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processing grief in a pandemic

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Processing Grief in a Pandemic

I had a great new job lined up overseas. My suitcases were packed, the tickets and accommodation had all been settled and I was ready to go. Then my flights got cancelled, and before I knew it I was stuck in a two-month-long nationwide lockdown. Needless to say, the job couldn’t wait for me to escape the confines of this strange new prison, and the position was given to somebody else. I was heart-broken, but this experience isn’t unique to me. People all over the world are having to deal with job loss and pay cuts, and the increasingly heavy uncertainty of not knowing how things will play out. In addition to that, lives are being lost due to a virus that– though it’s only doing what viruses do – has become an omnipresent evil that seems indiscriminately out to get us all. Everybody has needed to learn new ways of processing grief in unprecedented times.

Despite all the technology we have making life easier, so many of us are feeling a little bit, or very, lost. That doesn’t stop the growing anxiety and rapidly approaching despair from feeling like something deeply personal that nobody else can understand.

Mostly for myself, but also for everyone else struggling with the same problems, I decided to do some investigating about how others are dealing with grief during this surreal period whether that be anxiety from losing a job, or the even greater pain of losing a family member .

Losing a loved one to coronavirus

Death always feels extremely surreal when it happens. One minute someone is there, and the next they’re not. Our minds struggle to reconcile the fact that this presence we’re used to is no longer accessible to us. We automatically resist accepting the fact of their loss. Now that everything about our lives feels bizarre and more like a strange apocalyptic dream than real life, this surrealiality is amplified tenfold.

“The most difficult aspect of grief is facing the reality of the loss, letting yourself know that you can’t not know that the person has died, and for that you need a memory. So either seeing someone before they’ve died and saying goodbye knowing they’re dying, or seeing them when they’ve died,” says therapist Julia Samuel, the author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass. Not being able to see someone to say goodbye and bring us a little closer to finding closure makes things especially challenging for us to process.

Diane Hori, a teacher in the UK spoke to me about the experience of losing her grandmother to coronavirus. Though Hori and most of her family is in the UK, about a year ago, they had to move her 93-year old grandmother into a care home in Chicago. Though they were physically apart before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hori’s family made sure that her grandmother always had a strong emotional support system.

Diane lost ger grandmother to coronavirus and is processing grief

“We had her carer that had been with her [before], visiting her three times a week and staying with her the whole day to check on her to make sure she was ok, and talk to her and keep her engaged.” Hori said. “As well as that, my mum would call her every single night. They spoke on the phone every single day without fail. The only thing that kept her going was the conversation she had with my mum every day”.

Then her grandmother got sick, and Hori says that when she fell ill and went into isolation, the care home– for probably a number of reasons– would no longer put her on the phone with them.

“For two weeks we rang the care home three times a day and I’m not exaggerating when I say we begged them for just 5 minutes to speak to my grandmother, to make sure that she knew that we hadn’t just abandoned her and to properly explain that she’s in isolation.”

“When she went into the care home, my grandma was very depressed and she was very confused, so we were very aware that she probably didn’t know why we had just stopped talking to her and that was giving us a lot of anxiety. Obviously we couldn’t jump on a plane and go and see her…so all we would do was call and harass these people [working at the care home] and beg them.”

Diane lost her grandmother to coronavirus and is processing grief

Hori and her family were very aware of the difficulties the care home staff were all facing because of the outbreak, and that many of the staff members were off sick because of it. For that, she says, she doesn’t harbour any resentment towards them. In fact, she sympathises with them as fellow human beings dealing with this crisis. “I felt awful because I know what they were going through and how hard they were working and how desperate they were, but I was also so desperate to connect my mom and my grandmother”.

After her grandmother’s condition worsened and she was moved to hospital, an “angel” staff member there, called Kristen, gave Hori her personal number and agreed to hold the phone next to her grandmother’s ear so the family could call and say their goodbyes. By that point, though, her grandmother was already unconscious and couldn’t respond. They knew nothing could be done for her, and they also had no idea if she could hear them telling her how much they cared about her.

“The thing is that it’s not just us,” says Hori.” This is happening to millions of people around the world. That’s what this virus does. It doesn’t just kill people. It isolates them from their loved ones. It’s really very evil and my mum holds a lot of resentment that she wasn’t able to speak to my grandma while she was conscious”.

