The Best Advice About Grief People Learned During The COVID-19 Pandemic
Bent Not Broken is a look back on the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disrupted our mental health, plus advice on how to manage our well-being moving forward.
To say that the pandemic has forever changed the lives of millions would be an understatement. Over half a million people in the United States have died because of the coronavirus, leading many communities to feel a collective loss.
While grief is traditionally associated with the death of a loved one, it encompasses much more than this.
“Grief is a natural emotional reaction to loss,” said Raina Wadhawan, a mental health counselor based in New York City. “You can think of grief as a reaction to a death of a loved one, however it can also be an emotional reaction to breakups and changing of relationships, losing a job, and changes in your way of living due to an event like the pandemic.”
Wadhawan has noticed an increase in clients specifically seeking grief counseling to process “multiple, complex losses” they’ve experienced throughout the pandemic. She explained that people are mourning not only the deaths of their loved ones, but the loss of their careers and even the sense of normalcy they had prior to the beginning of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, a YouGov poll revealed that the number of Americans going to therapy is on the rise since April 2020.
The grieving process is challenging under normal circumstances, and throwing a pandemic into the mix further complicates this experience. HuffPost spoke with people about the best pieces of universal advice they’ve learned during the pandemic about grief, and how it’s helped them heal. (Note: Some people we spoke to asked to withhold their last names in order to speak freely about their mental health and personal situations.)
1. Give yourself permission to be happy.
You don’t have to ignore or forfeit any sense of pleasure while you’re processing a loss.
“You can be happy. There’s a guilt that comes with grief, because you feel you should be mourning nonstop,” said Janette Valenzo, 28, a teaching artist and poet. “However, you can find joy in things — even for that split second.”
2. Let go of unrealistic expectations.
Remember at the end of the day that we’re dealing with something unprecedented (for most of us). Cut yourself some slack as you navigate grappling with whatever you’ve lost.
“The best advice I have learned is that we all deserve to give ourselves a break,” said Eddie Carrillo, a 28-year-old licensed therapist. “Too often during this pandemic, a lot of us have felt like we are alone in this and that we have to follow unrealistic expectations that we have put on ourselves. We feel like we have to ‘get better’ or we have to ‘grind’ during a time like this, when in reality, we should be praising ourselves for just being able to push on during a global pandemic.”
3. Find ways to honor your personal or cultural traditions surrounding loss.
Strict COVID-19 health guidelines and safety concerns have made it nearly impossible for many families and communities to host funerals following the death of a loved one. The pandemic has interrupted the most sacred and traditional practices related to loss, especially in communities of color. Angie D., a 26-year-old marriage and family therapist trainee, said that she was told to “create a space and time to process [grief] through rituals.”
“It is important to maintain the practice of processing grief and death around us,” she said, adding that this can be accomplished “by simply lighting a candle, meditating or giving ourselves permission to cry and express our grief.”
4. There’s no correct way to grieve.
Tazia, a 21-year-old artist, said that the best advice they’ve received is that “there’s no ‘right’ way to grieve.” Through this, they learned to stop comparing their own grieving process to other people’s.
“People often feel that they must go through each stage in order to reach the acceptance stage,” Wadhawan added. “However, everyone processes grief differently, and it is not linear. Some may skip stages, or cycle back to repeat stages or symptoms more than once.”
“Everyone processes grief differently, and it is not linear.”
– Raina Wadhawan
5. Create your own unique support system.
If you can acknowledge that there is no right way to grieve, that means also acknowledging that you might need professional guidance to figure out what your individual needs are when you are experiencing loss.
“Seek support, therapy, grief counseling, journal, find a support group or anything that creates moments of tenderness and care for the vulnerability and rawness that comes with loss,” said Aimee Monterrosa, a clinical director and therapist in Los Angeles.
