Grieving All Types of Loss in COVID Times

What is grief?

There is a common understanding of grief: a deep sorrow that comes with the death of a friend or other loved one. And while this is one way in which grief can show up in our lives, grief isn’t necessarily only a process we go through after death. 

In fact, grief is really just the process of adjusting to a new normal after a major change or loss. 

What does that mean?

What that means, is that grief comes at all sorts of points in our lives. There are many types of loss that aren’t death that we should allow ourselves to grieve fully. These types of change or loss can be: 

  • A breakup or divorce
  • Moving away from a home you love
  • Losing a job 
  • Ending a friendship
  • Losing out on opportunities or experiences 
  • Planning for a major life change (moving, going to school, taking a new job), only for it to not work out in the end

All of these things are major changes and losses. While it may seem silly to grieve the loss of a job, grief is our natural emotional response to loss and not letting ourselves grieve the things that seem “less” than death or illness actually does us a disservice. Ignoring the grief that comes with all sorts of changes and loss doesn’t actually help us to move on from them–in fact just the opposite.  

What happens when we don’t let ourselves grieve?

When we don’t allow ourselves to grieve and mourn loss and change, it actually takes us longer to “get over” those things. Halting the process of grief doesn’t mean we skip over it, it just means we keep ourselves stuck in a place where we need to grieve, but are ignoring that emotional need. 

Disrupting our natural response to loss doesn’t erase the loss, and it doesn’t make the loss easier to deal with. And it can actually have major negative effects on our overall health and wellbeing including: 

  • Increased irritability
  • Persistent feeling of numbness
  • Increased likelihood of turning to self-harming behaviors
  • Physical illness 

Why this matters now

Right now as a culture we are experiencing a collective grief on multiple levels. 

There is the obvious grief that comes with so many friends, neighbors, family members, and community members getting sick or passing, but that isn’t the only way COVID-19 has created loss and change in our lives. 

Schools are closed which means high school students don’t get to attend their prom, or their graduation. Community events are being cancelled. The ways in which we connect with one another in the summer (concerts, local festivals and arts events) are being cancelled. Local businesses we love are suffering, changing the landscape of our community. 

And while they may seem like small problems in comparison to the widespread illness across the world–we are still allowed to grieve them. And in fact we should grieve them. 

They are important sacrifices to make in the current state of the world, and they are big losses that have an emotional impact on us. Try holding those thoughts in your head at the same time. 

If you are feeling sad because you cannot attend your graduation, or you had to postpone your wedding, or you won’t be able to visit friends from other places indefinitely, that is 100% valid. 

When we ignore the emotional impact these losses have on us and our mental health and wellbeing, we don’t help anyone. 

But when we sit with those losses and let ourselves feel them, the negative impact they have on us in the long run is lessened. Instead of carrying them with us always, we give ourselves space to feel and to heal. Without acknowledgment there is no space to feel, to heal, or to move on.  

So how can we let ourselves grieve these losses?

Stop ignoring your feelings because “others have it worse”:

Of course others have it worse. Others will probably have it worse, somewhere in the world. But ignoring your own feelings doesn’t actually help any of these people. 

Imagine a friend was telling you about losing a job they loved. Would you tell them to suck it up because others have it worse? Probably not. You would give them the space to be upset about losing something they loved. Give yourself that same space. 

Give yourself intentional time to sit with your feelings: 

Maybe you do this through journaling. Maybe you do this by talking it out with a friend. Maybe you do it by putting on sad music, and singing along loudly–recognizing your own feelings of grief and sorrow in the music without ignoring it or minimizing it. 

No matter how you decide to sit with your feelings, really be intentional about it. Don’t gloss over what you’re feeling. Give space (through a journal or a conversation with a friend) to say exactly how you’re feeling. Getting it out, expressing it in some way, helps to lessen the burden of it.

-Lindsay N. Sanner, LSCSW, RPT

How to Talk to a Partner About Your Depression or Anxiety

Talking to a partner about mental health issues can be difficult and scary. Especially if they have never had any sort of experience with anyone with mental health issues. 

It is an incredibly vulnerable conversation to have. But opening yourself up to being vulnerable with your partner can increase intimacy and trust in your relationship! And it is always a good thing when we tell our partners more about ourselves because it gives them the wonderful opportunity not only to know us better but to love us better. 

If you’re thinking about talking to your partner about your anxiety or depression here are 5 things to keep in mind: 

Wait until you’re ready

There is no one right time to talk to a partner about mental health issues. It’s a sensitive topic and requires a lot of trust and vulnerability. This means that until you’re ready to be open and vulnerable with them–until you trust them to honor that openness and vulnerability–you probably won’t be ready to have these conversations. Talking about it before you’re ready can make you feel nervous, defensive, and can actually make the conversation less helpful than just waiting until you’re ready. Give yourself permission to wait until that trust is there, and remind yourself you are doing something brave by sharing. And remember that you are giving your partner the opportunity to know and care for you better, which is always something to be celebrated! 

Tell them about your experience specifically 

You don’t need to teach your partner everything about anxiety or depression. You (likely) aren’t a psychologist, and as much as learning about depression and anxiety may have helped you understand your own experience, it may overwhelm your partner if it starts to feel like a class they are going to be tested on. 

Instead, stick to your specific experience. Let them know how anxiety or depression (or both) affect your life, what it means for you, what accommodations you’ve had to make, how that might come up in your relationship with them, etc. They can support you better if they know about your specific experiences, rather than a generic overview of what depression and anxiety are. 

Provide them with resources 

That’s not to say they shouldn’t keep learning! But it is not your job to teach them everything about mental illness, just because you struggle with one (or more). If there are books or websites or other resources that helped you to understand your own experience, pass them along to your partner. Let them know you’re happy to answer questions about your own experience and how it will affect your relationship with them. But encourage them to do their own research instead of depending on you for everything if they want to learn more. 

Write down what you want to talk about

When talking about something that involves so much vulnerability, it can be overwhelming. It can make us feel anxious, embarrassed, and want to hurry through it just to get it over with. 

Because of this, preparing a little beforehand can help to organize your thoughts and make sure you and your partner talk about everything you think is important. It doesn’t have to be word by word–don’t write an essay here! You can just make bullet points of things you find important and valuable to talk about. Start making the list from the moment you decide you want to talk to your partner. When something new pops into your head, that you think would add to the conversation, quickly add it to the list so you don’t forget. You can even let your partner read the list as you talk, by saying “these are the things I want to be sure to talk about, can you help keep me on track if this gets difficult?”

Give specifics

As we covered above, it’s important to keep the conversation specific to you and your experiences. This conversation is about opening up another part of yourself to your partner, not about educating them about mental health in general. But what does that actually mean? Specific things you should consider addressing can be: 

  • Your symptoms: what does anxiety/depression look like for you? How does it show up in your life?
  • Things that help: when you are in a depressive state or having high anxiety, what coping mechanisms help you? Are there ones your partner can learn to help you?
  • Things that are triggering, or areas where you’ll need extra support: let them know about things that make your anxiety/depression worse. This way they can either help you navigate life without these things, or offer you extra support when needed
  • What you need from them: is this conversation just to inform them? Let them know. Tell them you don’t need anything different from them, you just want them to understand your experience. If you do need something from them, tell them what it is! Give them the opportunity to be the best partner they can be. 

If you need more support in navigating these conversations, our couples counselors can help.

-Brice N. Sanner, LMFT