of The Willow Center, a counseling practice in Toledo, Ohio. "But at some point, grief does come knocking, and it always requires payment."

The latest surge of the virus sets the number of infections at more than 3.4 million confirmed cases at the time of publication (and counting) in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many will have to endure this experience—and cope with grief—physically isolated from the very people who would, under normal circumstances, be there for them. So what are we to do?

Here, grief expert and therapists offer insight into understanding your grief, how to cope with it, and why staying hopeful is the key to getting through it all.

Recognize That Your Grief Is Real and Valid

"In general, people have a pretty hard time giving themselves permission to grieve," says Smith. "So when it looks a little different than we think it should, it's even more difficult to give yourself that consent."

And while the whole world is grieving right now, people are also likely to discount their own losses—saying things like "well, it was only a wedding, and we're all going to live even though we didn't get to have it" or "my husband lost his job, but I have mine, so we have a lot to be grateful for."

"Often, we discount our grief, because there are so many worse-case scenarios—especially if you haven't lost someone to the pandemic," says Wiley.

It goes without saying that losing a person you love is an irreplaceable kind of loss. When you cancel an event or lose a job, you still have hope that you can have that thing again, whereas, when you lose a person, you don't get to hope that they will come back. "We have this idea that, somewhere down the road, life will hopefully go back to normal and we'll be able to have all these things again that we're missing, but we really can't replace a graduation that was supposed to happen at the end of the school year. In two years, it isn't going to be the same," says Wiley.

Grief takes on many forms and can manifest as both physical and psychological symptoms, including (but not limited to) anger, anxiety, crying spells, depression, fatigue or lack of energy, guilt, loneliness, pain, sadness, and trouble sleeping, according to the Mayo Clinic. For those mourning a more complex loss (such as that of a missed milestone or celebration), grief can play out in similar ways that a concrete loss (such as a death) does—or in more distraction-focused behavior like eating, drinking, exercising, or even binge-watching Netflix in order to avoid the emotions under the surface, says Wiley. Which brings us to...

Spend the Time You Need to Emotionally Process Your Loss

Both Wiley and Smith say it's essential to really grieve each part of what is now gone. Engaging in mindful activities like journaling and meditation can help tremendously in helping you acknowledge and process your emotions, as well as find resolution in your process.

"The effects that come from pushing grief away are anxiety, depression, anger, whereas if you can move through them and let yourself feel everything, there's often some positive transformational things that can happen. It can feel scary to enter into that space; sometimes people feel like they're going to start crying and never stop, or they'll fall apart, but really the opposite is true. You will for a minute, you will have your big deep cry, and then, you will feel that relief and that release," says Smith.

Mental health nonprofit Mental Health America recommends the PATH system for processing negative emotions. When you feel yourself spiraling into a moment of sadness or anger, try following these steps:

  • Pause: Instead of acting on your feelings right away, stop and think things through.
  • Acknowledge what you’re feeling: Try to name what you're feeling and why—are you really angry that something happened, or are you sad? Whatever it is, it's ok to feel that way.
  • Think: Once you've figured out what exactly it is that you are feeling, think about how you can make yourself feel better.
  • Help: Take action toward whatever you decided might make you feel better. This could be anything from calling a trusted friend or letting yourself cry to writing out your emotions or practicing belly breathing.

Processing your emotions is not an easy thing to do—it takes maturity and a whole lot of discipline, and often our distractions from grief can play out in harmful ways (such as substance abuse or withdrawing from our support system). And while, as a species, humans are engineered to deal with this sort of pain, we are great at avoiding it, especially when every part of our being tells us to run away, says Wiley.

Avoidance manifests itself in many forms. "Americans, people in general, are really good at constantly running from how they feel," she says. "We watch Netflix, and drink wine, and go running, and have parties with friends, we eat to excess, all to fill that void, but we have to just let the feelings in." You may think that you're coping in a healthy way, but there's a fine line where something can become an unhealthy coping mechanism: "We all have a tendency to move toward a coping skill and using it so much that it causes problems in our lives," she says. For example, a maladaptive coping skill could be running—it's not inherently bad, but if it becomes compulsive or you can't stop doing it, well, anything in excess can be harmful, she adds.

"It takes a really evolved mental state to walk into grief and say, 'I'm gonna stay with this," instead of avoiding it, says Wiley. "Instead of sitting on your couch and eating ice cream and watching Netflix, that might look like sitting on your couch with no food and writing in a journal, talking to a therapist about it, or going for a walk or sitting in the backyard and just thinking," she says.

Wiley also encourages her patients to pay attention to the way certain activities make them feel. "I would challenge any of my clients to, before starting up a distraction, ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how do you feel? If it's a lower number after you're done, maybe you need to reexamine if that activity is good for you. [It's important to] have self-awareness of whether a behavior is helpful or hurtful and deciding how much time you want to devote to it," she says.

When sitting with those feelings, be it in yoga, meditations, journaling exercises, or therapy, Wiley encourages her clients to focus on their breath and focus on being mindful of your current thoughts and feelings. Take advantage of one of many great meditation apps, online courses, or yoga classes to help slow down your mind.

The loss of a romantic relationship factors in here as well—so many people are going through separations, break-ups, and divorces, and the pandemic only piles on those feelings of isolation. That's why, Wiley argues, now is a better time than ever to work on your emotional health, so that every relationship further down the road is stronger, and your strength can be built now.

"There's something helpful about having the ability to see that dealing with emotional pain now will help you be a better person later. And it will and should improve any relationships you may have down the line," says Wiley.

Seek Out Support—Virtual or In-Person—to Talk About Your Grief

Both Wiley and Smith agree that one of the most vital things you can do to help navigate the grieving process is to find supportive people who can listen with empathy.

