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It’s OK to Feel Grief – and Whatever Else You’re Feeling Right Now

Tips for navigating the emotions of a public health crisis

sad and depressed woman sitting on bed

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it. It’s changed daily routines, limited social interactions and shaken our sense of safety. And mental health experts want you to know that it’s OK to feel sad about all of that.

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Grief is a natural response to loss – whether that’s the loss of a loved one, or the loss of your sense of normalcy.

“We are experiencing a lot of disappointment right now — in both small and big ways — and grief is going to be a factor,” says clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP. “It’s really important that we process this and stay connected to other people in safe ways.”

How do we go about dealing with all of these difficult and unexpected feelings (and even physical symptoms) bubbling up? There’s no right or wrong way. But here are some ideas that may help you cope with current events.

Look through the lens of grief

The stages of grief can provide a helpful framework for navigating these complex emotions. Experts recognize these stages as:

  • Denial.
  • Anger.
  • Bargaining.
  • Despair.
  • Acceptance.

But, they also know that people don’t step neatly from one stage to the next in this exact order.

“Grief can come in waves and change on a very regular basis,” Dr. Sullivan says.

“Our feelings can change on a daily, or even an hourly, basis.”

So it’s normal to go from feeling despair one day (When will this all be over?) to anger the next (I hate that I had to cancel the vacation I’ve had planned for months.)

“The first thing we need to do is to recognize that it’s normal to have these waves of emotions that are happening on a regular basis,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Acknowledge the loss

There are many types of losses that are happening right now for you and and for many others. Maybe someone you know got sick with COVID-19. Maybe you lost your job. Maybe you’re missing simply hugging friends and family members.

“Those are all very sad, difficult things for people to manage,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Feel what you’re feeling

Whether you feel overwhelmed, anxious, powerless or anything else, it can help to identify and name these emotions.

“It can be quite powerful to sit with those feelings for a few moments — to really recognize those emotions and normalize them,” Dr. Sullivan says.

But put a time limit on it. Dr. Sullivan suggests giving yourself five minutes to feel that emotion, and then moving on to something that you know is a positive coping skill for you.

“It’s important for us to accept where our feelings are at the moment and process through them, and then move into a more positive position of acceptance,” she says.

Identify your own best coping mechanisms

“This is a time when people need to become innovative and develop their own individual sense of coping that works for them during this time,” Dr. Sullivan says. Some examples might include:

  • Deep breathing.
  • Mindfulness exercises.
  • Journaling.
  • Talking with another person.
  • Going for a walk.

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“If it comes to a point where someone can’t handle these feelings on their own, they need to seek mental health help,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Fight the urge to disengage

If you tend to withdrawal when times get tough, know that staying connected is a powerful tool for coping during hard times. Whether that comes in the form of video chatting or sending a good old-fashioned letter, staying in touch with family, friends, neighbors and coworkers can help you keep a positive attitude.

Many trained mental and behavioral health professionals are also seeing patients through virtual visits, so if you’re having trouble coping, contact your healthcare provider for a referral.

Focus on what you can control

When there is so much uncertainty about the future, it’s easy to get carried away playing out the worst case scenarios in your head. Will I or someone I know get COVID-19? How long will we have to stay socially distanced? Will things ever go back to normal?

“Anticipating negative events can bring a sense of anxiety or fear,” Dr. Sullivan says.

Instead of agonizing over the things you can’t know or control, be aware of what you do have control of. For example, you can choose how much news or social media you consume in a day. You can decide what you eat. Be mindful about these choices, and focus on staying in the present.

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Be open to joy

Allow yourself to find joy and gratitude in the small things, like a video chat with family members, or the rush of fresh air when you open a window or step outside. If you’re under a shelter-in-place order, find ways to appreciate the opportunity to step back from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and be home.

­­Helping kids cope with disappointment

A change in routine can be especially tough for kids. They might not understand why school is canceled, or think it’s unfair that they can’t play with their friends or see their grandparents.

“Our kids have their own misconceptions about what’s occurring,” Dr. Sullivan says. “I think it’s important for us to give them the appropriate information at their age-appropriate level.”

That might include teaching them what they can do to reduce the spread of germs, and limiting their exposure to what’s on TV and social media.

“One of the other things we’ve done in my family is help the kids find the positives,” Dr. Sullivan says. “Instead of thinking, I can’t be with my friends, challenge them to think of what they can do, like making cards for people who are alone or might be at risk for sadness, isolation, depression or anxiety.”

And remember that kids look to the adults in their life for example. If you can model how to stay calm and safe, that will help your kids, too.

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