Even before the pandemic hit, studies reported that more than 50% of Americans were grieving the loss of someone close to them over the preceding three years. Post-pandemic, we're not only mourning for lost loved ones, but we're also struggling from the loss of life as we once knew it.
"With the pandemic, everyone is experiencing loss," says Deborah Bienstock, MSW, a behavioral health specialist at Henry Ford Health. "Some of us have lost friends and loved ones. Others have lost jobs, relationships and a sense of connectedness."
Grief is the one thing we all share, and yet every experience of grief is unique.
What Is Grief?
Grief is feeling the adverse effects of loss, and it's reaching epidemic proportions in a post-pandemic world. In the wake of COVID-19, researchers estimate that more than 5 million Americans are mourning the loss of a loved one. And millions more are grieving pandemic-related losses unrelated to the death of a family member.
"Grief extends far beyond the death of a loved one," Bienstock says. "People can experience grief after any loss, even if the reason behind the loss is positive, like a child heading off to college."
Grief happens when there's a loss of life, or when there are drastic changes to your daily routine. As with COVID-19, grief happens when the things that usually bring you a sense of comfort, stability and peace are no longer the same.
While almost any change in behavior can be a sign of grief, common reactions to major loss include:
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of interest in usual activities
The Experience Of Grief
Everyone responds to loss differently. Some people throw themselves into work. Others allow themselves to sit with the sadness. Still others try to hide from the pain through a buffet of unhealthy coping strategies. In every case, the experience of grief is unpredictable. And unfortunately, there's no way to "fast-track" it.
"It's important to remember that grief is not a problem to be solved," Bienstock says. "The experience is different for everyone, and it's not at all linear. The most important thing you can do is ride the wave, be patient with yourself and if you're supporting someone else, be patient with them, too."
A variety of external factors can complicate grief, including several losses that happen simultaneously, as is the case with COVID-19. Not being able to mourn and cope with loss in traditional ways can also prolong the grieving experience.
Finding A Way Forward After Loss
Whether you've lost a loved one, a job or you're experiencing changes in your lifestyle as a result of COVID-19, it's important to give voice to your grief. "The more you can actively engage the grief, the better equipped you'll be to find a way forward," Bienstock says.
A few suggestions:
- Name your grief. Don't shy away from your grief. Instead, recognize all of your losses and name them. It's important to remember that people experience grief for different reasons, so the loss of a pet or a job can be just as significant as the loss of a loved one to the person experiencing it.
- Engage in rituals. Rituals are one way to actively engage grief. "They help provide a structure to our grief that is healing," Bienstock says. Rituals don't have to be religious or ceremonial. They can be as simple as creating a memory book or a video remembrance.
- Stay connected. There's no rule book that says your relationship to what you lost has to end. Find ways to stay connected to that person, pet or time of life. Maybe you listen to music that triggers powerful memories or flip through photographs. Or maybe you talk about lost loved ones or arrange to Zoom with your former coworkers.
- Give yourself grace. Grief often comes in waves and without warning. "Be patient with yourself and understand that it's a process," Bienstock says. "If it feels messy and unpredictable, that means you're on the right track."
Still struggling to find your way after a loss? Working with a mental health professional can help you navigate the stages of grief and create strategies for moving forward while remaining connected.
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Deborah Bienstock is a behavioral health therapist who sees patients at One Ford Place in Detroit.