Navigating Grief in Our New Normal

Emotionally processing what we’ve been through during this challenging year is a crucial step toward healing burnout and restoring our spirits.

This has been a period of loss for most people. Millions of Americans are grieving loved ones who died of COVID-19. Many are grappling with long-haul symptoms and disability. Beyond the physical impacts of the virus are the countless ways restrictions affected our professional, academic, family and social lives.

Give yourself a chance to mourn the losses you sustained this past year-plus.

Grief is a multifaceted emotional experience that is usually described as having five stages (originally explained by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross). But stages is a misleading word, because it makes grief seem like crossing a pond on stones, sequentially moving from one step to the next over an easy path to dry ground. In truth, grief is more like slogging through a bog, struggling through the muck of complex emotional terrain that sucks you in and is difficult to move through.

The first facet of grief is a state of shock and denial, when we’re numb to what’s happening. The mind needs time to catch up with what has occurred in order to process the new experience of the pandemic’s impact, the death, the diagnosis or the job loss.

As reality sets in, challenging emotions—usually sadness and/or anger—characterize the next aspect of the grieving process. We wish the experience hadn’t happened and feel incapable of improving the situation. Powerlessness shows up either as activated (angry) or collapsed (sad). Helpless anger can lead us to “give each other grief,” where we vent our frustrations on those around us. Or we might give up altogether or pull away in sorrow.

Regret is the fourth dimension of grief. Reflecting back on a deceased loved one, we think of the things we wish we’d done differently with this person to deepen the relationship between us. Or we wonder how we might have prevented a job loss or an illness. The mind churns out countless sentences that start with “If only…”

When we find our footing on the edge of grief’s bog, having slogged through our numbness, anger, sadness and regrets, we begin to discover the peace of accepting what is. Acceptance doesn’t mean we’re pleased with what’s happened. It just means that instead of fighting what cannot be changed, we turn our attention to areas where we can have a positive impact.

Do you recognize any of these emotions from your own reactions to the pandemic? Naming these experiences and understanding them as a normal part of the mourning process will help ease your grief. Addressing your feelings will lift the sluggishness of burnout and energize you to jump back into your life.

Photo Credit: Herman and Richter

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