Grief in challenging times

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Challenging grief

The aggressive pandemic we are experiencing threatens the entire world with the loss of so many things that we care about and that give our lives meaning.

For some it is the death of loved ones to this horrible virus, or risks to their own health; for others, the loss of a job or financial security, the loss of freedoms, the loss of travel plans to visit family or opportunities to go places and do things.

Any time we experience loss, grief is the normal human response. But we are grieving more than those who have died. We are grieving for life as we knew it, feeling our world has changed, which it has, and trying to come to terms with this new reality.

Social distancing has kept people apart from friends, family, church, social involvement and work colleagues for what seems like ages. One 70-year-old recently widowed lady told me that her daughter comes once a week to drop off groceries on her front porch, then chats from the required six feet away on the driveway. “What I would give for a hug,” she cried, and she feels so lonely and isolated even though everyone she loves is only six feet away.

Normal public gathering places like restaurants, cinemas, and museums have been shut down, parks are closed and shopping centres deserted. Public activities and social gatherings like sporting events or concerts are not happening. Places of work in offices and shops have moved to work-from-home scenarios, which have their own stresses. And those are the lucky ones who haven’t been laid off or lost jobs.

Some of life’s most meaningful celebrations have been cancelled or postponed. Travel plans disrupted; people unable to gather for birthday parties, anniversaries, baptisms or weddings. Many have not been able to visit with, or say goodbye to, dying family members in long term care facilities because of quarantine.

And when someone dies, funerals have had to be enforced with strict rules, regulations and restrictions, leaving people to lament, “This is not what I wanted for my relative”.

While we are still able to stay in contact with people digitally thanks to internet technology, many are realising the limitations of virtual love and cyber concern (which could be one good thing!).

The events surrounding this global pandemic have triggered an outbreak of emotions and reactions, to how many have been infected or have died, but also to the ways in which our entire lives have been affected and perhaps changed forever. As a result, we are experiencing feelings of grief.

Every time we experience a loss, we grieve what is missing from our lives as a result. It’s grief over many losses we have been feeling over these weeks, even though we may not recognise it as such. But there is no one neat, orderly way to understand the grief process. Grief does not a have a “one size fits all” formula.

Here is the dilemma we face in supporting people through this pandemic. Everyone is going to respond differently. Some are welcoming the pause and the opportunity to reconnect with themselves and their family. They have an opportunity to do the things that they had long promised they would get to ‘when I have time’.

But for others, this has been a living hell, isolated in homes where relationships are strained; possibly finding themselves in unsafe situations, facing financial pressures, unemployment, not being able to visit elderly or sick loved ones in care facilities, or being present with them when they are dying.

For the majority, their experience has been a combination of all of the above.

Amid the pandemic crisis, essential front-line workers such as funeral directors, doctors and health care workers, staff in long term care facilities, supermarket and pharmacy employees, cleaners, delivery drivers, and many other essential services are stepping up to help those in need.

They do so even while exposing themselves to the risk of infection in the very real and frightening possibility that, “This job could be the death of me!”

Ask those directly involved what their daily life is like and you will hear responses like these:

“Scary, very scary.”

“It’s a relentless daily battle. It is like going to war, and we’re just not trained for that.”

“I worry about having enough resources to do my job well.”

“Every day I weigh the risks to myself, my colleagues and even to my family.”

“I’m exhausted all the time, irritable, and snappy.”

That is why they are recognised as heroes. Not all heroes wear capes, and sadly some don’t even have sufficient masks to protect them these days.

One of the most difficult challenges for caregivers, especially in times of crisis, is to maintain some kind of balance between the demands of their vital emergency work and their own personal needs:

  • Try to spend some quality time with family, even when quantity is impossible. Talk to them and listen to their stories, particularly when they express concern about your wellbeing.
  • Make time for yourself. When you spend all day worrying about other people, it can be difficult to reign in your emotions after a shift is over. Make time to do any activity you really enjoy to calm you and help adjust your attitude.
  • Try to find humour in things. Get a daily dose of hilarity or absurdity by reading something funny or watching a comedy on TV. Laughter really is the best medicine.
  • Above all, remind yourself why you chose to get into this work and the reasons why you love it, as demanding as it is. When your mindset is optimistic, you’ll be able to tackle stress more easily.

Change is never without struggle, and the world is undergoing a time when everything seems to have changed. There will be times when we will wonder whether we can make it through.

But as we struggle, we discover that it is in the struggle itself we find strength we didn’t know we had.

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