Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis.
One of the harshest realities of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the staggering loss of life, both as a result of the virus itself and indirectly due to reduced availability of hospital services and treatments.
This has been traumatic for all involved. For those dedicated to saving lives, working in the health service or supporting people in the care sector who have been witness to so much suffering and loss of life, the impact will have been particularly severe. Many will experience powerful trauma reactions as well as fear, sadness, anger and frustration. Accompanying these experiences will likely be a changed view of the world as increasingly dangerous and threatening.
Equally, for those who have had to stand back, remain under lockdown and been unable to be with loved ones to support them through their suffering or be with them in their last hours, the task has been unimaginable. The trauma of being unable to help and the grief at suddenly losing someone close has been devastating.
Whether losing a loved one, a friend, a teacher or a colleague, or losing someone entrusted to your care, a common thread of powerlessness runs through all these experiences of trauma and grief.
Stages of grief
Words can’t do justice to how difficult it can be to come to terms with trauma and grief. Everyone finds their own way through, and although there are some common stages that people tend to progress through there is no set order to these. There is no typical response to loss, just as there is no typical loss.
However, understanding the stages of grief and grieving can help us understand our own and others’ reactions to loss and build compassion for ourselves and others.
Associated with feelings of shock and confusion, denial is often the first stage of grief. We might feel emotionally numb, try to shut out the reality of the situation and wonder if we can keep going. Denial is an important part of the grieving process as it allows us space to process only as much of the loss as we are able to, whilst compartmentalising the full extent of our experience until we are ready to face it.
Allowing ourselves to feel anger and other distressing emotions such as anxiety and fear, is part of the healing process. It is natural to feel angry as this gives us something to hold onto when we feel so much around us is uncertain. When we can direct our emotions outwards we gain a sense of strength. The more we allow ourselves to truly feel the anger, the more it will begin to fade as we start to heal.
Bargaining is about the ‘What ifs’: what if I had taken them to hospital sooner, what if I had stopped them going to the shops. It is an attempt to make sense of our own role, to address the guilt we feel and to find a way out of the pain of loss.
As we start to realise the loss is real, that our loved one did not get better and is not coming back, or that we really had no control over the survival of those entrusted to our care, we can become overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, hopelessness and emptiness. We might wonder what is the point of life, and experience an urge to withdraw from family, friends and life.
Gradually we learn that our lives have been changed forever and we start to adapt, initially through just having fewer bad days. We begin to understand the reality of the loss, that our loved one is gone and will not be coming back and that we are living in a new reality which is permanent. As time progresses we start to re-engage in life again and grow and evolve with it.
When we experience trauma and loss our world is turned upside down and our feelings of safety can be challenged. Where we once thought we understood the order of things, we are suddenly faced with a new world of pain, anger and fear.
Learning to stay in touch with our emotions, to care about our own wellbeing and notice when we are struggling is key to getting through. When we are able to have self-compassion, treating ourselves with kindness rather than judgement and criticism, when we stop telling ourselves we should have done something differently or blaming ourselves for not coping better, we can start to grow through the experience.
Although the emotions associated with trauma and loss can be overwhelming and we may want to push them away with all our might, it is important to remember that however all-consuming and unmanageable they seem, they will never be bigger than you are.
Turning on our parasympathetic nervous system with grounding techniques allows us to calm these difficult emotions, helping us to feel safe and building our confidence that we can cope.
The experience of grounding can be drawn from connecting with our senses, finding familiar and comforting smells, sounds, images and touch that can help to calm us. Perhaps the smell of clean clothes, fresh-cut grass, herbs or spices, or aromatherapy oils; listening to soothing music or the sounds of nature; visualising an image of a place where you have felt safe and content; the feel of a soft blanket or a smooth stone. We are all different, so finding your own grounding object or strategy is important.
It is important to note that coming to accept the loss is not just about saying goodbye to a loved one, but also about finding a way of inviting them into our lives again, of finding a new connection with them.
Freud suggests that the completion of the mourning process requires those that are left behind to develop a new reality which no longer includes what has been lost. But . . . it must be added that full recovery from mourning may restore what has been lost. Full recollection and retention may be as vital to recovery and wellbeing as forfeiting memories. (Meyerhoff 1982, p:111*)
Similarly, the founder of Narrative Therapy, Michael White’s metaphor of ‘saying hullo’, as a way of incorporating the lost relationship into our lives, opens up a possibility to reclaim our relationship with our loved one. Through this process of establishing a new relationship with the person we have lost, we eventually come to a place of being able to remember them with more love than pain, and to find meaning in our lives again.
In talking here about the impact on individuals, it is important also to acknowledge the trauma and grief we have experienced collectively as a nation.
This parallel process of trauma and grief has led us all to feel disbelief and denial, to experience anger at how things have been managed or feel overwhelmed by thoughts of ‘if only…’ concerned with how things might have been different. We may feel depressed, hopeless about the future and helpless at the lack of control we have over how things unfold.
It is important to remember that these feelings may be uncomfortable or distressing, but they are normal reactions and they are temporary. They will gradually heal, as we adapt to a new normal, pick ourselves up and carry on. And we will do this most successfully if we support each other with patience, compassion and love.
If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.
*Meyerhoff, B. (1982). Life history among the elderly: Performance, visibility and remembering. In Ruby, J. (ed), A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.