Over the past 20 months I have watched more TV and movies than I had in years. They offered me a way to cope, a distraction, and space to process. Unsurprisingly, the common theme in a lot of the shows and films I watched last year was grief. It just couldn’t be escaped. Animated films, TV shows… grief was everywhere. I suspect that’s because we were experiencing it on all fronts in our daily lives too. For many, it was the first time they had really contended with grief. And as a society, it was certainly the first time we had to reckon with grief on this level.
As we’re swiftly approaching two years since the pandemic first began, we’re also about to experience our second Covid holiday season in a row, which offers us another taste of grief. The realities of the pandemic were such that many of our beloved holiday traditions were altered or altogether cancelled to protect those most vulnerable in our families. And that’s if you were fortunate enough to be able to see your family during the holidays at all last year, or if you had a relationship with your family that prompted you to want to see them. Regardless, what was meant to be a time to slow down, rest and reconnect with our loved ones, became a nightmare of covid travel restrictions, quarantining in order to see elderly and immuno-compromised relatives, and zoom holiday dinners.
In addition to the losses we had already endured due to the pandemic, many of us also spent the holidays grieving the loss of family and connection during the exact time that we needed it the most. This holiday season, covid restrictions are light, if in place at all, and holiday plans are well underway. And yet, it still might not feel like the same joyous time of celebration that it once was; the pandemic has irrevocably changed all of our lives, including the ways we process grief and loss. In this month’s blog we aim to take a look at how the pandemic has impacted our relationship with grief and ways that you can take care of your mental health this holiday season.
A quick internet search will name that it is a feeling of deep sadness or sorrow related to death or loss. If you search a bit more, that definition expands to include experiencing a complex and natural range of emotions in response to a loss or change of any kind. If we consider that definition, it can become much easier to understand all the different forms of grief we have been bombarded with.
Conventional wisdom has identified that grief often comes in waves. The stages of grief that we’re all familiar with are a helpful guideline to explain how someone could feel as they grieve, but our process doesn’t necessarily fit neatly within those parameters. This has become especially true in the aftermath of the pandemic. In many instances the pandemic has created an almost omnipresent sense of grief, for all that we’ve lost during this time. At one point, it seemed like everywhere we turned there were case counts and death tolls and reminders of the lives we had before. For some, it might have been easier to dissociate and suppress their sadness and grief rather than accept or work through the trauma of what they’ve experienced. For others, the sheer magnitude of loss over such a short period of time may have had the opposite, but not necessarily healthier effect of desensitizing or numbing them to loss as a whole. It was too much, and we did our best to cope. In the midst of a pandemic, neither response is abnormal but both may be unsustainable; when we don’t allow ourselves space to work through our emotional responses to death and loss, those feelings have the potential to become compounded and negatively impact us in other ways.
And as though grief wasn’t complicated and complex enough, we were also faced with innumerable losses that weren’t related to death but that were either caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. Many experienced grief over the end of employment, the loss of financial security, the loss of housing due to unemployment, or any variety of pandemic induced hardships. And while these losses are big, we may have also experienced grief about other, smaller losses. The loss of relationships due to different stances about covid and vaccines has been common and challenging for many. Distancing ourselves from social and familial relationships due to the politicization of vaccines and masks may also cause feelings of grief. If there are family members or friends that you don’t feel safe seeing in person, or even speaking to because the conversations may devolve into a battle of wills, these relationships may still hold space in your heart and cause sadness due to their absence. And although these instances are not the same as a death in the family, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge these losses as well and to allow ourselves to feel and process our grief over them.
The sacrifices we have made are countless. We may also grieve the time we didn’t get to spend with loved ones, weddings that were cancelled or moved over to zoom, graduations that weren’t celebrated in person, or the closing of a beloved restaurant or music venue. The pandemic has caused so many losses, and because of that, it has helped each of us better understand the experience of grief. And while many of the losses listed here are related to the pandemic, it may be helpful to consider how different types of transitions may also cause loss and grief. When we transition from single to partnered, we may need to grieve our single selves. When we undergo the transition into becoming parents, we can grieve the lives we lived before having children. That doesn’t mean you aren’t happy about the changes. It just means that our feelings can be complex, and that we can hold grief with feelings of happiness and excitement. This can be experienced acutely during the holidays too. If you had imagined spending the holidays with certain family members or loved ones, but instead are celebrating it with your partner’s family or your child’s grandparents, there may be grief around closing the door on the imagined celebration, even if you enjoy the new one.