"Don't be afraid to seek support," says Smith. "Some people think they should be doing better or think they shouldn't be having this hard of a time. That's the first thing that we have to let ourselves off the hook about. For someone with pre-existing anxiety, it can be an especially hard time. Support is so, so accessible right now—whether it's in the form of online therapy, medication, or whoever you would normally turn to for a listening ear."

Additionally, both Wiley and Smith are part of grief support groups and are in awe of how helpful they have been.

"I started this online group for women called 'Manage Your Shift.' We meet every morning and I guide them through what I needed for myself but now what we share together. We'll do an inspirational reading for the day, track our gratitudes, talk about emotional health--we do a bit of meditation, light stretching, and setting intentions. We joined because we were all floating and lost and trying to find some meaning in this time—there's nothing to anchor us, and this really has helped fill that void," says Wiley.

Smith also touts the benefit of support groups. "Being with other people going through the same kind of loss as you create such an amazing synergy. It's very accessible, a lower cost, you can do it from anywhere, and you can be working with professionals that maybe you wouldn't have had access to previously," she says. Other online resources Smith recommends include: Psychology Today, Modern Loss, Hope Edelman, The Dinner Party, and being here, human.

While it's is still lacking that in-person magic of a hug or eye contact, it's so much better than nothing at all. So rather sitting at home in your grief, meeting up with others and a professional who can guide you through it is really vital. And it works.

Remember that Grief Is Not Linear

It's very common, both Wiley and Smith agree, to feel as though you've moved beyond the pain of a loss only to discover difficult emotions coming up again in the future.

"I see even more people now who are running from grief, compared pre-pandemic life—but you can only stall grieving for so long, and it's also a never-ending thing. Almost every patient I've had who has lost a spouse or a child—the first year you are kind of in a fog and it doesn't feel real because you're just stumbling through it, and then the second year it really hits you that it's never changing and it becomes a part of your reality, so it's even more difficult," says Wiley. This is certainly the case with grief during the pandemic, as well—many of us all be moving through weeks or months of quarantine in this fog, and have yet to face the reality of how this situation may affect life going forward.

And this "fog" is part of the traditional five stages of grief, a well-known model developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 as a way to represent how many people experience grief. They include:

  • Denial begins right after a loss when it is often surreal and difficult to accept. (This can be part of that initial "fog.")
  • Anger, the next stage, is a surface emotion that allows us to direct that emotion towards something less painful than depression. (This could play out as snapping at a coworker while working from home, or frustration with your housemates having to share close quarters).
  • Bargaining, or the "what if" stage, is when we try to think of ways to mitigate the loss by asking what could have been or what could be
  • Depression is the most obvious stage that often lasts the longest—it's usually accompanied by feeling sad, lonely, hopeless, or helpless and finally.
  • Acceptance is the stage where one is able to accept the loss as their "new normal."

But Smith argues that anxiety is a missing stage of grief. In her book, Anxiety, the Missing Stage of Grief, she lays out how important and real anxiety is in the grieving process. She says anxiety has been the predominant symptom she's seen in patients who have lost someone close to them—even more so than anger or depression. And now, more than ever, her research is relevant. Grief is extremely different for everyone, but one common denominator in this time is that losing someone to COVID brings on a lot of anger and a lot of anxiety.

It's also important to note that the five stages of grief often aren't linear, says Smith. "We don't just perfectly move through them. They're meant to be used as guideposts, but you can go in and out of them—you don't have to go through all five of them. You may go through more than one at once, you may skip one. It depends on the relationship, on the loss, on all these different factors in parts you go through."

It's also key to recognize and understand grief shaming and the way that it continuously manifests itself—in social media, in our news cycle, in our personal lives. Grief shaming—the practice of judging someone else's grieving or way of processing grief—always comes from your own feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness, says Smith. Right now, there's so much fear, so there's a lot of shaming going on—with people calling each other out for not being more supportive of a certain political candidate, whether or not they're wearing masks, or how they feel about the pandemic, etc.

"The person doing the shaming is not ever in a good place themselves. That's very important to remember. If it happens to you, you can pivot to a place of support, whether that's online, or a friend or what it is—just remember there is no 'right' way to grieve," says Smith.

Create Personal Rituals to Memorialize Your Loss

Finding new and meaningful ways to remember a loved one who has passed or celebrating a missed event can certainly help ease up the heavy feelings of grief.

"I've been encouraging people to get as creative as possible in this time to come up with their own sense of ritual, traditions, anything that feels good to you. If someone dies during this time, often it's been the case that there's no funeral, no viewing, no memorial, no one speaks, and they're gone. There isn't a body, you can't travel to be in the same state. I think it's almost like ending a novel without a period at the last sentence," says Wiley.

As humans, we naturally find so much comfort in ritual and tradition. When we lose something, it's important to find a way to mark that loss personally. This could apply to, say, the loss of a pregnancy or any meaningful pre-planned life event, explains Wiley. You have to find your own way to mark it in time, with something you can look back on or physically touch.

For example, planting a tree is something very solid that can mark the end of a life. It's something you can see and touch. You could also beautify an area of a park or find some other tangible project to do, says Wiley. "Whether you're just lighting a candle in your backyard, or creating an alter in your house, hosting online memorials, or throwing a socially distanced nail painting birthday party in your cul-de-sac—we can have in-person memorials down the road, but having these virtual or socially-distanced memorials is better than nothing. "Coming together, finding support, communicating with people we love is really important right now," says Smith.

Helping others is also a beautiful way to grieve, as it takes the thoughts off of our own grief, if only temporarily. "Do something kind for another person who meant a lot to the loved one you lost—make an online photo album, write a small book of stories about them," says Smith. "We're juggling all this grief but it's important to set it down on the table, look at it, process it, and do something with it."