Upset, Exhausted, or Anxious? It Could Be Grief

You don’t have to experience a loss to grieve. Here’s how to get back on track.

November 22, 2020

Have you recently felt anxiety, guilt, exhaustion, or disbelief over what’s happening around you? There are many stressors right now. The number of COVID-19 deaths alone is immense and hard to process. On top of this, the news exposes us to stories of others’ pain, which can cause something called “secondary trauma.”

“We are empathic beings,” said McLean’s chaplain, Rev. Angelika A. Zollfrank, MDiv, BCC. “When we are aware that another human has died or is suffering, it touches us. We can’t help it.”

Zollfrank has observed these waves of anguish and discomfort crashing against our shores since the pandemic began. “While we are dealing with an increase of COVID cases, there is also a general feeling of upset,” Zollfrank said. “It leaves people feeling exhausted. It may not be clear what we’re feeling, but whenever we’re off our game a little, it might be a great moment to ask, ‘Is it possible I’m grieving something?’”

Loss of a Loved One

Those who have lost someone to COVID-19 have had more difficulty finding support than they would have pre-pandemic.

Even mourning has changed: People are careful about stopping by to express condolences; they may call or send an email instead. The experience is not the same as walking over to neighbors and hugging them or bringing a casserole dish and sitting with them for half an hour.

Close up of person wearing face mask
Loss of loved ones is not the only thing we are grieving for during these extraordinary times

“It’s a time when all the ways in which we give and receive comfort in relationships have changed,” Zollfrank said. “It’s incredibly hard when we’re craving that comfort and losing it—or when we desperately want to offer support and cannot.”

Support and self-help groups, like those hosted at McLean, can be helpful during times of extraordinary stress. Many of these groups have moved online to become virtual meetings during the pandemic.

Grief Isn’t Consistent—It’s Full of Ups and Downs

Grief, by its nature, is self-centered. When we are hurt, we turn inward in an attempt to pull away from the things around us. We may then feel as if we are getting better, only to be hit by another wave of sadness/hurt.

When one feels weighed down by grief, it can be helpful to remember the feeling will not last forever.

It is important for people to notice if they are isolating to a degree that is self-destructive or self-limiting. When grief becomes a dull, never-ending pain that cannot be put into perspective or when it leads to isolation, sleeplessness, or significant anxiety, it is a sign to seek help from a mental health professional.

“Grief around major world events is not simple grief,” said David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP, director of McLean’s Spirituality and Mental Health Program.

“Circumstances of mass uncertainty and high levels of stress, such as the grief experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic is much more complicated, nuanced, and multifaceted,” added Rosmarin. “The grief some people may be experiencing about others’ losses could actually be anxiety about what could happen to themselves.”

Rosmarin said that when people grieve it is important for someone to think about which emotions are being stirred up due to their specific situation. Are they simply feeling a sense of loss, or is there an issue they are afraid of? If there is a concern, it’s important to talk about the fear as well as other emotions.

How Can We Cope With Grief and Loss?

“We can find ways of connecting and hugging through our words, through our eyes,” said Zollfrank. “In whatever way we can do it. Physical distancing does not preclude contact. We just have to be more deliberate about reaching out.”

Other ways of coping with grief and opening up include embracing nature or expressing ourselves creatively. Even though many forms of artistic expression, such as band and choir practice, are currently bygone activities, it is still important for us to express ourselves through music and art.

Although many of us are busier than ever, we can set aside time for reflection, reverie, contemplation, or prayer. If time seems limited, these practices can be combined with other activities, such as walking or waiting for a virtual meeting to begin.

Zollfrank reminds us that grief is not a hopeless state

Finding Meaning

Rosmarin emphasized that the acceptance of major events is key. “We really can’t control much when it comes to world events,” he said. “Situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic humble us: They challenge us but can also be liberating.” He added that we can find inspiration within the challenges: medical innovations taking place, health care workers who have put themselves on the front lines, and inspiring acts of international diplomacy and policy.

Zollfrank emphasized that grief, despite its heaviness, is an “alive” experience. It is a time when every kindness and connection can seem magnified, a time when we can look to others to see how they are coping and to share what we are going through. Since the pandemic began, she has noticed grief, but she has also observed people becoming more centered in their spiritual and religious practices.

“Do we ultimately know why the pandemic happened?” she said. “No. But we need to somehow figure out how to get something positive out of it or just something that’s meaningful, rather than something that is just devastating.”