Yes, that’s grief, but different.

We are collectively grieving life as we knew it. The grief process is expressed differently for everyone, but there is no escaping the five stages of grief which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But this grief – grieving the way we expected society to function – it’s different.

Unlike when we grieve during a death or a loss, the COVID-19 isolation grief is different because the last stage – acceptance – isn’t available to us yet. Unlike with most grief, we aren’t clear what’s on the other side of this and what we are trying to “accept.”

If someone dies, we know that, ultimately, we need to adjust to not having that person in our life beyond memories. (Keeping in mind and being sensitive to the fact that grieving the loss of a loved one is not the focus of this article.)

If a couple breaks up, the goal is to grieve the relationship and create a new life as a single. 

If there’s permanent injury or chronic pain, one must grieve the lack of a functioning body part and make adjustments accordingly.

Unlike in those scenarios, with how COVID-19 has rocked our day-to-day reality, we don’t actually know what parts of our life we are grieving.

Is this temporary? Are we in this for three weeks, three months or three years? Will we eventually go back to life as we knew it?

I doubt it.

My younger self may have asked if we are grieving the end of mosh pits, dance clubs and flirtatious nights with strangers.

My middle-aged self is asking if we’re grieving the end of conferences, drinks with friends in restaurants and the joy of a big hug when you run into an old friend on the street.

Elders may be asking if they are grieving the end of snuggles with their grandchildren, card games at the seniors’ center or their nest eggs.

How can we accept what we don’t even know we’re trying to accept?

In my work teaching resilience, I describe adversity as a catastrophic external force that will forever change the way we know our life to be.

To illustrate an adversity, imagine you and I are walking on a path. Suddenly, there is an earthquake and it causes a sinkhole in front of us. The path is gone. Now, we’re left standing on the edge of a sinkhole and we can’t keep walking forward on the path like we were before the adversity happened. As much as we may desperately cling to hope that eventually we’ll “bounce back,” the truth is, we can’t bounce back. Sinkholes don’t refill themselves to make even ground for your path to resurface. The very notion of change and adversity is that what was no longer exists. Bouncing back is impossible.

Generally, not everyone is standing on the same edge and we can turn to each other to help us through our grief. With this global pandemic we are all peering over the same cliff.

Collectively, we need to heal, but here’s the catch:

  • When we find ourselves on the edge of a sinkhole realizing the path we were on is gone, the only answer we have is to find a new path.
  • The only way to find a new path is to heal.
  • The only way to heal is to grieve what’s lost.
  • To effectively grieve what’s lost, we need to reach a place of acceptance.
  • The only way to reach acceptance is to know what we’re trying to accept.
  • And we don’t know what new world we are trying to accept.

Therein lies the problem.

Instinctively we are resilient beings. Society WILL get through COVID-19. We will grieve and if you’ve ever experienced deep grief, then you already know that grief is complex. Recognizing this additional layer of complexity as we grieve “life as we knew it” can help us be more confident and resilient as we go through the experience.

There is hope.

I think the answer is to grieve the idea of certainty.

If we can accept and get comfortable with the unknown, we’ll be better equipped to navigate the crisis by focusing only on the present. We can then focus on grieving our perception of certainty, and work on being grounded, peaceful and even joyful while we walk a path of uncertainty.

So, how do you grieve certainty? The answer is as complex as grief itself and will take time to process. Everyone must find their way to a new path.

Realize certainty never existed.

Truthfully, certainty never existed anyhow. We just naïvely expected life to maintain its course within certain parameters. We had a false sense of security, thinking ‘here’s my path and as long as life happens within these boundaries, I’m good.’ Yes, every now and again we expected to reach a sinkhole. Death, break ups, loss, injury – were all possibilities on our path and knowing that meant we could brace for emotional impact. Most of us never included a global pandemic as an option we were braced for – at least I didn’t. This makes it even a more shocking hit.

If the goal for our grief is acceptance of uncertainty, then we can allow for any reason for a sink hole and trust ourselves to navigate to a new path no matter what caused it.

No one has ever had certainty, so maybe now is the time to magnify our connection to the parameters that no longer exist. Find peace with the fact that we have no clue where the next path is going to take us. Embracing a path of uncertainty is the only way to feel a sense of peace in the midst of the chaos and grief as the world tragically navigates this pandemic.

Journal to become more self-aware.

The first step is self-awareness. If you’ve always wished you had time to journal, now’s your chance.

Start by getting really curious about your reactions to this situation and explore your attachment to certainty. The idea of being curious is to allow for exploration without the harsh judgements of being wrong or right.

Notice and reduce words that are absolutes.

Notice and correct the words you use. Avoid absolutes. For example, if you say, “I will never get to do this again.” restate it by saying “Today, doing this isn’t an option, perhaps in the future I will be able to choose to do that and I’m okay with not knowing.”

Challenge your crystal ball’s results.

No one has a crystal ball that works. In my coaching practice, long before COVID-19, I was continually challenging my clients as they made up stories and tried to predict the future. This may be an eye opener as to how often you are trying to predict your own future. Simply noticing, without judgment, your tendency to predict the future is helpful in stopping the habit and becoming more present.

Create alternative storylines.

Since no one can predict the future, when you start making up stories, I challenge you to create two additional possibilities. One super-positive option and a neutral-to-positive option to counteract the negative. What this will do is challenge your thinking and help you become less attached to one way of thinking.

Be kind to yourself on the journey.

Grief is not linear. It takes our emotions up and down and all around. That’s okay. One day you may be totally present and just focusing on this moment, and minutes later be grasping for control. Allow that and just notice it, without judgment. Get curious.

Trust yourself.

You’ve got this. You don’t have a choice. Make decisions based on the facts you have in front of you. When you go into future-control-thinking, remind yourself there are many possibilities that could happen and whatever does happen, you will have the tools to deal with it then. There is no sense obsessing for answers now, when you don’t even know what is going to be the reality.