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Making Room for Grief During COVID-19

April 03, 2020

By Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

(Part 2 of a 3-part series)

T.S. Elliot begins his epic poem “The Waste Land” with the line “April is the cruelest month.” And indeed, it is shaping up to be just that.

In my last blog, I wrote about how Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief provide a useful outline for our emotional experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our first responses, marked initially by denial and then anxiety-driven anger and bargaining, have for some, now given way to depression. Perhaps not clinical depression, but we certainly find ourselves in the grips of grief and sorrow.

The breadth of this event has left no one untouched, but not all those who are touched have been impacted equally. This leads to a disorienting sense of separation while, at the same time, a singularity brought about by a unifying event. For some, their losses have been a series of disappointments—weddings canceled, trips scuttled, perhaps the challenges of trying to work from home while also homeschooling their children. Many have lost jobs and businesses.

Part 1 in the series: Navigating the Emotions of a Pandemic

For others, the losses have been profound. As of the time of this writing, there more than 981,000 cases worldwide, with 226,000 in the United States. More than 5600 people have died in the US and more than 51,000 across the globe, and as we are constantly reminded, “this is only just beginning.”

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The losses have taken many forms. The world has been stripped of its familiarity and its safety. We feel unable to control what comes next. While some are fortunate enough to be able to shift our jobs to work remotely, there is a loss of the routine of going to work each day and the myriad of small interactions—saying hello to the person across the hall, the few minutes of banter before the staff meeting—that bring texture and pleasure to our days.

The simple joys of social life—seeing a family member, meeting a friend for coffee, exchanging a laugh and a hug—have been reduced to phone calls and boxes on a teleconference screen. But these losses pale when compared to those who have watched a loved one succumb to this illness, navigate the chaos of an overtaxed hospital, and die alone on a ventilator (or worse, to not be able to get a ventilator when one is needed).

Part 3 in the series: The Search for Acceptance and Meaning in COVID-19

The feeling of loss is palpable right now, even if we don’t know anyone who has been sickened or died. We are suffering the loss of our ordinary lives, and we didn’t even know how much we loved these lives and how much we were taking them for granted, until they were gone. There is lassitude in the air and there is deep sorrow. Meanwhile, spring announces itself with a riot of flowers and glorious cloudscapes.

The poet Mark Nepo captured this sentiment in his poem “Adrift”:

“Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief. The light spraying
through the lace of the fern is as delicate
as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat. The breeze
makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost
in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh
of the next stranger. In the very center, under
it all, what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.”

My teacher Francis Weller has taught me that grief is an appropriate response to loss, but that losing the things we love is not the only reason for grief. We are experiencing grief for other things too, including the things which we had hoped for but did not get. There is also the grief of feeling alone and not being seen and witnessed by a supportive community. And there is the ancestral grief that we carry and the collective grief of the world. All of these places of grief are alive right now.

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