COVID-19 - 2019 Novel Coronavirus

Grief and Loss

The University of Guelph’s Wellness Education and Promotion team within Student Wellness offers the following advice on managing grief and loss during COVID-19.

What is grief

Grief is usually associated with the death of a loved one but can be experienced with any kind of loss. COVID-19 has meant the loss of loved ones, jobs and health for some, the loss of connections and routine for others, and the loss of milestones and celebrations for many. With each of these losses, it’s normal to experience grief. That grief deserves to be acknowledged.

Experiences with grief can be incredibly varied. Some reactions are experienced immediately, and some are delayed or can last longer – maybe even a lifetime. Beginning to move through grief can be useful for our futures and positively affect how we feel today.

What is unique about grief right now

Loss of a loved one is one of the most common causes of grief, and it’s one that many people are experiencing as a result of COVID-19.

The following may also trigger feelings of grief during a pandemic.

  • Disruption– grief felt because of the disruption that loss causes on our own lives
  • Anticipatory grief – feeling uncertain about the future, feeling a loss of safety or feeling that something bad is about to happen
  • Isolation– feeling that others are coping with a loss better than you are or feeling alone due to physical distancing
  • Lack of access to rituals of mourning – new physical distancing regulations mean we may miss out on rituals associated with grief such as Shivas and funerals. This might be felt as an additional loss, or it could put grieving processes that we are more familiar with on hold, which itself might add to uncertainty.

These factors can all affect how you or someone you care about experiences grief.

Tools for yourself

As you navigate your grief, the following tools may be useful. Remember, everyone experiences grief in their own way and at their own speed. There is no ‘right’ way to navigate grief.

Anticipatory grief can cause anxiety. We might imagine worst-case scenarios, experience a racing mind, or feel physical manifestations of our pain. Our minds use anticipatory grief to protect us by trying to make sense of possible outcomes. Finding balance is key. When you imagine a worst-case scenario, try also imagining the best-case scenario. Neither of these scenarios should be ignored, but neither should be our sole focus either.

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Meditation or mindfulness can be important in moments of anticipatory grief. Staying focused in the present can help you deal with what’s happening now, instead of thinking too far ahead. Try this simple exercise to help you focus on the present:

  • Name five things in the room in front of you.
  • Acknowledge that the thing you are anticipating is in the future and has not happened. In this moment, you are ok.
  • Return to the five things.
  • Note five things you can hear and remind yourself again that you are ok right now.

It can also be useful to remind yourself that the present will not last forever. Tell yourself that this is temporary, particularly when you feel stress about how long you will be in the situation that is causing your grief.

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Focus on what you can control right now, like washing your hands, wearing a mask when in public, and staying self-isolated. Focusing on what others are doing is not useful and can lead to thoughts of worst-case scenarios.

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Acceptance is one of the stages of grief (along with denial, anger, bargaining and depression). For some people, acceptance can involve letting go of control. Accepting the current reality and determining a way to proceed might mean washing your hands more often or wearing a mask. It might mean finding a way to acknowledge the end of classes without going to a party, or a project for the summer you can look forward to instead of taking a trip.

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Finding meaning has been proposed as a sixth stage of grief. You can find meaning by taking time to do some self-reflection that leads to hope. The following examples show reflection that can help you find meaning and hope during COVID-19:

I can’t see my family or friends, and I won’t experience convocation this spring as I had planned. Some of these things I did not expect to feel attached to, so the amount of loss I’m feeling has surprised me. That said, there has never been a time in my life that I have seen so many people come together. I feel a lot of promise for problems that humanity can tackle together after seeing so many people embracing the idea of staying home.

It was really hard caring for someone with COVID-19 when people around me were not taking the disease seriously. I think when they found out someone they knew had it, they took the situation a lot more seriously. I think we might have helped save lives by being open about what we were experiencing.

