Journey Toward Healing: COVID-19 & the Many Faces of Grief, Douglas C. Smith, MDiv., MA, MS

forms of grief, healing grief, holistic wellness publication

Grief comes in many forms and can occur around multiple situations. COVID-19 has certainly illustrated that.

The first grief many experienced connected to COVID-19 was a VICARIOUS GRIEF (an empathic type of grieving; we started grieving because someone else was grieving). As we initially heard about what was happening in Wuhan, China and that nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, “our hearts went out” to the people in those places, grieving along with them in their grief.

We can still experience that VICARIOUS GRIEF as we continue to hear of the many people who have been hit by the pandemic: relatives, friends, neighbors, job losses, financial hardships, severe sicknesses, death. We can also feel VICARIOUS GRIEF in many non-COVID situations: when a friend of ours has had a spouse die; when a child in our neighborhood loses a pet; when a relative goes through a divorce. VICARIOUS GRIEF: we empathically grieve with people because they are grieving.

As COVID-19 spread, the next type of grief many felt was ANTICIPATORY GRIEF (we began to grieve in anticipation of possible future losses that might affect us and our loved ones). As COVID-19 went beyond Wuhan and Kirkland, spreading geographically and impacting more and more people, we began to fear how we and people we knew might be affected. We began to grieve our own or our loved ones’ possible loss of health or loss of jobs or other possible hardships. We had ANTICIPATORY GRIEF. And, even after the pandemic has been around as long as it has, we may still have feelings of ANTICIPATORY GRIEF as new strains of the virus arise. Will I be hit by the Delta variant? Will I be hit by the Omicron variant? Will I be hit by the next variant, whatever it might be labeled?

We can also feel ANTICIPATORY GRIEF in many non-COVID situations:

as people get laid off at our workplace, we might grieve our own possibility of being laid off; as we get a new dog after losing our previous one, we might already start grieving the eventual loss of our current dog; as we get older, we might grieve further loss of health and our eventual death. ANTICIPATORY GRIEF: grieving in anticipation of a possible future loss.

When COVID-19 eventually does strike us directly, in the many ways it can strike us, we experience GENERAL GRIEF (we grieve because we have lost something to which we have been attached). We might lose our social life, and we grieve that loss. We might lose our contact with our faith community, and we grieve that loss. We might lose our health, and we grieve that loss. We might lose our employment, and we grieve that loss. We might lose a loved one or a friend to death, and we grieve that loss. And, as long as the pandemic stays with us, we continue to accumulate those losses: more social restraints, more financial hardships, more deaths.

In non-COVID situations, we can also grieve many different types of losses—not just losses due to death: loss of innocence, loss of self-worth, losses due to substance abuse, losses due to sexual abuse, losses due to discrimination. GENERAL GRIEF: sadness and depression coming from any kind of loss.

We can also experience DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF during COVID. DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF (when I am feeling a deep grief over a loss that others do not take seriously or belittle). This can be experienced during the pandemic when I might take the pandemic earnestly, acknowledging all the great losses that have been occurring as a result of it, but others might say it’s nothing to worry about, it’s not that bad, or it’s just a “hoax” or “fake news.” When people do that, they are disenfranchising our feelings of sadness and depression, telling us that our feelings are somehow not valid or legitimate.

We can experience this DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF in many different non-COVID situations: when people who have never owned pets criticize the intensity of grief we feel when we have lost our pet (“it’s ‘just a pet,’ not a person”); when people minimize the loss of a child in utero (“you need to get over it; you can always have another one”); when people de-emphasize the grief of losing someone who is eighty years old or older (“you shouldn’t be sad: they had a full life”). DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF: having our genuine grief downplayed or belittled.

The final type of grief that many of us have probably felt during COVID is AMBIGUOUS GRIEF.

This is the result of grieving a loss for which there can be no closure or understanding. The classic example of AMBIGUOUS GRIEF during COVID is not being able to physically attend the funeral of a loved one because of restrictions related to the pandemic. But it can also be related to all the other lost opportunities that mark certain rites of passage: not being able to attend a marriage, or baptism or bar mitzvah, or graduation because of travel or gathering restrictions.

That AMBIGUOUS GRIEF can also take the form of an overriding/undefinable loss that defies our ability to put into words: the overarching cloud of loss that is felt throughout our society: reserved children wearing masks at bus stops to muted social gatherings. In non-COVID situations, AMBIGUOUS GRIEF can be seen in grieving someone who has Alzheimer’s who is no longer the person you’ve known throughout your life, or grieving one of your children who has become the victim of drug abuse. AMBIGUOUS GRIEF: grieving a loss for which there can be no closure or understanding, sometimes an overriding/undefinable loss.

COVID has brought to the forefront many forms of grieving, and these various forms of grieving might be with us for a long time, even long after the time in which we can get the physical effects of this pandemic under control. As individuals and as a society, our goals in these trying times must be to learn how to be survivors rather than victims during all of that loss.

The first step in that process has to be in identifying and naming our various forms of grief and loss. Once we identify and name those losses (as I have outlined above), we need to seek appropriate assistance in finding some healing. That healing can begin by simply openly sharing with others our grief. Healing can come through grief literature, healing can come through individual therapists and grief groups. We identify and name the losses. We then share the losses, and healing has begun.

Douglas Smith teaches a Grief Support Services certificate program through Northern Michigan University’s Department of Continuing Studies. He is the author of Caregiving: Hospice-Proven Techniques for Healing Body and Soul as well as seven other books on counseling the dying and the grieving.

Excerpted from the Spring 2022 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2022, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.

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