When Grief and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) collide, we feel like we’ll collapse. The Coronavirus is not only serious, it’s a pandemic. Like grief, COVID-19 is powerful, persistent and painful. The virus makes us fearful and our grief has made us more vulnerable. It’s a rough combination. Today, let’s consider what this fear-reality looks like to our brains; how it makes our bodies feel; and the way it affects our emotions.
First, what is fear when coupled with grief? How does it look and feel? Unlike fruit on a tree, fear is not visible. Fear is more like a threat, an internal force that feels as though something dangerous is happening or about to happen. Our bodies rev up as our broken hearts thump in our ears, our chests, or both. Our limbs feel weak and maybe we’re a bit dizzy and feel even weepier. Our inhalations and exhalations are shallower and now – because of our grief – are more frequent. There’s also a constant lump in our throats and it’s all too much to swallow. “Is this a heart attack or a panic attack?” we ask ourselves.
Second, what does fear – on top of grief – cause us to do? Sometimes, we might lash out at small provocations. The fear may cause us to think we’ll lose our jobs, our 401K’s, our homes, and our businesses. Our grief causes us to think we might even lose our minds. But, understand that fear is, in warranted circumstances, necessary. It is the “fight or flight” emotional response, a primal unconscious reaction to an immediate and alarming situation.
We feel compelled to respond because there’s an internal pressure deep within a part of our brain (the temporal lobe) where the amygdala resides. This amygdala sends out a signal for the “fight or flight” stress response. Thanks to neuroscientists, we now have a wealth of data about the amygdala’s powerful sensitivity and its formidable capacity for storing old trauma. For example, PTSD from soldiers’ Military experiences and other horrific and traumatic life circumstances – like death of a loved one – are stored there in the amygdala. So, these stored traumatic memories can be instantly aroused by frightening stimuli in a present-day circumstance (think the COVID-19). These scary times tap into our abiding grief making our reactions even more intense.
Third, what is our reaction? Sometimes people react by becoming hyper-vigilant. They worry – nonstop – in a real or in an imagined fearful situation. If the situation seems even vaguely (unconsciously) familiar to a previous real situation (like the loss we are living with) it can feel paralyzing. (If one has a mental health diagnosis like OCD or Bi-Polar Disorder, it could be even more terrifying to manage. I would suggest staying close to your therapist or doctor here, no reason to suffer even more if they might offer additional help.)
Sometimes people respond in the opposite direction: they diminish or deny there’s even a crisis. That’s not a healthy response during this pandemic.
Here are a few more concrete tools to manage both fear and grief when they collide.
Step One: Be pro-active and stay calm. I know this sounds easy to do but be assured of the benefits these behaviors offer. Clinical studies show us how calm people really do make better decisions. So, during this pandemic, reduce your TV viewing, modify your internet browsing, and excessive phone checking. (This is especially important if you find yourself unable to sleep or function.) Draw on facts about what people did in previous periods of history to survive plagues and wars, diseases, deaths, and natural disasters.
Step Two: Social distancing, vigilant and frequent hand washing, covering one’s mouth when sneezing, yawning, coughing, nose-blowing. Curb your desires to touch, kiss and hug.
Wave to your neighbors and offer small pleasantries, “How’s your family managing?” Send a text, card or email to your First Responders: local fire department, police department, Emergency Medical Service and First Aid Squads. Don’t forget physicians, nurses and medical personnel. Are these helpers present on Facebook? Cheer them on; these people are heroic in their efforts during an emergency especially. Don’t forget your local spiritual people, nuns, priests and rabbis; they need support, too. Remember your local businesses in any way possible; their stress level is monumental and undeniable. When you help someone else, even in a small way, you will contribute to easing their struggles. Plus, it will make you feel better.
Step Three: Recognize that most people don’t like confinement so practice patience and tolerance for your own family members’ eccentricities. This is a biggie; they are yours and you are theirs. Maybe you have a family member who shuts down when stressed-out and sad and others become super-vigilant and chatter constantly. Remember, they are grieving in their own way. Help them by loving them, listening to them, or distracting them. Also, laugh at some of the weird things we all do and at your own behavior, too! Remember laughter lowers stress, raises endorphin levels, and makes us feel hopeful. And, don’t forget, never allow yourself to feel guilty for smiling or laughing while you are mourning. The person you love and miss would want that for you; he or she doesn’t want you to suffer anymore than your are and, I know that you are in pain, because I suffer with personal losses and am vigilant by nature.
I also strongly recommend that we all talk openly about our feelings. Yes! Stretch that communication muscle! For example, of course you miss your loved one and are so lonely for them because they, as you, are self-quarantining. Or, if they have died, they are absent in the material world. It’s a searing pain and we miss circumstances attached to them (whether deceased or self-isolating) like driving them to the store or taking them to church or school. “I can’t believe my child is no longer with me on this earth” I hear several times a week. It breaks my heart for them and for myself. “When will this pandemic be over?” we ask one another. Living with the unknown is so difficult and anxiety-inducing.
My friends, much of the pain we carry in our hearts is universal. I believe that universality is a peaceful place where we can all be united; all can be supportive; all can be one. It’s a great hope I hold onto and maybe you can hold onto it, too.
In closing, here’s a phrase of mine that eases some of my fear and pain and relaxes my nervous system. Maybe my mantra will help your fear and your pain, too. It’s from the fourteenth-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, who said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” May we all be well. I believe we shall.