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Coping with loss and grief during the pandemic

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

At the beginning of the pandemic, we felt a sense of dread but also hope. Hope that we can beat this and go back to what normal life used to feel like. During the first national lockdown, many of us had plenty of distractions that helped gain a sense of control – from learning to make our first sourdough bread or Dalgona coffee to following new at-home exercise routines on YouTube. But as the pandemic raged on and multiple lockdowns were enacted, we started feeling the burn out of this not-so-new-anymore normal.

But what is this prolonged sense of hopelessness, despair and tiredness we feel? It’s possible that it’s grief. What Grief are We Experiencing? It’s important to note that there are multiple sources of grief brought about by the pandemic. It is also worth noting that grief is personal to the individual. Here are some experiences of grief that are commonplace in the post-COVID world. The most obvious form of grief is the grief individuals feel from losing their loved ones from the virus. And then there’s the grief for the continued loss of human connection – From not seeing family and friends for weeks, months or even years due to multiple lockdowns and restrictions of interstate and international travel, to the continued anxiety of being too physically close to other humans (How many of us feel that heightened sense of anxiety when another person is just a little too close to us in a grocery store?). On the other hand, as the world returns back to what it once were, you might feel grief of losing a life that you grew accustomed to. Many children and adolescents may struggle with going back to physical school and having to navigate social distancing with schoolmates. Within the workforce, there are those who grieve about the return to the office after two years of remote-working. There is also anticipatory grief, which is another way of saying that we fear what the future may bring and what further losses we may encounter. What Does it Mean to Have Grief? When we grieve, we go through significant emotional distress that could impact our sense of self and overall well-being (see ‘Symptoms of Grief’ section for more information on how grief impacts our well-being). And when it becomes hard to look beyond our grief and find meaning in our lives, then it may enter the stage of complicated grief. Symptoms of grief

  • Loss of a sense of identity or purpose and self-esteem

  • Difficulty in concentrating

  • Difficulty in conducting daily tasks such as personal hygiene

  • Sleep disturbances (either sleeping too much or too little)

  • Loss or increase in appetite

  • Loss of interest in activities we used to enjoy

  • Feeling angry, irritable, and may be more prone to anger outbursts

  • Feeling low, fatigued and/or apathetic

  • Isolating ourselves from others

  • Feeling anxious and/or having nightmares

  • Using substances (drinking alcohol or taking drugs) in an attempt to distract oneself from the grief

The traditional belief is that we go through five stages of grief: denial [“This doesn’t affect me.”], anger [“Why is there so many changes?!”], bargaining [“Maybe if I distract myself with YouTube videos, things will feel better.”], depression [“There’s no point anymore.”] and acceptance [“I have to learn how to live with this and move forward.”]. Grief expert David Kessler mentions a sixth stage of grief: finding meaning in what or who has been lost. In a post-COVID world finding meaning could look like understanding and pursuing your priorities or appreciating the smaller things in life (how many of us enjoy walks around a park these days?) For bereaved individuals, it could mean finding ways to cherish relationships with others and understanding the value of life. While it was previously believed that we go through these stages linearly, we could actually move up and down the stages frequently as we process the grief we experience. This means that you may go from acceptance of our post-COVID life back down to the anger or depression stages when reading the news of evolving COVID-19 variants. Nevertheless, the theory goes that once we have truly processed our grief - however long that might be - we will have reached acceptance and meaning. This does not mean that everything is OK (after all, no one is truly ok about losing a job for example, or losing a loved one), but it does mean that we will find solace in the future. How to Cope with Grief? Grief is a painful experience- but it is a completely understandable and normal response to having lost someone or something meaningful to you. Certainly many of us have lost so much over the course of these two years. Perhaps you have already found your way of coping, and if so, do continue with them. But if you’re still wondering how to navigate through the grief you feel, here are a few strategies you could use.

  1. Giving Yourself Space to Feel your Emotions We live in a society where it’s almost frowned upon to experience grief. After all, how many of us were told to take a couple of weeks off of work after a bereavement only to be expected to return to work as usual when we get back in the office? Bottling up emotions doesn't make them go away – in fact, in many cases it grows bigger and bigger until you feel like imploding. So while it sounds counterproductive, allowing yourself time and space to grief actually helps with the grieving process. Give yourself space to cry when you feel sad, or to write down your feelings in a journal. You may also want to call family or friends to tell them how you feel. Other ways of expressing emotions are also encouraged. For example, if you find yourself feeling angry (A lot of people I’ve met say they want to smash a mirror in anger in their grief), you may want to channel that anger into your physical exercises: jumping a little harder or power walking - feeling the pressure in your feet as you stomp the ground. Other ways you could express your emotions are through drawing, painting or dancing. To help you be in the moment with your emotions, try out this 15-minutes relaxation exercise:

  2. Connecting with Others Oftentimes when we grief, we feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness. This is why it’s important to seek connection with others and reach out to people you trust. Ensure that the people you choose are those who are accepting of you and your grief – it might be tiring for you to be around people who would tell you to “cheer up!” or provide advice and solutions to your grief. For individuals who are far away from their loved ones, schedule in time for calls when you’re able to. Connecting with others doesn’t just mean your family and friends, it can also be about connecting with people in your community: you could be involved in the Mosque or Church community or join in group activities like a book club.

  3. Understanding your Needs Knowing what your needs are may seem ‘common sense’ but we’re actually pretty bad at knowing what they might be a lot of the time. Take time to notice what you need. Ask yourself questions: Do you need someone to talk to? Do you need space to be with your emotions? Do you feel overwhelmed and need help from family/friends/work colleagues? If you need to, create a “My Needs List” and write all the things you need for now. Once you start to understand your needs, you can find options or solutions to attain them. Remember to vocalise your needs as it’ll help others understand how better to help you during difficult times.

  4. Incorporating Self-Care into your Life Similarly to knowing what your needs are, incorporating self-care activities into our lives is something we find difficult to do. Yet, it is a very important aspect to our daily lives. Outdoor physical activities, for example, provide many benefits to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one – giving them a safe space away from grief and to also aid in processing emotions. Find whatever activity you feel might help to provide some peace in your life – even five minutes a day helps significantly. Here's a large list of activities you can refer to. You do not need to incorporate all of these activities, but pick one or two activities you would like to make into a habit in the week:

  5. Discovering who you are now When suffering loss, one might lose a sense of identity in the process. For a bereaved person, it could be the loss of their role as a son or daughter. If you’ve recently lost a job that you’ve put a significant amount of energy towards, it might mean you’re unsure of who you are now. This loss of identity could lead to anxiety and low mood. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel these emotions. Take time to reflect on your values. Ask yourself: what is important to you now? What brings you meaning in life? Make small value-based goals each day to work on. To help you identify your values, here is an extensive list of values you can refer to: To help you understand how to commit to living a life following your values, refer to this worksheet:

  6. Remembering and honouring your loved ones This point is specifically for those who have grieved a lost one. Losing a loved one feels like a large part of you has gone missing. What may help with the grieving process is to think about how you would like to remember or honour your loved one. Talking about them with close family and friends may be helpful. It may be particularly helpful to talk about them with individuals who also grieve their loss – if you’ve lost a parent, it might help to reminisce on good memories spent with them with your siblings. If you’re religious, take the time to pray for them. Or you may feel compelled to honour them through starting a movement – during the pandemic, there were many people who have spoken about the importance of being vaccinated after losing a loved one. However you would like to honour your loved one, allow it to be something personal to you.

The GHC Team

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