Most, if not all of us, have a lingering sense that more loss is still to come.
While many of us might think of “grief” as being a response to losing someone we love, grief is actually a much more complex phenomenon.
Grappling with any kind of loss can involve a grief process, even if that loss isn’t exactly tangible.
There’s a lot to be grieving right now with the recent COVID-19 outbreak.
There’s a collective loss of normalcy, and for many of us, we’ve lost a sense of connection, routine, and certainty about the future. Some of us have already lost jobs and even loved ones.
And most, if not all of us, have a lingering sense that more loss is still to come. That sense of fearful anticipation is called “anticipatory grief,” and it can be a doozy.
A mourning process can occur even when we sense that a loss is going to happen, but we don’t know exactly what it is yet. We know the world around us will never be the same — but what exactly we’ve lost and will lose is still largely unknown to us.
This can be difficult to come to terms with.
If you’re wondering if you might be experiencing this kind of grief, here are some signs to look for, as well as some coping skills you can tap into at this time:
Maybe you’re feeling a sense of dread, as though something bad is just around the corner, but it’s unclear what it might be. (This is often described as “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”)
Hypervigilance is also a really common way this shows up. You might be scanning for possible “threats” — for example, reacting strongly whenever someone coughs or sneezes nearby, becoming agitated with a stranger who isn’t properly social distancing, or panicking whenever the phone rings.
This can also manifest as persistent anxiety and overwhelm, like “freezing up” when faced with decision making or planning, or procrastinating more often to avoid complex tasks.
If you’re anticipating danger or doom, it makes sense that staying emotionally regulated would be more challenging right now.
Finding yourself easily and persistently frustrated is a very common manifestation of grief.
For example, working from home might have previously felt like a luxury, but maybe now it feels more like a punishment. Not getting your preferred brand of boxed macaroni and cheese might not have felt like a big deal before, but suddenly you’re irate at your local store for not having ample stock.
If small obstacles suddenly feel intolerable, you’re not alone. These obstacles often serve as unconscious reminders that things aren’t the same — triggering grief and a sense of loss, even when we aren’t aware of it.
If you find yourself getting riled up more often, be gentle with yourself. This is a completely normal reaction during a time of collective trauma.
One of the ways that people often cope with anticipatory grief is to try to mentally and emotionally “prepare” for the worst case scenario.
If we pretend that it’s inevitable, we can trick ourselves into thinking it won’t feel so shocking or painful when it does come to that.
However, this is a bit of a trap. Ruminating about morbid scenarios, feeling hopeless as things unfold, or anxiously spinning out about everything that could go wrong won’t actually keep you safe — instead, it will just keep you emotionally activated.
In fact, chronic stress can impact your immune system in negative ways, which is why it’s so important to practice self-care during this time.
Preparedness is important, but if you find yourself fixated on the most apocalyptic and disastrous possibilities, you may be doing more harm than good. Balance is key.
When we feel overwhelmed, fearful, and triggered, it makes a lot of sense that we might withdraw from others. If we can barely keep ourselves afloat, avoiding other people can feel like we’re protecting ourselves from their stress and anxiety.
This can backfire, though. Isolation can actually increase feelings of depression and anxiety.
Instead, we need to stay connected to others — and we can do that by keeping firm boundaries about what kinds of support we can offer.
Some examples of boundaries you could set right now:
- I’ve been having a really hard time with this COVID-19 stuff. Can we keep the conversation light today?
- I don’t think I can talk about this right now. Is there something we can do to distract ourselves right now?
- I’m struggling at the moment and not able to support you in that way right now. I’m happy to (play a game/send a care package/check in by text later on) instead if that would be helpful.
- I don’t have a lot of capacity to support you right now, but I’ll email you some links later on that I think could be useful if you’d like that.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with setting whatever boundaries you need to take care of yourself!
A lot of what we’re talking about with anticipatory grief is really just our body’s trauma response: namely, being in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.
When we feel threatened, our bodies react by flooding us with stress hormones and amping us up, just in case we need to react quickly to a threat.
One of the side effects of this, though, is that we end up feeling worn down. Being so activated on a daily basis can really tire us out, making exhaustion a pretty universal grief experience.
This is particularly difficult at a time when so many people are talking about how productive they’ve been while self-isolating. It can feel pretty lousy to hear about others starting new hobbies or projects while we can barely get out of bed.
However, you’re far from alone in your pandemic-induced exhaustion. And if all you can do right now is keep yourself safe? That’s more than good enough.
If you’re not sure how to navigate this form of grief, there are a few things you can do:
Validate and affirm your feelings. There’s no reason to feel ashamed or critical of the emotions you’re having. Everyone will experience grief differently, and none of the feelings you’re having are unreasonable during such a difficult time. Be kind to yourself.
Bring it back to basics. It’s especially important to stay fed, hydrated, and rested at this time. If you’re struggling with this, I list some tips on basic self-care in this article and some useful apps to download here.
Connect with others, even when you don’t want to. It can be tempting to shut everyone out when you’re overwhelmed and activated. Please resist the urge! Human connection is a critical part of our well-being, especially now. And if your loved ones are driving you up a wall? There’s also an app to connect with people at this time.
Prioritize rest and relaxation. Yes, it sounds absurd to tell people to relax during a pandemic. However, when our anxiety is so activated, it’s critical to try to deescalate our bodies and brains. This article has a pretty exhaustive list of resources if your anxiety is heightened at this time.
Express yourself. Creative outlets are especially helpful right now. Try journaling, dancing, collaging — whatever helps you to process what’s happening for you emotionally! I’ve also got some journal prompts and self-care exercises in this grief zine if you’re interested.
Talk to a professional. Online therapy is a blessing right now. If you can access it, therapists are a vital resource for moving through grief and anxiety at this time. I’ve included some therapy resources here, and I’ve also shared some of my best teletherapy tips in this article.
In fact, you’re far from it. So many of us are experiencing a grief process around this time of rapid change and collective fearfulness.
You are worthy of support, and the struggles you’re having are completely understandable, especially given everything that’s shifting around us.
Be gentle with yourself — and if you need more support, don’t hesitate to reach out. We may be self-isolating and even lonely in the weeks to come, but none of us have to be alone right now.
Sam Dylan Finch is an editor, writer, and digital media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline. Find him on Twitter and Instagram, and learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.