Anticipatory grief and COVID-19

Grief is universal, though it’s not often that we all feel it at the same time. Such is the power and pervasiveness of COVID-19 and the ways in which it’s turned our lives upside down. Understandably, in recent weeks, you may be experiencing anxiousness and uncertainty. But what you may not realise is you may also be feeling anticipatory grief.

Yes, COVID-19 is a health crisis. But, it’s also a psychological and emotional one.

While many of us think of grief as a response to losing someone we love, it’s 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. And there’s a lot to be grieving right now.

Some have lost loved ones to coronavirus or are caring for family and friends who are ill. Others are facing financial uncertainty or have found themselves out of employment and without a source of income. And most, if not all of us, have a lingering sense that there may be more loss still to come.

That sense of anticipation is called “anticipatory grief”.

A mourning process can occur even when we sense that a loss is going to happen and we don’t know exactly what it is yet. We know the world around us will never be the same, but what we have 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 a few signs to look out for and some coping skills you can tap into.


Warning sign #1: You’re angry at things you can’t control

Finding yourself easily and persistently frustrated by things you can’t control is a very common manifestation of grief.

For example, working from home might have previously felt like a luxury, but now it feels more like a punishment. Your preferred brand of pasta not being available may not have been a big deal before, but suddenly you’re irate because the supermarket doesn’t have sufficient stock.

If small obstacles suddenly feel intolerable, you’re not alone. These obstacles often serve as unconscious reminders that things are not 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.


Warning sign #2: You’re resigned to the worst-case scenario

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 you pretend that it’s inevitable, you can trick yourself into thinking it won’t be so shocking or painful when it does come about.

But this is a bit of a trap. Pondering gloomy scenarios, feeling hopeless as events unfold or anxiously spinning out about things 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 a negative way, 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 worst possibilities, you may be doing more harm than good. Balance is key. 


Warning sign #3: You find yourself withdrawing

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, fearful and triggered, it makes sense that you might want to withdraw from others. If you can barely keep yourself afloat, avoiding other people can make you feel like you’re protecting yourself from their stress and anxiety.

This can backfire, though. Isolation can actually increase feelings of depression and anxiety.

Instead, you need to stay connected to others and you can do this by keeping firm boundaries. For example, you might say to a friend: “I’ve been having a really hard time with this COVID-19 stuff. Can we keep the conversation light today?”

Remember, there’s nothing wrong with setting whatever boundaries you need to take care of yourself.


What can you do to cope?

If you’re not sure about how to navigate anticipatory grief, there are some things you can do.

  • Validate your feelings. There’s no reason to feel ashamed or critical of the emotions you’re having. Everyone will experience grief differently and the feelings you’re having are not unreasonable during such a difficult time. Be kind to yourself.
  • Focus on the basics. Make sure you’re eating, staying hydrated and getting enough rest. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to maintain normalcy in the face of a crisis.
  • Connect with others. It can be tempting to shut everyone out when you’re overwhelmed and emotionally activated. Resist the urge. Human connection is a critical part of our wellbeing, especially now. While you might not be able to gather together with others for support, you can make a phone call or connect virtually through FaceTime or Zoom.
  • Prioritise rest and relaxation. Yes, it sounds absurd to tell people to relax during a pandemic. However, when your anxiety is heightened, it’s critical to try to de-escalate our bodies and brains.
  • Express yourself. Creative outlets are especially helpful right now. Try keeping a journal, dancing, knitting, painting – whatever helps you to process what’s happening for you emotionally.
  • Talk to a professional. Online therapy is a blessing right now. Chatting to a counsellor can be a vital resource for moving through grief and anxiety at this time.


Remember, you’re not alone

In fact, you’re far from it. So many of us are experiencing a grief process at this time of rapid change and collective uncertainty. You’re struggles are 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, but none of us have to be alone right now.

Coping with grief during COVID-19

The spread of the coronavirus has taken a huge emotional toll on the community.

It’s changed the way we communicate with our friends and colleagues. It’s changed how we fill our leisure time. And it’s changed how – and if – we can spend time with our families.

Importantly, it’s changed how we experience grief. However, by being aware of your emotional, social and spiritual health, and deliberately focusing on your own self-care, you can mitigate the effects of this ‘grief pandemic’.

Find out more at yourloss.com.au