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How to cope with grief during COVID-19

The sense of discomfort you’re feeling during the COVID-19 response could be grief. Whether you are grieving the loss of your loved one, job, financial stability, sense of normalcy or community, your feelings are valid. 

“Grief is a collection of emotions that manifest when something changes or has ended, often not by our own choosing,” says Mark Flanagan, LMSW, MPH, MA, a Piedmont outpatient oncology social worker. “I think the whole world is grieving on some level right now.”

Before COVID-19, he says, most people likely felt safe in their environment and relatively sure about plans for the future. There was no universal threat challenging these beliefs. Now, many face uncertainties about physical health, finances, work, school, relationships and future plans.

“This can be scary and we are not just manufacturing these fears – they’re a real threat,” says Flanagan. “It’s a lot to process, and we are all going through it together.”

Signs of grief

Flanagan says you may be dealing with grief if you experience:

  • Trouble concentrating or staying present in the moment

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Alterations in your eating patterns, such as consuming more sugar or processed foods

  • Decreased energy levels

  • Emotions that are all over the place (Flanagan says anxiety, exhaustion and boredom are all common right now)

  • Frequent arguments with others

  • Excessive compensating behaviors, like drinking more or spending all day in front of the TV or scrolling social media

Grief coping tips

Flanagan offers these tips for managing grief during the COVID-19 response:

  • Be honest about your feelings. “Honesty and authenticity are the antidotes to grief,” he says. “You don’t have to share how you feel with everyone, just people you feel safe around.”

  • Know your feelings are valid. Flanagan says you shouldn’t feel guilty about experiencing grief, even if your concerns seem minor compared to what’s happening in the world. “It’s normal to feel out of sorts, and it’s important not to stuff your feelings inside,” he says. “It’s appropriate to express your feelings even if you haven’t had a huge loss.”

  • Stay present with others. Just as you may need to share your feelings, do your best to listen when others share their concerns. Give them time to talk without interrupting or offering advice. That said, boundaries are essential.

  • Set boundaries. “If people are constantly unloading on you, work on setting boundaries,” says Flanagan. “For example, if someone calls you constantly to complain, limit the number of phone calls you take. You could tell them you’re not in a great place today and ask to talk about another subject. By no means do you have to be a doormat.”

  • Be patient with yourself. “If you aren’t as productive as you’d like, give yourself a break,” he says. “Cut tasks into smaller pieces to help you manage the day-to-day.” Perhaps instead of cleaning the whole house, you aim to clean one room a day.

  • Reach out to your loved ones. While physical distancing is necessary right now, you can still stay connected socially through video chats, phone calls, emails and texts.

  • Resist the urge to wallow for too long. “When you’re grieving, it’s tempting to wallow because the pain feels like too much,” he explains. “It’s important to add structure to your life. Do something where you are putting in productive energy, like gardening. That structure will help you stay motivated to do other things, like maintain your hygiene and routines.”

  • Center yourself. Flanagan recommends centering yourself at the beginning of the day with meditation or a walk outside.

  • Limit media consumption. He advises against checking the news first thing in the morning or before bed. “If you need to check the news, check it in the middle of the day,” he says. 

  • Take care of yourself. “We’re all going through a collective traumatic experience, and it’s important to take care of yourself, your health and your family,” he says. Sleep, exercise, nutrition and stress management practices are all essential to managing grief.

For additional support, Flanagan suggests the following online resources:

Contact your primary care provider or counselor for a telehealth visit if you have concerns about your mental or physical well-being.

Schedule your appointment online

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