It’s also not uncommon for folks to experience more feelings of melancholy or sorrow during the holidays because they remind us of the past, even the more painful parts of it. The holidays can also be an emotionally charged time, even pre-pandemic, and now that we’ve come upon our second Covid holiday season in a row, it stands to reason that many of us may be experiencing a hard time getting into the festive spirit this year. So what can we do to take care of ourselves during the holidays this year?
- Acknowledge that what you are experiencing is, in fact, grief
Often, and particularly in times of widespread hardship like a pandemic or natural disaster, it can be easy to negate or downplay our feelings because “it could always be worse”. Making space to feel sadness around social distancing and the disruptions it created in your life, for example, can be challenging when you’re aware of how many people in your own city have no access to shelter, from covid or anything else for that matter. While it’s true that there will most certainly always be something worse that you could be going through, it’s still important to recognize and validate your feelings around what you actually are experiencing. Your pain and your grief won’t subside because you choose not to acknowledge it and it does not benefit you or anyone else if you ignore how you’re feeling, but it could work itself out in other ways that could be detrimental to your wellbeing.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that grief can be an isolating emotion, which combined with the isolation people have been experiencing during the pandemic makes it even less likely that folks are getting the support they need. Reach out to friends and family and be honest with them about what you’re experiencing so that they know how best to support you, and to grieve together. Grieving together will not “fix” the feeling, however it can be comforting to hold our pain together. We are social creatures, we celebrate together and we grieve together.
- Allow yourself the space to grieve in all that it entails.
Once you accept that a component of what you’re feeling is grief, it’s important to treat yourself with compassion as you work through it. Grief can be a multidimensional, nonlinear experience that doesn’t fit within any of the predetermined parameters and that’s especially true post-pandemic. There’s no right way to go about it, especially not now when many standard grieving rituals have been made inaccessible due to covid, so take the time to find something that works for you. In the aftermath of all that we’ve lost, it makes sense that our holiday traditions may not feel the same this year. If that is the case, take this opportunity to create new memories and traditions that both honor the past but also acknowledge the present.
- Say no when you need to.
Even pre-pandemic, the holiday season had the potential to be a very stressful and trying time. Whether it be a large family gathering or a small, intimate holiday dinner with a couple close friends, something about the holidays never fails to bring out some of our more… challenging emotions. And although this is our second Covid holiday season, it’s the first since the pandemic began where we’ll have largely unrestricted travel access to see friends and family. Many of us will undoubtedly feel pressured by friends and family to engage in the festivities, even if we aren’t feeling up to it or even ready to be around that many people. In those instances, it may be important to remember to prioritize our mental health and wellbeing over keeping others happy. It may seem easier to acquiesce in the immediate but in the long term, putting the desires of others over our own needs may result in our inability to care for ourselves when necessary. And if it’s not possible to say no to everything you wish to say no to, it can help to consider if there are other ways to meet your needs, even in part.
No matter what the source of your grief may be, give yourself permission to experience it and honor it. Just like trauma, grief also exists on a continuum. Acknowledging that it comes in different shapes and sizes doesn’t diminish another’s experience of it. While I personally have grieved three deaths in the past two years, I’ve also grieved the loss of a beloved restaurant. I grew up going to this restaurant and when I had children, I would take them there weekly. We got to know the wait staff and the managers. We were always greeted with a smile and frankly, it was a place that offered us both a feeling of ease and the opportunity to nourish our bodies. It’s where my older daughter wanted to celebrate every birthday, and the last place we had dinner as a family before my grandmother moved out of the country. It was an important place to me, and it was forced to shut down due to the pandemic. This loss is not the same as the death of my great aunt, my uncle, or the beloved family friend who we said goodbye to in 2020. And I miss it just the same. It would be easy to chastise myself for feeling this so deeply, but that is not what I need and it wouldn’t help anyone else either. By acknowledging the sadness, the frustration, and the missing, I give myself the opportunity to really feel the grief, and to offer myself compassion. I can recount stories to friends and family, and they offer me understanding too. If you find that you are sitting in your grief this month, please know that you’re not alone. And if you need help naming and honoring your grief, we are here. Please reach out.