Ambiguous Loss: What the 5 Stages of Grief Look Like During the Pandemic
Normally, when you think about grief, the death of a loved one comes to mind. This is a concrete example of a loss - a definite end. The person was here and now they are not.
Experiencing this type of loss also comes with working through any number of the 5 stages of grief - not necessarily in order. Typical loss is often tied to specific emotions about the loss of that person, job, house, etc. You’re sad because you miss someone and they are no longer there. You might feel frustration and anger about losing someone too soon.
In this grief experience, it’s clear that the loss has occurred because you can see it.
So, what happens when the loss you’re experiencing isn’t so cut and dry?
Grief is less obvious and clear when it’s experienced in an unresolved circumstance. Situations where a loss has occurred, but it is an ongoing, unresolved event such as
- a missing person,
- a person who is no longer themselves due to a physical or mental health condition,or addiction,
- military deployment,
- emotional abandonment such as an absent parent.
This type of loss where it’s an ongoing situation with no end resolution is referred to as ambiguous loss.
The overarching feeling of losing your normalcy is grief. You’re grieving an ambiguous loss - one that we can’t physically see but see and experience every day since the pandemic began.
Stages of Grief
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
Do these sound like the roller coaster of emotions you’ve been experiencing since earlier this year when the Coronavirus started wreaking havoc all over the world? If denial, anger, bargaining, depression and/or acceptance feel all-too familiar, it’s because you are experiencing stages of grief.
These stages are not consecutive and don’t necessarily occur in order. In fact, many people stay stuck in one stage, or flip between two stages. Others bounce around each stage to some degree and can eventually feel a sense of resolution.
Here are the 5 stages in more detail and what they look like during the coronavirus pandemic:
Denial is refusing to acknowledge that something is true. In psychology, denial is when we deny the truth or reality as a defense mechanism in order to avoid facts that are too uncomfortable to accept as true, and so they deny them.
In ambiguous loss related to the Coronavirus pandemic, you can be in denial that the coronavirus exists, or that it is a problem to the scale we are told it’s problematic. You might refuse to accept mask mandates, insisting that the virus is the same as the flu and relate everything to media hype.
Anger is an emotion that gives you some sense of power, control, and significance. In grieving, anger is an attempt to have complete control over a situation where this is very little (if anything) that can really be controlled. There are many uncomfortable emotions and fears that happen with grief, and anger is an attempt to take control of those fears.
Instead of accepting the circumstances and acknowledging and experiencing the scary things, we look to blame others, refuse to comply with rules, lash out on social media or with other people, become hostile toward others.
Many people are angry during this time. Scroll through your social media feed on any day and you will see some very angry people, and their anger might even feel confusing or unclear what they are so angry about.
In terms of ambiguous loss and the pandemic, you may experience anger toward the virus, toward family members for their decision to social distance. Angry at restaurants. Angry about wearing masks, or angry at others for not wearing masks. Blaming the school district or teachers when there is stress at home with remote learning. Defying your state and local mandates regarding social distancing, masks, stay at home orders, etc.
When anger and denial start to break down, and you’re willing to see reality a little more for what it is, bargaining is often the next phase of grief. Think of bargaining as sort of an acknowledgement of some facts, but trying to grasp at control of the situation by giving it conditions. It’s like a compromise in an attempt to find an easier resolution.
Bargaining during this pandemic may look like finding some sense of trade-off between reality and what would make us feel a sense of normalcy. For example, it’s OK if I have some people over during stay at home orders as long as it’s just a few people, or just for a couple hours. I’ll stay away from social gatherings, but the grocery store is fine as long as I wash my hands. This whole things will be over by ______ and we can all go back to normal.
Quarantine, closed businesses and stay-at-home orders were enough to send a great number of people into a state of depression and despair. When we can no longer deny reality and start to understand that none of this is anything one person can control or change, it’s an overwhelming reality and often brings with it hopelessness.
Feeling hopeless and powerless to the pandemic situation is common. Despair and depression take it to a level of feeling that all is lost and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do now.
This may look like feeling sorry for yourself, thinking nothing will change, I’ll never find work, I’ll be broke and homeless. If I go to work, I will get sick and die.
Finally, acceptance is when you are able to come to a place where you can accept reality for what it is, without trying to change or alter it. Acceptance often brings with it compassion, and being able to acknowledge things as they are without attaching any feelings about who or what YOU are. The event, the pandemic, the loss becomes the state of reality and we can choose our actions and decisions. Acceptance allows us to stop fighting and denying reality and getting overwhelmed with what could be.
Acceptance during the pandemic may sound like I can’t control COVID but I can wear a mask, social distance, and wash my hands.
What complicates things during a pandemic is that overarching, persistent feeling of grief and loss that never quite seems to go away. That’s because the loss is not as clear-cut and it is not visible.
If you are struggling with the reality of this pandemic, you are definitely not alone. If you are feeling overwhelmed with trying to navigate through this time and have difficulty doing the day to day things like work and family, seeing a therapist who is skilled in the grieving process can be very beneficial!
Redeemed Life Counseling is here to help!
Call or email us today to set up an appointment with a therapist who can help you.
940-222-8552 or email email@example.com
Clinical Director and Co-Owner at Redeemed Life Counseling