Health Matters: COVID and Ambiguous Loss

Kim Pepper small

May 25, 2021

The last fourteen months have been grueling. It has been said often; yet, it cannot be said enough. The last fourteen months have been rough. We navigated unfamiliar and uncharted territory. When lockdown began, it felt doable. Hunker down for a couple of months, slow the spread, take on some home improvement projects, and engage in a new hobby like baking bread or taking a virtual class. Hard, yes, but we’ve got this. A couple of months then turned into three months, then turned into summer, then turned into the holidays. 

We experienced collective grief as the number of lives lost to COVID-19 grew unimaginably throughout the world. Systems that felt stable, such as the economy, healthcare, and education, became overwhelmed. 

Incremental losses grew daily as our lives changed. Many were no longer able to cleanly divide work time and school time from playtime. Many took on additional roles of educating children and caring for loved ones and friends who were not able to leave their homes and trying to keep everyone safe in the midst of nearly constant change. The incidental activities that make up our days, disappeared overnight. 

Large family gatherings, graduations, proms, school activities, sporting events, concerts were canceled. Weddings and funerals were postponed. Vacations became staycations. Birth plans changed.

Life looked dramatically different. Day by day we did our best. Yet we worried about finances, job security, our safety and that of our loved ones. Even for those who felt not too affected by lockdown, there may have been an underlying sense of uneasiness and feeling a sense of loss, but not being about to put a finger on exactly the nature of the loss. 

Any one of these losses on its own is enough to throw us off our game. Yet, for fourteen months we have experienced loss, upon loss, upon loss. 

Loss is normally associated with death. This makes sense to us. Someone we loved is not here anymore, and our heart hurts. However, not all COVID-19 losses are related to the loss of life. Ambiguous grief, a concept developed by Dr. Pauline Boss, is as the name indicates, loss that we cannot easily describe or resolve. It can be described as experiencing the feelings of grief without knowing exactly what or why we are grieving. 

How do we move through this time of cumulative, collective, and ambiguous loss? 

First, be assured that it is normal to grieve these losses. Give yourself permission to grieve. Even as life begins to return to some semblance of normalcy, it’s okay to acknowledge all of the losses. 

Be aware too that grief comes in waves. There will be good days and bad days. Be patient with yourself in the midst of this ebb and flow, and go at the speed of your own spirit 

Engage in both-and thinking. Recognize that what you have been through is hard, and embrace what went well in spite of the stress. Observe what is still present about your pre-COVID life. Noticing what went well strengthens resilience.     

In the inevitable times of feeling downhearted, give yourself even small moments of healing. Get outside and move. The act of physical movement can move you through a temporary emotional moment. Do an act of kindness for someone. Sending a card or a letter serves the dual purpose of making both you and the recipient feel better. Keeping a journal can help us to look back on the good days, and remember that the bad days were temporary. If you’re a crier, a good cry can be therapeutic. 

Remind yourself that you did your very best each day, even if your very best changed from day to day. If you did not become the artisan bread baker that you aspired to be at the beginning of lockdown or if you did not yet finish the home improvement project, be merciful to yourself. 

Know too that mental health resources are available in the community and online, and that it is normal to need that extra support walking alongside. 

Finally, remember that you have never been through anything like this before. Be exceptionally kind to yourself and patient with yourself. We will get through this together.