When I was little, I always associated death with the idea that the person’s “time” was up, which was usually when they were elderly and had lived their life. Sure I heard about the passing of all ages, but it was never personal or close enough to comprehend. This was until I was 17 and my best friend passed away. She was 18 years old and at that age it hardly crosses your mind that this could be the last time you see someone. It was only then that death became more than just an idea, it became something more tangible.
At that time, I believed that this was my first experience with grief, but I realised I had previously felt grief and loss many times before this. I grieved the loss of friendships and my hometown when I moved interstate, I grieved the loss of my relationship with my father and I grieved the loss of my identity during and after a relationship ended.
There was some comfort in knowing that this feeling we call grief is universally experienced by every person, whether that be the passing of someone they love, loss of time or the loss of something they are attached to.
In an uncertain and unprecedented time, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many losses. Loss of social connections, loss of loved ones, loss of income, loss of events, normalcy, plans and gatherings. Ultimately we are collectively experiencing grief because the world is no longer as we know it anymore. As humans we value and desire control, particularly over our lives. The pandemic has meant there is a layer of uncertainty about what the future holds, whether that be the repercussions on the economy, limited job opportunities or someone we love testing positive for COVID.
Our minds are anticipating for something bad to happen or what will happen next which disturbs our sense of safety - this is called anticipatory grief. It can be difficult to name this feeling as grief, because we naturally compare our struggles or place pain on a hierarchy, which means we end up minimising our own pain and struggles. The coping mechanisms we naturally reached for to look after our mental, physical and spiritual well-being have also been compromised and which have placed extra stress and mental toll on us all.
Stages of grief
There are 5 stages of grief that were first proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:
These stages often have blurred lines. We may move forwards and backwards throughout each stage and people may or may not experience each of these stages, or experience each of them in order. Grief and loss expert David Kessler added a sixth stage of Grief, ‘Meaning’. I believe that some people are already experiencing this stage as they spend more time with family, live life at a slower pace, a new found appreciation of all the things they may have previously taken for granted or perhaps a realisation of the things they wish to do differently post-COVID.
Things I wish they told me about grief
I wish they had told me that grief is unique to every person. And despite the differences, it is necessary for grief to be felt wholeheartedly. There are no expectations of what grieving looks like and it is acceptable to take the time that you need. Pain is unique and processing grief can feel different to each person. There is no timeline of when you should be “over it” and it’s okay to experience unpleasant grief-related emotions from time-to time, even if you have experienced acceptance and meaning. Going back to normal and moving on are misrepresentations of what it means to love someone who has passed away. Kessler states “Love and grief are inextricably intertwined”.
Love and grief are inextricably intertwined–Kessler
Coping with grief and loss
- Using our strengths: There is power in naming the emotions we are experiencing or identifying what stage of grief we are currently in. We can add meaning to our experience by considering what we’re losing in the context of COVID-19 and reflect on why that particular thing has been important to us. We have never been through something like this but we have been through other life challenges which we have healed and recovered from. How did we overcome previous life challenges? What strengths, resources and strategies did we utilise during those difficult times?
- Experiencing our emotions: For some people, they try to push their emotions away because other people have it worse. It’s so important for us to feel our sadness, feel our grief whether or not someone else is feeling it too. This is because it is not only our minds that are experiencing it, but our bodies too. We can allow ourselves to feel our emotions by taking 20 minutes each day to grieve- it’s an opportunity to accept our emotions that we’ve stored up.
- Social connections: Social support is important in the process of grief, however, social distancing poses a problem on the ways we would usually connect; face to face. Fortunately, we have other ways to stay connected such as phone calls, text messages, video chat and social media. Let your loved ones know if you are struggling, there is no shame in that. Remember, we are experiencing this as a collective.
- Self-care: This word may sound a bit cliché for some, because we usually picture a face mask or having a bath. Some may ask, what even is self-care? Well, to put it simply, it can be whatever you want it to be. It’s anything that looks after your emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. For some that might exercise, art, reading, baking or watching Netflix.
- Remembering a loved one: Develop a virtual memory book, blog or Facebook group to remember your loved one, and ask family and friends to contribute memories and stories. Take part in an activity that has significance to you and the loved one who passed away, such as cook a favourite meal, gardening, listening to a song or watching a movie.
Sammy Huynh is a YACVic young member and social worker working as a mental health clinician for headspace and a youth support volunteer for Social Engine. Sammy is passionate about criminal justice, mental health and human rights.
If you do require support, you can contact:
- Kids Helpline -1800 551 800 for free, private and confidential phone and online counselling services for young people aged 5 to 25.
- safe steps Family Violence Response Centre – Call 1800 015 188 for professional help.
- 1800RESPECT – Call 1800 737 732 for support to people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse.
- Check out our A-Z Support page for other supports