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The Paradox of Humanity: Grief in the Time of COVID-19

For some, the belief that we are just specks in this unbelievably large universe has become clear or has been reinforced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Though this may be factual, this pandemic has also reminded us just how much we are the centers of our own universe. Not long after the new year, our lives were shaken and then placed under a microscope. Many of us are almost forced to look at our reflections a little longer each morning – and when we do, we are noticing details that we never had to before. We are noticing that maybe we are not skilled at being alone, that the once therapeutic outdoors are no longer safe, that we do not know how to teach our three children their three different lessons, that our loved ones will never watch us be the first in the family to walk across a university stage, that the hospital we work at is more of a morgue, that working from home is not all that it was cracked up to be… that we no longer recognize who we are or the world around us. So whether you feel small right now or you feel like a big question mark or little bit of both, all of those feelings are real. All of those feelings are valid.

As a professional in a health-related field, aside from the endless ways that living through this pandemic is unique, this pandemic creates a very rare opportunity for me to be more human in my interactions with clients. For the first time, I am seeing my clients feeling deep concern about my health and well-being. They ask what I do to deal with my own stress or anxiety right now. They want to know that my family and loved ones are well, just as I want to know the same about them. The therapist/client boundary has been faded so that my clients can see bits and pieces of me – my couch, my favorite blanket, my curious cat who randomly leaps into the camera during sessions. We are both vulnerable. I do most of my current work with co-victims of homicide and primary victims of violence in the west/southwest area of Philly. What this pandemic has taught me is that what we tend to think of as grief is not telling us the whole story. That story has more to say, but society just will not turn that page yet to acknowledge the depth. That notion that you only grieve a dead person or thing does not cover the grief of safety, of routine, of celebration, of socialization, of intimacy, of sex, of person-to-person contact, of identity. But whether you are grieving your dead mother or that after-work painting class with peers who centered you is really a formality. When you break both of those griefs down to their simplest forms, both scenarios involve a person living life differently than they did before.

So, now what do we do as we watch this crisis continue to unfold? We adapt, just as we were biologically created to do. We healthily fill the voids that we have and create a new “normal” that meets our needs. I have a few ideas of where you can start, and as I share I would like you to think of these tools (and any other coping skills) as a toolbox. You carry it around with you and use what works in that moment. Not every real tool is for every job, so neither is every skill. Apply as necessary and remember that there are always more tools when you need them.

It’s more about the small than the big.

Meaning, a little goes a long way. Since I have been sheltered in place, I have found it helpful to have something small that I can look forward to each day. I tried to do that pre-coronavirus as often as possible and it made my weeks feel lighter. It could be anything. Personally, I love to eat so a certain meal or snack is what typically works for me, or listening to a favorite artist’s new song after work (cue Meghan and Beyonce’s new collab). Whatever makes you feel good and relaxed is all that matters when it comes to this tool.

Add in predictability where you can.

It is not a secret that we are creatures of habit – in fact, repetitive motions and expected outcomes help to create a steady and safe subconscious mind. If you were someone who went into an office setting for work, for example, you most likely had a routine around what time you woke up and how long you need to make it out the door. Maybe you read the bold text and thought “this is so me!” or maybe you thought “… but define routine”. If you are the former, maybe it would be worthwhile to explore how you can fit more predictability and routine into your new day-to-day. Can you wake up around the same time, watch a certain show when the work day ends, or take a virtual workout class with an instructor you like? Even though these adaptations may not feel the same, the hope is that whatever they are, they will close that void even slightly.

Or, think outside of the box.

If you are someone who gets bored easily or just is not satisfied with routine right now, maybe this is the opportunity to shake things up. Maybe you watch a new movie each night or try a different instructor for each virtual workout. The feeling of being so closed into your own bubble can introduce a yearning to break out, to do anything that is the opposite of familiar. If that is what you are craving, follow that! Very rarely does our gut feeling (which is real by the way) lead us astray.

What have you always wanted to do, try, or learn?

Not everyone is finding that they have a lot of extra time on their hands. If you are someone that does, or needs to break free of routine, or you are anywhere in between, many folks are finding solace in reflecting on what they have always wanted to do, try, or learn. This pandemic signifies a metamorphosis that the world is going through, and the world starts with each living being, including ourselves. I am a firm believer that you do not need to have ample time to engage in self-improvement, even in its most minute form. 

Let go of what you “should” or “shouldn’t” be feeling or doing.

It is as simple and as complicated as that. Many of us are used to following an unseen and even unspoken standard, a guide to follow as we move through different phases of our lives. We can look to loved ones or the internet for feedback. This time though, no one that we know has lived through a pandemic. This time, there is not even an unseen or unspoken standard that has been imprinted into our minds. So if you are asking me, I say that means you can do whatever the f*!@ you want! Yep, I just said that – do whatever you want (as long as you are not going to hurt yourself or others). What you should or shouldn’t feel or do is whatever comes your way. Because if this is new to us all, aside from causing more harm, can we feel or do the right or wrong stuff? Survival is what we are striving for, not perfection.

Lean into your support system. Or don’t. But find that good in-between.

Over the last few years, I have really come to learn that life is really just a huge balancing act. Every single part of ourselves, relationships we engage with, activities we engage with…everything is a balancing act. Life is about figuring out how to keep all the tables turning, and when to know if one table no longer serves you or is feeling too heavy. In that regard, nothing has changed right now. We have to figure out when it feels best to spend time alone, and when it would be most helpful to video chat a friend. Some days we will feel social, and other days we will not want to pick up the phone. This is all okay. Be cautious that you are not isolating or, on the other end, using others as a way to avoid yourself.

The power of compassion – supporting others supports ourselves.

Have you ever heard someone say that when we help others, it then helps us to feel better? There is science behind this – boring science like mirror neurons and chemicals like serotonin that create the most colorful and vibrant parts of ourselves. Grief relating to what the pandemic has brought or taken away is widespread, so chances are that being present or showing compassion for someone else’s predicament will lessen the burden of yours. I have a saying that “garbage is garbage”, meaning that comparisons are unnecessary when it comes to pain and suffering. What matters most is figuring how to get rid of that garbage and cleanse the stale air afterward.

You see… when we grieve right now, or feel isolated right now, we are actually all feeling it together. And that, friends, is the paradox of humanity.