Grieving for normalcy: Ways to help you cope
A couple weeks ago while walking in my neighborhood, I passed the community swimming pool where I had regularly attended aqua aerobic classes. The smell of chlorine wafting from the vents stopped me in my tracks. A heaviness settled over me and I wanted to cry. It felt like grief, but it didn’t seem possible. Why would I grieve for my aqua classes? Yet, there it was, a deep sadness I couldn’t shake for the rest of my walk.
I described this experience in an interview with Annelise Manns, Psy.D., a behavioral health provider at Providence Medical Group Clackamas near Portland, Oregon. “You had an emotional response to the loss of something you enjoyed doing,” she said.
Grief isn’t reserved for loss of life, Manns explained. We grieve for the end of relationships, jobs, and ambiguous losses such as routines and rituals. This type of loss makes it harder to understand or validate our feelings of grief, but they shouldn’t be dismissed.
“Grief exists between the thing that was really important to us, and accepting that it’s gone,” she said. “It’s this space between that’s really hard.”
Where did normal go?
Living in the time of a pandemic has shifted what it means to have a “normal day.” The rituals and routines that created a rhythm to our lives and helped define our sense of self have been replaced by activities that feel like low-value substitutes. A pervasive feeling of uncertainty hangs in the air.
Accepting and adjusting to these changes can be painful. “We’re experiencing collective grief as a global community,” said Manns. “Even as we start our recovery [from the crisis caused by the pandemic], there will be a different normalcy in the future.” Eventually, we’ll reach a stage of acceptance, but as Manns pointed out, even then we’ll weave in and out of different feelings about our new “normal” routines, social outings and activities.
Symptoms of grief
Grief can show up as sadness, but may also manifest as anxiety, irritability, frustration and even blame. It can change the way we feel in our bodies, diminish or increase our appetite, and deflate our interest in the things we love to do in normal circumstances. Some of the most common symptoms of grief are:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Questioning your purpose of life
- Questioning your spiritual beliefs
- Feelings of detachment
- Loss of appetite
- Aches and pains
Stages of grief aren’t linear
The five stages of grief, introduced by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, provide a framework to help identify feelings in times of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance: Although these stages are presented in Kübler-Ross’ model on a linear timeline, grief is anything but a progression of feelings. These five stages can show up in different orders, or repeat themselves. For example, you may linger in a state of acceptance, and then cycle back to feelings of anger or bargaining. Some people don’t experience all the stages. Regardless of the process, each stage is valuable.
“Grief is messy,” said Manns. And when it’s not addressed and left to fester, it can negatively impact every aspect of our life: physical, spiritual and emotional. “Yes, it’s a struggle to put words to the experience, but grief suggests there’s a need to be filled and it calls for a response.”
Acknowledging what you’ve lost and naming it is a way to honor and respond to your grief. And by doing so, you may find you can move through grief with less difficulty.
Ways to cope with your grief
Doing things to nurture your mind, body, spirit and social self is so important at this time. Start by thinking about the healthy coping skills you’ve used in the past that were most helpful to you. Was it walking or jogging? Cooking? Writing in a journal? If you know something worked for you, take it up again, or be open to trying other activities that resonate with you. Most important, however, is to give yourself the time, space and grace you need to grieve.
Below is a list of ways to help you cope with the range of feelings you may be experiencing in this crisis:
- Stay connected to your friends, family or support group by phone or video chats. Particularly reach out when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Research shows social interactions are highly successful in helping to navigate the grieving process.
- Plan regular virtual happy hours with friends or family.
- Use FaceTime to interact with your grandkids in creative ways.
- If have religious affiliations, stay connected by attending online services.
- Maintain your daily routine: Eat, sleep and/or exercise at regular times, and keep scheduled work hours.
- Keep a journal: Writing down what you notice and naming your losses is a powerful tool. You might also try keeping a “hopeful” journal where you can express feelings around hopefulness as it relates to the present and future.
- Exercise is ideal for coping with the physical manifestations of grief, which can include fatigue, and even aches and pains. It’s also proven to help with depression.
- Find ways to do fun, playful activities with others, like online games.
- Be aware of the time spent watching or listening to the news, or how much time you’re spending on social media. Counter balance the difficult and negative daily news with positive and uplifting stories.
- Try a creative project, such as painting drawing, playing music, sewing or gardening.
- Create a quiet space in your home or outside that helps you re-center.
- Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you work through your grief. Try to expand your attention beyond the losses and direct your attention toward the beauty in life. You might consider trying a guided self-compassion mediation online, or a daily gratitude practice.
- Watch yourself and be aware when the grief impacts you in unhealthy ways, such as using alcohol or drugs to help manage your feelings, or depression that impacts your physical health and well-being. If you don’t have a behavioral health provider, talk to your primary health care provider about getting a referral.
If you feel yourself getting stuck in feelings of grief, try to shift your perspective. “Focus on what is in your control,” said Manns. Even though it can be difficult to see beyond the current situation, this is a season in our collective lives. And like seasons in the natural world, this too will pass.
As fast as research is being conducted on the virus and finding a vaccine, behavioral health experts are moving quickly on research to better understand the current and long-term psychological effects of the pandemic. It’s too early to have results and data from the current wave of studies, but professionals are sharing their observations in articles and professional papers. A good place to find current scientific studies and information is the American Psychological Association site, APA PsycNet. As two researchers concluded in an article on APA PsycNet, “In times of uncertainty, science is one of the only ways to achieve clarity.”
Find a doctor
If you feel unwell and would like to consult your doctor, consider using telemedicine options. Providence Express Care Virtual connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a health care or behavioral health provider, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.
You can also learn how your state’s department of public health is responding to the situation: