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Over the last couple of weeks, we have been flooded with emails, comments, and DMs from people sharing that in this current crisis their grief feels worse. The list of reasons is long and the list of accompanying questions is even longer. So, above all else, let’s start with the one thing we can assure you: if your grief feels worse right now, you are not alone! There are a lot of reasons it is totally normal that a crisis can make grief feel worse.
1. Your bandwidth was already low. Grief can take everything you have, especially in the earliest days. When a crisis hits and you are already depleted, all of a sudden everything becomes more challenging. Things you could have managed before your loss feel insurmountable now. Aspects of your grief that you were managing before the stress or crisis suddenly seem seven times as tricky to manage.
2. The person who died was your ROCK. You might be grieving a person who took care of you. Maybe it is the person who handled practicalities and logistics. Perhaps who checked in on you to make sure you were okay. It could have been the person who made you feel safe. If this is your situation, you’re likely feeling even more acutely aware of their absence than ever. With that, your anxiety might be spiking.
3. You’re feeling especially alone. Grief is almost always an insolating experience. Layer on that quarantine and your feelings of loneliness might be skyrocketing. If you are living alone after your loss, no longer having contact with people by getting out of the house can start to feel like a crushing weight (especially for those extroverts out there).
4. You’re acutely aware that you’re living through this thing your loved one probably never could have imagined. Hmmm . . . that’s clearly a weird one to sum up. But if you get it, you get it. This is a scary and surreal time. Most of us have not lived through anything like this. And there is just this weird thing in grief that happens at moments like this when you realize the world feels fundamentally changed and it is a world your loved one never lived in. It makes us strangely more aware of the passage of time and that the world keeps turning.
5. You’re not thinking about your loved one because of the current crisis. In our emails and comments, we have seen a couple of themes. One is “I am thinking about my loved one all the time”. We'll get to that. The other is “I am so overwhelmed by the current crisis that I am barely thinking of my loved one or my grief”. The latter seems to be bringing up a lot of guilt for some people.
We won’t tell you not to feel guilty, because that’s not how guilt works. We will tell you that it is totally normal if your brain doesn't seem to be making space for your grief. Our brains can only handle so much and sometimes, in a self-protective way, they start triaging. They compartmentalize things for us, so we can focus on a pressing matter at hand. If this keeps up long term, it is something worth spending some time with. But give it some time for your acute stress response from this current crisis to settle down.
6. You’re annoyed everyone is complaining about stuff your grief has had you coping with for weeks/months/years. Are your friends suddenly complaining about isolation, overwhelm, and feelings of uncertainty about the future? Does it sound a lot like what you've been coping with for a long time?
Are these things your friends haven't historically been sympathetic about? Hopefully, this isn't coming up for you, but we have heard loud and clear that it is coming up for some people. It isn’t that you don’t empathize with your friends. Quite the opposite, in fact. You empathize deeply. It might just feel a little annoying that it took something like this for them to empathize with you.
7. You’re thinking about your loved one. A lot. Research has shown that we don’t just want and miss our loved ones during the good times. We actually really want and miss them in bad times. In times of pain, stress, crisis, and indecision, we often think of and want to be close to the person who died. We imagine what they would have said or done. We find strength in things they taught us. It is actually something that most people find helpful and comforting. But that doesn't change that it can also bring up tough, bittersweet feelings.
8. You're imaging that everything would just be better if they were still here. Don't get me wrong, we do this all the time in grief. But we ESPECIALLY do it when the going gets tough. When life is hard, we often go back to the moment our loved one died and we think, "if only they were still here, everything would be so much better".
Now, they would be alive, so that would obviously be better. Even if you were trapped at home fighting. Even if it was the same old boring day-to-day. They would be here, so that would mean a whole lot. But the extension that EVERYTHING would be better or easier . . . that's a different proposition.
No doubt having them around would make your baseline better - you wouldn't be coping with grief and this crisis. But as for the rest, we really have no way to know what sort of "different" it would be. In philosophy and psychology, they call this counterfactual thinking - constructing a whole, imaginary reality around things that didn't actually happen.
We imagine a world if things had gone differently. It might seem harmless enough, but if we're not aware of it, it can double-down our grief emotions. Why? Because now, instead of just coping with the stress of this crisis and desperately missing the person who died, we're also bitter or resentful or grieving this idea of what would have been. I know this one is a little abstract. But if you've felt it, you probably know what I mean.
These are some of the things we've heard already, but we know there are lots of other reasons this current crisis might mean your grief feels worse. Tell us about it in the comments. And let us know how you're coping!
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