1. Anticipatory Grief
What I call anticipatory grief usually concerns the loss of those who had been ill for weeks, months, or even years. When someone succumbs to the virus, this period is most likely reduced to days. To make matters even worse, there is no way to visit your loved ones if they are hospitalized.
Anticipatory grief is also the anxiety and fear that something bad is going to happen. It is not only the loss of a person, it might also be the possible loss of a job or home, and more generally the loss of a feeling of security, connections to others, and the routine of our lives. This sense of dread can lead to hypervigilance, where one is always looking around, waiting for the next “shoe to drop.”
The second state right after a loved one dies is shock. The end of life is jarring. While in shock you fluctuate between unbearable emotional pain and the need to be rational and logical in order to survive on one’s own. During the pandemic, this must be faced without the usual support from family and friends and without the rituals of grieving which provide catharsis and closure. Reaching out for comfort is both imperative and daunting. Now the bereaved must reach out by phone, email, FaceTime, or Zoom. The sudden loss of employment, inability to pay the rent, or having young children at home 24/7 can also be a shock. With no preparation for how to handle the sudden change in our daily activities, we may feel overwhelmed.
Shock is not only emotional, it is physical, as well. The body is flooded with cortisol (the stress hormone) and one cannot function normally. There is deep fatigue, sleep is disturbed, so are eating habits and digestion. Isolation can also impede the release of this stress. Taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep and eating regularly becomes even more important.
Disbelief is the third state. Nothing seems real. People say, “I feel nothing, disconnected.” I suspect this lack of affect is the brain’s way of protecting us from intense and disabling pain, waiting for things to settle a bit. Behavioral symptoms can include lethargy and exhaustion, but also anxiety and agitation, not crying at all or sobbing uncontrollably.
Not feeling normal is normal. Your unconscious has not yet caught up with the new reality of your life, and it will take time to reprogram your reflexes and habits to this new way of living. There are plans put on hold, projects that may never see completion, interrupted education. The surreal becomes all too real. It is difficult to comprehend the extent of the dislocation.
At some point you have to accept reality. You have gotten in touch with the finality of your losses. It is a period of reassessment, how are you going to handle your new situation? There may also be no one to talk to or cry with and to look for solutions on how to handle one’s new identity as bereaved, or unemployed and without the usual resources. The ensuing loneliness can be physically and psychologically depleting.
You have morphed into a different person, from being socially involved to living in seclusion. You have to resign yourself that there cannot be any sense of normal right now, but a temporary state in which you must find the resilience to survive on your own. What can be bearable with another to share the pain becomes unbearable alone. You must seek another person to talk to, whether by phone or email, or video meeting. There are also online therapists available to help deal with this totally disorienting state of affairs.
Pretend you are own your therapist who says, “Ok, think this through. What inner resources can you muster now? What are your strengths that have helped you deal with past traumas?”
Life is made up of stepping-stones. This pandemic will end at some point, and you will eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, there is a step waiting for you to place one foot on, perhaps gingerly…followed by a second step, then a third, and finally a fourth. You will be standing solidly in a new reality that will eventually be explored and be lived.
Copyright © 2020. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.