Hori’s pain is evident when she talks about her experience of processing grief, and though she says that the loss is immense, she could accept the passing of her grandmother who had lived a long life. “What I can never accept is that we never got to comfort her, or sit with her, hold her hand, be with her and thank her. That will stay with us forever.”

Like many people over the last few weeks, Hori’s family conducted her grandmother’s funeral online in an effort to bring some closure and express their appreciation. Though this sanitised, digital method of saying goodbye sounds unappealing to many, and more like something out of a Black Mirror episode, she says she found it comforting rather than alienating.

“Two of my uncles went to bury my grandmother next to her husband and her parents and they live streamed the funeral. It was really amazing. I really felt like I was there. I was fully immersed into the situation and it was actually very helpful to say goodbye like that. That just shows you the power of technology in such horrific times.”

“Being with others that support you, helps to face the pain of their death,” says Samuel. “By turning this event into a digital experience may have seemed unthinkable before, but just that sense of connection, even through a screen, could help families to heal after losing a loved one, if only just a little.”

processing grief in a pandemic

Processing grief after losing a job to coronavirus

Like myself, local filmmaker Ashleigh da Silva lost a new job because of coronavirus. After working as a freelance video editor for years she started full time work with a new company on 2 March 2020. From the 16th, she was stuck at home on account of the nationwide lockdown, and less than a month later she was told that she no longer had a job at all.

Though losing a job and losing a loved one are very different kinds of pain (and we’re not here to compare them by any means even if that were possible), both can leave us feeling shaken and directionless. Having approached 2020 with a lot of optimism, losing her job was definitely a jarring setback for da Silva.

“It has pulled a rug from underneath me,” she said about her situation. “That is obviously not at all how one expects a new job to go.”

Da Silva has, despite the unexpected challenges the year has thrown at her, managed to find productive ways to overcome the grief and the anxiety. Like many of us, this pandemic has awoken a plethora of mixed feelings.

“Luckily I’m the type of person who’s really good at keeping myself busy, and I had a lot of other projects on the side. So while I have been quite down and really stressed about finances and stuff during all this, I’ve had other things to keep me busy. It’s been a strange time. It’s been one of grief and sadness, but also one of growth. It’s really frustrating that this is the way that it’s had to happen.”

For anyone who’s in a similar position, like myself, she recommends keeping busy.

“I find the thing that helps me the most is to just constantly have things on the go. If I’m not watching something I’m listening to a podcast or an audiobook, or I have music on. I don’t have that many moments of silence in the day. I’m always keeping myself preoccupied and I don’t spend a lot of time lazing around.”

“I was finally able to finish my film which is a massive achievement for me. I am very grateful for the time I’ve had to work on personal projects.”

“Also whats helped is having an exercise class at a regular time every day. That’s been one of the biggest life-savers in this time.”

Going forward, she also says she probably wont be making anymore big new years resolutions like she did this year. “I’m putting no sort of expectation on a year ever again. I’m not making any new years resolutions or anything because, literally, things can go to shit within the first three months of the year.”

Perhaps putting less pressure on ourselves at the start of a new year from now on is a good idea for many of us who are struggling to cope with not being able to meet the goals we set for ourselves this year.

Echoing this coping mechanism of keeping busy, Samuel told Dazed that the best way of processing grief and loss in any situation, and especially now, is to find a new sense of direction and create new routines. It’s easier said than done, of course. She warns that to make this easier on ourselves we should “keep [our] skyline short. Focus on today and the next few days but don’t project into the future”.

Find some short-term goals, or new hobbies that can distract you. If they add meaning and value to your life, that’s great, but allow yourself time to just switch off too. Binge that Netflix show for a while if it calms your soul. Get some new audiobooks like da Silva.

Samuel also recommends finding ways to help others as a means to pull our focus off of ourselves and our losses.“When you’re feeling powerless, helping others is the best thing you can do. Even if that’s just collecting food for a neighbour, or ringing a friend who you know is feeling low.”

Most importantly, when processing grief, it’s essential that we remember that our feelings are our own, and they should be felt without being compared to those of others. We need to forgive ourselves for the darkness when it arises from within us, and believe that it too will eventually end, no matter what caused it. Finally, we (and here I mean I) need to learn to accept and let go.

As Da Silva says: “I think we also put a lot of expectation of where we should be at certain points in our lives, and sometimes we just have to trust the journey, even when it’s annoying”.

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