After the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need time to grief and heal
[Repost from the Times of Israel]
February 2021, almost a full year after Israel confirmed its first coronavirus patient. Slowly but surely the world seems to brighten up a bit again: the virus mechanism is better understood, many knowledge gaps in our understanding of the pathophysiology (and treatment) of the coronavirus disease have been investigated, and worldwide vaccine programs have started up. Especially with the latter, a small spark of hope has been provided that there will be an end to the pandemic. And not just that, but the end might actually be near.
We all long for this end, and for our lives to return to normal: to how things used to be, before COVID turned everything that we thought was normal, stable, and unchangeable upside down. But as much as we long for the end of the pandemic to come, that doesn’t mean we should simply return to this state of (prior) normalcy. Or even more so, that we can, because the last year has been a year of many, many different struggles. And our minds need time to recover from the worry, fear, stress, and wave of losses:
- the fear of contracting the coronavirus, of becoming severely ill, or even of dying;
- the constantly changing restrictions on movement and travel, physical and social interactions, and more general outings in the public space;
- the daily hardships of working from home, of children not going to school, of sudden unemployment, of financial losses, of insecurities, and of sometimes not even being sure how to make it to the end of the day;
- the absolute lack of genuine and physical human-to-human interaction with family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues;
- and most of all, the grief: for those who are no longer with us. The worldwide 2.3 million lives lost, and over 5300 in our small society in Israel. Those beautiful souls, that maybe would’ve still been here, if it wasn’t for the virus.
These feelings and emotions of stress, worry, anxiety, fear, sadness, and longing are normal, especially when faced with the sudden insecurities and losses that came with the ongoing pandemic. And although the issue of the incredibly high mental health-burden sometimes has been raised – most commonly in a counter-reaction to tightening COVID restrictions – we really have to take care of our mental health, just as we do with our physical health.
Every individual copes with losses in a certain way, and while still continuing to face losses, most of us have probably up-to-now just been trying to stay afloat. Trying to anticipate any more that might come our way, while not longing too much for what was before the pandemic to avoid a complete crash of our daily life and lose the motivation to keep going. However, when g-dwilling we do soon get to the point of things returning to normal, we have to allow ourselves time to process what has happened, what we went through, and what feelings of loss we experienced.
Although at times difficult and overwhelming, with pain, emotions, and even physical complaints, grief is a highly necessary process to deal with losses in our lives. And the losses experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic really are no exception. When we take time to grieve and mourn, we heal from our mental burdens and reach a new state of normalcy, in which we are not scarred by our experiences, but have learned to accept and use them by turning them into hope and motivation.
Especially because grief is such a highly individual process, it is impossible to roll out a certain set of rules or guidelines on ”how to deal with post-COVID mental issues within our society”. There really just isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But there are for sure some suggestions that might help to process our experiences, before returning to a novel state of normalcy.
First and foremost, we need to stop acting as if everything has been, is, and will be absolutely fine. As if we haven’t been hit hard, really hard, and haven’t had to deal with all the prior mentioned conflicting emotions. When speaking out that we sometimes are not ok, or even really struggling, we don’t only allow ourselves to take a step back, but also identify points in our life that might need to be somewhat adjusted, or that we simply need others to help us with. Only by validating our experiences and the feelings that accompanied our reality, we allow them to get resolved, with the necessary support from those around us.
In a similar vein, we have to stop comparing our own hardships and emotions with those of others. There will always be someone that ”had it more difficult”, that was ”hit harder”, or that somehow is seen as more deserving of negative emotions. But you are you, and your emotions are not only real, but they are valid. And should – even must – be felt and acknowledged. But this doesn’t only apply to comparisons of how deep your feelings of grief might be, it also counts towards the exact opposite: of how well others might seem to be coping. Especially combined with not speaking out about our true feelings, this might not only be a false comparison based on different experiences and coping, but also based on a falsely projected image towards the outside world.
As we are slowly transgressing out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to start acknowledging the immense burden it has taken – and still is taking – on our mental health. We have to show more empathy towards each other, step away from the ”hakol beseder” mentality that keeps pushing us forward, without even realising what’s really affecting us, emotionally, on a daily basis. Because these times have been really difficult, and you are not the only one that has been struggling to adapt and cope. If we don’t allow ourselves the appropriate time to grieve and heal, we will face the consequences after. Only by working through these emotions can we really return to another normalcy: it won’t be the exact same, but we will make it feel safe and secure.
Although grief is a normal response to loss, some might experience this for prolonged periods of time or with such intensity, that it strongly interferes with daily life. This may lead to lasting mental health challenges. In these cases, please contact the appropriate mental health support, often reachable through your primary care physician.