Putting my grandma’s funeral on hold has been really hard for my family. I am grateful for my partner right now. It’s just the two of us together all day, every day. She’s helped me a lot, and I know my grandma would have been proud of us looking after each other. This has brought us closer.

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Some of the activities that seem normal during physical distancing might actually be responses to grief. Trying to understand what’s behind these behaviours might help you determine if you are experiencing a grief response and help you address it. We might rely on quick fixes like excessive online shopping, hoarding at the grocery store or over-exercising to soothe our grief. Relying on these quick fixes regularly might indicate it’s time to respond to your grief in other ways.

Some folks experience grief as physical pain. Caring for the places in your body where you carry stress – like your shoulders, neck, jaw or back – is important to your mood and in being able to move through grief. Stretching regularly, particularly if you find yourself sitting more than usual, and exercising, even little bits at a time, can help. Find online stretching or yoga videos for the areas that you need to target.

Grief might also be experienced as nausea, diarrhea, menstrual irregularities, sleeping problems, lethargy, eating difficulties or more. By dismissing these physical characteristics of grief, we risk dismissing the severity of our experience. Note these responses, and when you can address them seriously.

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According to the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, Canadians are generally consuming more alcohol during the pandemic. Of Canadians aged 18-34 a total of 21 per cent report an increase in the amount of alcohol they are using while at home. Of Canadians aged 34 to 54 a total of 25 per cent have increased the amount of alcohol they drink.

Alcohol can provide a quick relief to grief, but as a depressant it slows your central nervous system and makes processing emotions harder. Acknowledging your use of alcohol or other substances to cope is an important step in changing these behaviours.

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Saying goodbye during grief can help you recover. Writing a letter to whom or what you are saying goodbye to can help. Current losses might bring up feelings of past grief. Acknowledging this helps complete the picture of how we are feeling, and ensures we address the different emotions affecting us. You can take this letter writing exercise a step further by writing down past losses. Noting how you experienced loss in the past can shed light on what you might be feeling or what might be resurfacing for you today.

When someone we love dies, we tend to either focus only positive or negative memories. In doing so, we lose the ability to view our whole relationship and may leave parts of it unresolved. The same goes for disruption grief. When someone says “I have never had so much time to get everything done!” they aren’t addressing the flip side – the loss of routine or the isolation that allows them so much extra time. Simplifying our thinking along binary lines can prevent us from addressing everything we are feeling. Try recording both positive and negative feelings about the person or disruption you are grieving.

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Anniversaries or milestones can reawaken feelings of grief. Giving some space around these events can be useful and allow you to feel grief, but also to enjoy the positive things happening. Be aware of what you expect these grief triggers to be and know that they could also surprise you. Planning for what to do in these moments (i.e., using some of the tools above) can help.

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Even when you try new tools and learn more about grief, you can still end up feeling overwhelmed. But acknowledging that feeling and learning about it can help. Talking to a counsellor, a doctor or a helpline is a normal and might be particularly helpful when the loss we are experiencing is so different from past experiences. More resources are listed below.

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Tools for others

Watching someone else experience grief can be difficult. The tools below can help you to support others and yourself.

Not everyone will experience grief the way you do. And not everyone will experience the losses associated with COVID-19 the way you expect them to. Be patient with others and remember that how they behave while they are grieving may be very different from the way you know them to be.

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Sharing what you are experiencing can help others open-up about challenges they are facing and validate their feelings. Being vulnerable about what help and supports you have tried might encourage others to follow your lead.

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Children can hold their grief in their bodies. Helping them name body parts and where they might feel tension can be useful in acknowledging their grief.

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Resources for Help

Campus supports

For students

Student Wellness

  • Health Services (for physician and nursing support over the phone and in person)
  • Counselling Services (for counselling services over the phone)

Multi-Faith Resource Team

  • Spiritual and pastoral care

For staff and faculty

Employment and Family Assistance Program

Community supports

Here 24/7

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