The Grief of Everything

Published on: 26 Aug 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
women looking down in studio

Over the past six months, you’ve probably felt an uncomfortable mix of anxiety, sadness, and fear. You’ve perhaps gone through crying spells, angry patches, or even moments of guilt. This feeling you’re experiencing — it’s actually grief.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken so much from us: jobs, the economy, the vague sense that we had some degree of control over our lives…even the watercooler work chat we used to hate but now secretly miss.

Most tragically of course, the virus has taken millions of lives. While it may not be on the same scale, even those fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one are still mourning. From weddings to graduations, music festivals to ball games, most of us are basically grieving the entire year of 2020.

We Live in an Era of Collective Grief

You don’t have to experience the loss of a loved one to grieve. It might seem counterintuitive, but according to experts, we’re all in mourning at present.

Sherry Cormier, PhD, a psychologist specializing in grief, told the American Psychological Association (APA), “It’s important that we start recognizing that we’re in the middle of this collective grief. We are all losing something now.”

Our routine has been disrupted. Entire industries are shut down; first travel and hospitality, then entertainment and retail. Unemployment soared, and with the financial uncertainty it accompanied, the markets crashed. Whether we lost a loved one, our job, financial securities, education, graduation, wedding, or travel plans, we’ve all experienced loss — and we’re all grieving it.

Nonetheless, “There is a communal grief as we watch our work, health-care, education and economic systems — all of these systems we depend on — destabilize,” Cormier added. Our communities feel fragmented, our great cities are shaky, even desolate, and social distancing and face covering safety rules constantly remind us of our loss.

We Grieve Financial Stability and Human Connection

Right now we’re experiencing the loss of all sorts of things — the grief of literally everything — it’s helpful to identify exactly what it is that we’re mourning. Identifying our loss can actually help us find ways to cope with it.

“We’re feeling a number of different griefs,” David Kessler, a leading grief expert, told the Harvard Business Review. “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving.”

One of the main things we’re grieving is our careers. Be it redundancies,furloughs, frighteningly inadequate COVID-19 safety precautions, or even the disruption of working from home — our careers have all been affected.

“Financial instability is a huge grief trigger for many people,” says Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S. “We lose the ability to support ourselves and those we love, and with that comes the sense of failure, depression, and even anxiety.” Our financial commitments and privileges determine our standards of life, without an income our student loans, rent, and mortgage pose a heavy burden, at the cost of things we once took for granted. So we cut down and stay at home, but the uncertainty of the pandemic is daunting and has a real impact on our well-being.

Whether we’re missing human connection or, alternatively, needing space from our loved ones, relationships too can cause grief. “Being quarantined with the same individual for weeks on end can put a tremendous burden on a relationship,” says Catchings. “We argue (anger), cry (depression), and have wishful thoughts about the situation being different (bargaining). All three of these are stages of grief.”

We Lose Our Understanding of the World and Sense of Self

Our way of life has changed beyond recognition in a short span of time. Our grief is rooted in losing the attachments we’ve formed over decades to various aspects of life.

Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, told APA: “We’re capable of losing places, projects, possessions, professions and protections, all of which we may be powerfully attached to. This pandemic forces us to confront the frailty of such attachments, whether it’s to our local bookstore or the routines that sustain us through our days.”

According to Neimeyer, among these losses are our “sense of predictability, control, justice, and the belief that we can protect our children or elderly loved ones.”

As if that weren’t enough, we’re also mourning how those losses affect our very sense of self. George Bonanno, PhD, a psychologist who heads the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University, told APA: “You can experience grief over anything that feels like a loss of identity.”

We Grieve the Milestones We Missed

Then, of course, we’re also grieving significant events that didn’t happen. Graduations and commencements that were postponed, engagement parties and weddings that were held off, or baby showers and birthdays that were forced to be celebrated privately.

The implications of the pandemic on our immediate lives are “that the dreams or expectations that we have created will not happen,” said Catchings. “It means that we will not get our expected reward at the end of a job well done.”

Nonetheless, the ramifications of our grief from cancelled events from this year carry over. “Missing out on these types of once-in-a-lifetime experiences can have a negative psychological impact,” Catchings warned. The sense of crushing loss when you look at a calendar and see nothing in the weeks and months ahead highlights how important planning for the future is for our mental wellness.

The Five Stages Of Grief

Whether you’re mourning your old identity, your best friend’s wedding, or just your regular morning latte with coworkers, understanding grief’s stages may be the first step in coping with those losses.

“All types of grief can be straightforwardly explained by using the five stages of grief, or the Kübler-Ross model, that postulates that those people who experience grief go through a series of five emotions,” says Catchings.

These stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

It’s important to remember that these stages are not linear. As Kessler notes: “It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world.” It’s also important to note that some researchers believe there are additional stages and that not everyone experiences each stage.

How To Cope With Grief

First, acknowledge your grief and let yourself experience it. “It’s okay to feel grief over what we’re losing,” said Bonanno. “When we do that, it allows us to let grief do its job, so that we can move on.”

You can expect to fluctuate between moments of sadness and times of acceptance or even happiness. “It’s OK to allow yourself to be distracted and entertained, and even to laugh,” said Bonanno.

Catchings suggests the following tips for dealing with grief:

  • Try to keep to your regular routines. Exercise, meditate, and mindfulness are all helpful tools.
  • Protect your emotional health.
  • Contact your healthcare provider, or an online therapist, if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row.
  • Reassure the elderly and children that they are not alone. Let them know it is OK if they feel worried or upset.

Luckily, for most of us, grief is transient, which is helpful to remember given that we don’t know how long the pandemic and its effects are going to last.

Finding Meaning In What We’ve Lost

Last year David Kessler, the grief expert, published a new book about a sixth stage of grief: meaning.

“I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief,” he wrote in HBR. “I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times.”

We are living through extraordinarily difficult times — challenges that haven’t been faced in generations. But it is possible to find meaning in the grief. And that’s an upside of the fact that we’re all grieving collectively: we can reach out to others and process our grief together.

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