Mind Mental Health Health Coronavirus

What does grief look like in this pandemic?

Grief is understood as a response to loss. While it’s usually associated with the loss of a loved one, it can also be a valuable way to understand the emotional responses we experience to a wide range of losses felt during this pandemic. A world-renowned expert on studying grief, David Kessler argues that we are currently experiencing “collective grief” in coping with the vast uncertainties that this pandemic has brought into our lives. The ways in which we are experiencing loss differ from person to person, depending on unique circumstances. For some people, beloved family or friends may have passed away during this time. Others, even with the knowledge that their loved ones are alive and relatively safe, may be coping with the loss of a job or the loss of a sense of home. Everyone in one form or another has lost a sense of stability. This holds true for both the present and in planning for the future.

About a month after travel restrictions derailed my academic semester, I sat in front of my laptop talking to a career counselor at my university. This was the first time I heard the word grief used to describe my experience of reeling from the shock of returning home. With her position, my counselor had a unique perspective on how undergraduate students were coping with this pandemic.

She noted that it was around this time that students were setting up appointments with her to discuss alternative plans for internships during the summer. It seemed to her that students were transitioning away from a numb state of denial, the commonly acknowledged first stage of grief, towards a sense of acceptance. It’s vital to avoid interpreting the different stages like a clear, linear progress to feeling better. Rather, they offer a helpful way to conceptualize different elements of grief.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone has fully accepted the consequences of this pandemic.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone has fully accepted the consequences of this pandemic. Regardless, each and every effort made to reconcile with our reality and move forward should be acknowledged. For me, this means getting out of bed in the morning, walking the dogs, and eating breakfast. It may sound basic, but it was the most I could muster in the early days of this pandemic. It helped me feel more in control of my life when everything else about my routine had been taken away.

Interpreting our emotional responses to this pandemic through the framework of grief is incredibly comforting. It encourages us to honor our feelings and not trivialize them. In this productivity-driven world we are conditioned to ignore any negative feelings that keep us from fulfilling our responsibilities and just move on. Rebelling against that, acknowledging grief means fostering greater awareness of our mental well-being and seeking support when we need it. 

Grief takes on a particularly consuming nature in this pandemic.

Grief takes on a particularly consuming nature in this pandemic. I personally find myself grieving the past, present, and the future. I agonize over opportunities I didn’t take advantage of in the past. I grieve the present reality of being away from my friends. I’m in turmoil about the future, grieving what could have been and hoping for a good alternative. And now, just a month away from starting my third-year of university, I have the distinct feeling that my time as an undergraduate student is slipping through my fingers.

As someone who held on to the certainty of a well-planned four years of university, this upsets my sense of stability. It provokes a feeling of grief for the ideal university experience that I had painted in my head, a vision that no longer holds true as we adapt to our current realities. In the midst of this, it’s all the more admirable that I can accomplish everyday tasks like waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, and being productive in any capacity. Acknowledging that I’m experiencing a form of grief has helped me become more attuned to the ways in which I need to practice self-care, reach out for support, and avoid catastrophizing.

Grief doesn’t have to be a scary word, sometimes it can be a liberating one that helps you better understand how you’re feeling, reassure yourself that those feelings are valid, and seek out appropriate resources for support. Thinking about our emotions in the context of grief can be a difficult reckoning. Nevertheless, it has a lot of value in encouraging us to be kind and patient with ourselves and others as we come to terms with all the changes in our lives in this pandemic.

By Tusshara Nalakumar Srilatha

Tusshara Nalakumar Srilatha is pursuing a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and Psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi. Tusshara writes poetry and short stories, runs workshops for young girls to promote female empowerment through education, and facilitates dialogue about community at her university. Tusshara's creative work, written primarily in English with the incorporation of Tamil, often explores her evolving experience of identity. She is currently based in Manila, Philippines.