Grieving the Losses of Coronavirus

There’s a term to describe the kind of loss many of us are experiencing: ambiguous grief. In ambiguous grief, there’s a murkiness to the loss. A typical example could be a person whose spouse has dementia: you’re still married but your spouse no longer recognizes you. (Your partner is alive but “not there.”) Another might be the inability to get pregnant. (You’re grieving the loss of a child you haven’t yet had.)

With Covid-19, on top of the tangible losses, there’s the uncertainty about how long this will last and what will happen next that leaves us mourning our current losses as well as ones we haven’t experienced yet. (No Easter, no prom, and what if this means we can’t go on summer vacation?)

Ambiguous grief can leave us in a state of ongoing mourning, so it’s important for us to stay grounded in the present. Instead of futurizing or catastrophizing — ruminating about losses that haven’t actually happened yet (and may never happen) — we can focus on the present by adopting a concept I call “both/and.” Both/and means that we can feel loss in the present and also feel safe exactly where we are — snuggled up with a good book, eating lunch with our kids who are home from school, taking a walk with a family member, and even celebrating a birthday via FaceTime.

We may have lost our sense of normalcy, but we can still stay present for the ordinary right in front of us.

Although loss is universal, the ways in which we grieve are deeply personal. For instance, one college student who’s grieving the loss of a missed spring quarter might want to isolate in her bedroom, while another who’s grieving the same loss might need a lot of family time. Similarly, one person in a couple might deal with loss by staying hyper-informed and discussing the latest news updates over dinner, while the other might want to binge-watch “Love Is Blind” and not talk about what’s going on at all. For some, the loss of stability leads to a reckoning with mortality, while for others, it leads to a rehaul of one’s closet or stress-baking.

In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. Even Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s familiar stages of grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — aren’t meant to be linear. Everyone moves through loss in a unique way, so it’s important to let people do their grieving in whatever way works for them without diminishing their losses or pressuring them to grieve the way you are. A good rule of thumb: you do you (and let others do them).


Lori Gottlieb is a therapist and the author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.”


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