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Necessary Self Care During COVID: Working Through Loss

What our losses really look like during COVID-19 — both big and small.

COVID-19 has both brought us loss, and at the same time, exposed our discomfort with grief.

Amidst the news-watching, hand-washing, and migrating of our lives to homes and screens, many of us haven’t been consciously aware of either. As a result, we are walking around with unresolved grief that we fear (or dread) feeling.

In order to get through the months ahead, it’s important to validate your feelings and work them through. Especially those related to feeling out of control, sad about lost lives and opportunities, and real, authentic grief. Regardless of how “big” or “small” your personal losses feel, they are all important to be worked through.

It’s human to be sheepish about facing into our strong feelings and grief is one of the strongest of them all. In the West, where productivity and autonomy are held in high esteem, we are especially hesitant to take time to feel, let alone to work through our emotions.

Therefore, in our race to adapt to our new reality, many of us are reacting out of our unfelt big feelings and denying that there is grief knocking at our doors. Whether this is due to our lack of awareness, feelings of guilt regarding our own privilege in the face of the virus, or inexperience in naming and working through our feelings, this will prevent us from navigating the coming months well.

Grief must be acknowledged to be resolved. To move to the other side of the emotional fallout that comes with loss, we must own the reality of what we are facing and do what we can to feel our way through the sadness, anger, and other complex emotions that present themselves.

This is hard work, and some education can go a long way toward helping us accomplish this task. The first step is naming and understanding our grief and losses so that we can invite them and work them through.

The way in which losses occur impacts how we experience and process them. Losses that include trauma are coded deeply in the brain and often require skilled help to work through. Sudden losses, as well as those that are largely outside of our control, have especially difficult contours to be navigated.

This is not to say that the losses we choose or can see coming are easier to handle. They are simply different. In working through grief, it’s helpful to recognize and empathize with the time we did, or did not, have to be prepared.

The types of loss that we experience are also varied and shape our grief in complex ways. When an incident incites several types at loss all at once, these tend to knot themselves together in our psyches, making them especially difficult to work with and harmful if we don’t. In attempting to work through our grief, naming the types of loss we are experiencing can be helpful.

Here are some rough categories of loss.

Object Loss: Losing tangible things involves its own kind of grief. When a home is lost to foreclosure or fire, feelings of insecurity often result. Similar feelings are raised with loss by theft or accident of any number of objects to which we are attached.

The loss of money and financial stability also fits here. These losses are often very personal and are often minimized by others. Remember what it was like to lose a beloved toy as a child and you’ll know what I mean.

During the time of COVID-19, object loss means:

  • Loss of income and financial security
  • The threat of losing one's home (for those who are losing jobs)
  • Loss of physical vocational or educational spaces to work within
  • Loss of ability to procure desired objects easily
  • Loss of autonomy in our objective spaces (if we work from home and now have others in our space)

Relational Loss: These losses are the kinds we identify most traditionally with grief. The death of those we love fits here, as do losses related to separations and/or divorces in romantic relationships or friendships.

During the time of COVID-19, relational loss means:

  • Emotional distance in relationships due to increased physical separation
  • Fear of death (of self or others)
  • The actual death of loved ones related to the virus

Role/Identity Loss: Losses that fit here are those related to ways in which we identify ourselves. Seeing ourselves as healthy, fit, or a part of a specific community are examples. Titles that help us clarify our role in our communities also fall into this category. By this, I mean helpers, leaders, on-the-ground-get-things-done-ers, and all the roles needed to keep life going.

Roles related to professional and family life are also relevant. Even the idea of being a free and independent person is core to our sense of identity. Losses in this realm are often deeply felt and frequently go unacknowledged.

During the time of COVID-19, role/identity loss means:

  • Reduction of our scope of influence down to what can be achieved from home or technological means due to sheltering in place, thereby changing our sense of identity and some of our placeholder roles in the community
  • Loss of independence and freedom in how one’s time is spent
  • A threat to ones’ identity (for those who have not yet come to terms with their mortality, which the virus brings attention to)
  • Loss of any feelings of security that were based on wealth or position

Physical Loss: When we experience a change to what our bodies can or cannot do, we experience a unique form of grief. When others respond to these changes with pity or infantilizing behaviors we often stuff or deny our sense of loss, scrambling to compensate and find confidence in the capabilities that remain. This actually hurts us deeply. We need to feel and work with our feelings of limitations in order to move to a place of strength.

During the time of COVID-19, physical loss means:

  • A decrease in options for moving about physically in the world
  • An increase in awareness of physical symptoms related to breathing
  • The possible introduction of panic symptoms in response to ambient anxiety (loss of control of physical manifestations of emotions)
  • A real fear of death

Deeply Personal (and Often Invisible) Loss: This category includes everything from the loss of security to the loss of control. It also includes the loss of dreams and wishes. Losses relating to events we’ve been planning, or experiences we’ve been looking forward to, fall into this domain as well.

During the time of COVID-19, personal loss means:

  • A major disruption of personal plans and experiences
  • Actual losses of plans and experiences that can’t be rescheduled (e.g: final semesters of senior years, baby deliveries without partners, etc),
  • A major shift in autonomy and personal agency in moving about in the world
  • Loss of the idea that we are invincible
  • Loss of the (false but commonly held) belief that we can control our lives and surroundings
Alijay Jamous
Source: Alijay Jamous

And so… to weather the physical isolation, loss of human life, and loss of freedom in how we exist in the world that the next weeks will hold, it is imperative that we face our losses… no matter their size.

We must own and work through our grief. It is crucial that we name our big feelings and do what we can to work them through.

Once we’ve done so, it’s compassionate of us to help inspire those around us to do the same. Together, we can weather this storm…the one on the inside of ourselves and the one facing the world.

For some ideas on how to work through big feelings, see this related post.