6. Time isn’t what necessarily heals grief.
“Time does not heal grief. It is constant and evolving,” said Susana Marquez, a 40-year-old licensed therapist. “The only way to heal from the loss is by sitting with it, and allowing it to teach you the lesson at hand.”
7. Allowing yourself to feel all your emotions is part of taking steps toward healing.
After experiencing several back-to-back losses, Jen Kaarlo, a writer, moved in with her father during the pandemic, and found that his wise words supported her through the grieving process.
“While I spent day after day crying, he told me to ‘feel everything inside and out.’ His sage advice was that I needed to experience all of my pain, sadness, and disappointment thoroughly in order to let it go completely,” said Kaarlo, 36. “I took this to heart and while there were moments where I felt optimistic and that I was moving forward, I knew there would be mornings where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I gave myself the freedom and kindness I usually reserved for others and poured it inwards.”
8. Feelings are momentary.
For Sam Adams, a 53-year-old life coach, recognizing that grief and pain is temporary reminded her that she was strong enough to survive these emotions — even if she just took it a moment at a time.
“When you feel that wave of grief, lean into it and know that potentially you’re 20 minutes away from a completely different feeling,” Adams said.
9. Increase your “toolbox” of coping skills.
Lisa Herrington, a 39-year-old author, said that making a metaphorical “toolbox” of coping skills and techniques that supported her in past experiences of loss has helped her get through the pandemic.
“Imagine you have a toolbox filled with things and actions that may help you move forward with your grief built off past experiences. What would these be?” she said. “Everyone’s toolboxes will look a little different as everybody’s grief is different, but grief is a universal language in that it hurts, and it leaves many people feeling vulnerable.”
“Everyone’s toolboxes will look a little different as everybody’s grief is different, but grief is a universal language in that it hurts, and it leaves many people feeling vulnerable.”
– Lisa Herrington
10. Be kind, instead of projecting our grief or trauma onto loved ones.
Compassion goes a long way in your own life as well in the lives of others.
“A piece of advice I’d give to those grieving during the pandemic is be kind to ourselves and each other,” said Juliana Sanchez, 34, a Psy.D candidate in clinical psychology. “Some may resort to finger-pointing, but these are not the times to project our traumas through blaming others. This further harms people, possibly leading to internalizing that pain. It also can result in mental health issues, and can cause breakage within families.”
11. Suppressing your grief won’t help in the long run.
Abby H., a 31-year-old business owner, explained that when she was struggling to grieve the loss of an important relationship of her life, she felt pressured to return to “business as usual.” However, her new therapist reminded her that she needed to work through her grief to be able to show up 100% at her normal activities, like her job.
“Without my therapist’s advice, I probably would’ve suppressed everything,” she said. “Grief is a huge part of being able to move on.”
12. No one can invalidate your experience with loss.
Despite the massive amount of people who have lost their lives due to the coronavirus, there are still those who deny the seriousness of the pandemic.
“I learned that grief isn’t linear and especially not during a pandemic. Grief this season has been difficult, as people have invalidated COVID-19 as the reason our loved ones have passed,” said Brenda Hernandez, a 28-year-old mental health advocate. “I’ve come to accept that this is my experience with grief and loss, and no one is allowed to invalidate it.”
13. Cultivate community in moments of grief.
As a family doctor working in palliative medicine, Ann D., 54, said that cultivating moments of “togetherness” during times of grief has been crucial to patients, their family members and hospital staff alike, as the pandemic has changed how people have grieved.
“You can feel lost for words, and it’s OK to acknowledge that. Explain the heartache, and recall and relay the good times,” she said. “Try a homemade soup dropped off at the door. Little acts of kindness. Be a friend, and let them know you are there.”
Your grieving process will never exactly resemble another person’s, and this can, at times, make it feel isolating. However, in many ways, loss a shared experience — especially in this present moment. Navigating grief during a worldwide pandemic is something that’s new for every single person, and utilizing the little pieces of wisdom others have to share during this tumultuous time may help you find healing.