To say that 2020 has been difficult would be an understatement. The disruption, stress, and change that have occurred over the last year have been immense. What is less often acknowledged is the grief and loss that has been constant and compounding since the beginning of the pandemic.
When grief is discussed, it is often connected with a loss of a loved one. And while these losses are often felt the mostly deeply and profoundly, we as humans can grieve more ambiguous losses that are less tangible. These may be: loss of a job, loss of financial security, loss of health, loss of a sense of safety, a loss of stability and routine, a loss of what we thought our life would be, and of the idea that we know how to predict what will come next.
Take a moment to reflect upon the last months. We have all dealt with the trauma and grief associated with COVID-19 and its impacts:
- Closures of schools and businesses that have led to parents juggling work, school and distance learning of their children
- Closures of businesses that provided financial support and stable employment
- The obvious health and life impacts on those contracting the illness
Along with COVID, we have also experienced devastating wildfires, have witnessed massive social unrest, and protests fighting for social justice and equity. The election came and went, and the change and sense of loss and uncertainty it may have caused individuals at different points, regardless of political affiliation, has been felt deeply. This time has been experienced by many as one activating stressful event after another, with little time to process the feelings of grief, loss, anxiety, and pain that each on their own may have caused. This does not even take into account the individual losses that each person may have had during this time or pre-existing challenges and struggles with ill health, depression, and anxiety. The graphic below visually shows how this has been experienced by many.
The way humans experience grief, loss, and complex stress is very individualized. There is no universal way of experiencing it. It may be a journey of weeks, months, or a lifelong process. It may be experienced with any combination of shock and disbelief, sadness, guilt, anger, helplessness, fear, along with physical symptoms of aches, pains, difficulty with appetite or motivation, feelings of sickness, and nausea.
Just as there is no universal presentation of what grief, loss, and complex stress looks like and is experienced, there is no universal way that is helpful in moving through and coping with it. However, there are ways that help many people to cope with this process:
- Acknowledge the grief and the distressing emotions that you are experiencing and give yourself permission to feel them. Pain and hurt do not go away by ignoring or invalidating their importance. Pain indicates a need, and often that need is to allow yourself to feel it. That may mean allowing yourself to cry or expressing your emotions in other ways; through journaling or other creative outlets, engaging in a support group or therapy, or engaging in a self-compassion break. We too often mistakenly believe that burying our pain makes it go away; however this often only causes it to fester. Noticing our pain, naming it, and honoring our need to feel it helps us move through it; honoring that it is painful means it matters. Accepting that grief and loss may show up for you in different ways each day, activating many different kind of emotions from day to day, allows us space to prepare for them.
- Allow yourself to prioritize your self in times of need, and lower expectations for yourself in some areas of your life, even if only temporarily.
- Seek out support – through friends, family, colleagues, and professionals if needed.
- Find a self-care routine that supports you mentally and physically. Alongside allowing yourself to feel the distressing emotions that come as you grieve, it is just as important to allow yourself to fill your everyday life with the things that help you rejuvenate and give you moments of rest and joy.
- Take care of your physical health, Making sure you eat regularly and healthily, start a sleep routine that supports adequate rest, exercise and move your body often, get out in nature when you can, visiting medical professionals when needed are all examples of important physical self care, but are not exhaustive. When you take care of yourself physically, you support your mental health, as our bodies and minds are intricately connected.
Practice both emergency self-care strategies that help you in the moment when distressing emotions arise and you need to cope, as well as long term self care strategies you can integrate into your daily life. Some examples might be:
- A self-compassion moment (described above).
- Deep Breathing (taking a deep breath in through your nose to the count of 4 out through your mouth to count of 6-8).
- Grounding in the present moment (name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste).
- Listening to a uplifting song or watching a movie.
- Taking a mental health day/break if you need one.
- Reaching out to a loved one.
- Reaching out to a professional.
- Starting a gratitude practice such as a gratitude journal. Becoming intentional about noticing what we are grateful for, in the best of times and the most difficult, is connected with overall higher wellbeing and ability to experience joy.
Below is the Trauma Stewardship Institutes ideas for self-care and ways to survive and thrive amid stress, grief and loss.
Always remember you are not alone. If you are a student, reach out to the UCC Life Coach if you would like to engage in personal counseling through Zoom or a phone call. If you are staff, reach out to your EAP for assistance with connection to professional support (866-750-1327).
Emergency assistance is also available 24/7 via Compass Behavioral Health 24-hour crisis line at 800-866-9780 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741 to connect with counselors at the Crisis Text Line.
If you would like to connect with a counselor because you are experiencing trauma, stress, and grief related to racism and discrimination, The Racial Equity Support Line, through Lines for Life, is available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at 503-575-3764.
References/Links for further learning:
- HelpGuide article on Grief and Loss
- Elemental Article on the Effects of COVID, discussing ambiguous loss and ways to cope amid chronic stress and loss
- YouTube Video of Researcher Brene Brown discussing Gratitude and Joy
- Psychology Today article on the positive health benefits of Gratitude
Hanna Culbertson - Contact
MSW CSWA, UCC Life Coach, Student Services