Suddenly We Are All Grieving Together

Here are ways to cope and find meaning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted Apr 27, 2020

The least of things with meaning is worth more in life than the greatest things without it." — Carl Jung

Suddenly we are all grieving. Not just the loss of lives, but also all the losses during this pandemic. With stay-in-place orders, 26 million Americans have already lost their jobs. We have given up many beloved activities.

We grieve the loss of a sense of certainty and control. We miss the hugs and physical closeness with friends and family and any sense of predictability of life as we once experienced it.

We Are in This Together

Grief is complex and multilayered. Each person processes and expresses grief in their own individual ways, yet there is comfort and power in understanding that one is not alone during this pandemic. While we commonly connect with loved ones while grieving, forced isolation has changed the ways we normally grieve, both individually and together.

Yet, all around the world, people are finding ways to identify, understand, and accept this collective grief. Ultimately, how one copes will influence the way one moves beyond it, regains a sense of control, and finds meaning.

Stages of Grief

As social distancing and isolation continues, I observe my patients moving between various stages of grief. It is grief that includes not only current feelings, but feelings complicated by each individual’s past experiences of loss, many which until recently, have been out of awareness. And my own feelings of loss.

Many are familiar with the five stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. These stages can apply to all types of loss, not just from death, and it should be underscored that these stages do not necessarily unfold in a linear way. Further, more recent research on bereavement has identified a sixth stage: Finding meaning.

Finding Meaning in Grief

How does one begin to find meaning in loss? In the words of Viktor Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Grief is a unique experience for everyone, affected not only by the present pandemic but by individual experiences of grief and loss.

Often, making meaning of one’s feelings can be achieved by fully experiencing the depth and stages of one’s grief. Talking about feelings can lead to understanding and examining our feelings, and ultimately attempt to come to terms with them. For some, journaling can be a useful way to express emotions. For others, psychotherapy – expressing one’s emotions and contemplating them together with a therapist – can help.

We can learn from other’s examples of resilience during times of loss. I am reminded of the sudden death of my father when he was just 54 years old. Seemingly in good health, he died of a heart attack on the 18th hole of a golf course. Throughout the following year, my father’s friends and family diligently worked together planning an annual golf event in my father’s honor. Not only were they able to channel their grief and gain support from one another, but they also donated funds raised to the American Heart Association in the hope of preventing others from experiencing a similar loss. By sharing and acting upon their pain and loss, they gained strength and resilience.   

The shelter-in-place orders offer time for reflection; a space to prioritize what is meaningful by considering and appreciating what matters most to you. Many of my patients and colleagues, while anxious and sad, have also talked about their powerful experiences of deepening interpersonal relationships and personal satisfaction from performing kind deeds.

Examples of Finding Meaning in Grief

A colleague recently told me that she purchased and mailed a thermometer to a patient who is unable to leave his home to obtain medical supplies. This gesture, that under different circumstances might be viewed as working outside of the usual role of therapist, can now be understood as an act of compassion and a deepening of their relationship. 

My patient Joseph (not his real name) has been leaving nightly porch dinners for a vulnerable neighbor since the pandemic began. Recently, his neighbor expressed gratitude and disclosed that the meals have become the highlight of his quarantined day. Such kindness not only provides Joseph with a sense of purpose but also provides the vulnerable neighbor with a warm meal and the knowledge that despite being physically alone, he is being cared for and held in mind by another.      

While grief lends itself to a heightened awareness of the fragility of life, meaning heals, allowing a transformation of grief. Ultimately, finding meaning provides sustenance during difficult times. And while many will continue to struggle with prolonged and complicated grief and trauma after the pandemic ends, many will heal in their own way, in their own time, and move beyond the grief and pain.

About the Author: Shelley Galasso Bonanno, MA, LLP is a psychodynamic psychotherapist practicing in the Metropolitan Detroit area. In addition to working in private practice, she performs consultative services for State and forensic agencies. An advocate for mental health, you can follow her on Twitter @shelleybonanno.

References

Kübler-Ross E (1969). On Death and Dying.

Kessler D (2019), Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief