Who hasn’t lost something from this pandemic?
A loved one. A job. A home. A relationship. A semester at college.
All the celebrations that changed: graduations, weddings, and family parties. All the everyday routines, too: work, school, church, gym. Every part of life has been touched or transformed in the past year.
How can we start to deal with the griefs of this pandemic, big and small?
Identifying the different ways grief manifests can be helpful, but only up to a point. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the theorist behind the five famous stages of grief, never argued that they were a tidy progression. She knew — as every grieving person learns — that grief is a scrambled mess. This year has illustrated this truth: depression one day, denial the next, anger simmering or erupting along the way.
What might be more helpful for us is the metaphor of learning to carry grief.
Picture moving into every apartment, house, or dorm room of your past. You likely had plenty of heavy stuff that needed to be carried inside: boxes, books, and furniture.
It might sound obvious, but before you could carry something big, you had to know what size it was and figure out if you needed help. If it was big and heavy enough, you asked a friend and shouldered the weight together.
Same goes for grief. It’s heavy, it’s hard, and if we try to carry it alone, we’ll pay the price (just like that one time you thought you could shove the couch up the stairs solo).
Given how much grief we’re holding right now — individually and collectively — here are a few strategies for helping to carry the weight these days.
Find new language
None of us have lived through a time like this. We need new words to capture our changing reality (doomscrolling, anyone?).
Instead of living with that vague sense of pandemic dread, let yourself give each grief a name. What part of what you’re feeling is sorrow or fear? What part is confusion or exhaustion? What part is envy of others? Where are you feeling frustrated, and where are you truly devastated?
When every loss clumps together — your grandmother’s death AND your lost income AND your online semester AND your friends that you can’t visit — it overwhelms. But when you start to parse it out, you can understand what you’re carrying.
Which is a lot. Let me say it if no one in your life has reminded you lately: this feels hard because it is hard.
Tell the story
Sharing honestly how we’re doing right now can lessen the burden of our griefs. You know that strange pause after someone asks “How are you?” over the phone or Zoom, and you wonder if you should tell the truth or move on to business as usual? Find someone who can hear your real story.
It’s okay to not be okay. Most of us aren’t right now. Sometimes the best thing we can do for each other is to listen. Let your friend list everything that’s hard in their life without trying to fix anything. Ask your family member how they are doing — really — and then take time to hear their honest answer.
Storytelling helps us share the weight of our grief by letting others carry it. The word “venting” describes perfectly the release of pent-up emotion and anxiety that we need.
As meaning-making beings, we are already writing pandemic stories in our minds: where you were when quarantine started; how you survived those early months; what new habits or hobbies you tried as coping mechanisms; who got sick first among your social circles.
We need to tell stories of our griefs, too, and entrust them to those closest to us who can carry them with us.
If you could let down your guard in a safe space, what story might you find that you need to tell about what’s been hardest to lose this year?
Picture strength training
Early in the pandemic when countless commentators called quarantine “a marathon, not a sprint,” many of us clung to the metaphor. We knew we couldn’t burn out early. We had a long way to go.
But as the months have dragged on, the marathon metaphor started to fizzle, too. What we need instead is strength training: the gradual building of muscles to carry heavier weight. Muscles tear and repair through repetition, and the lifting and resting both increase the body’s strength.
Can we show up each day to our lives and lift up what we need to carry? Can we feel that we’re getting stronger for what we’re facing?
The deaths of loved ones teach us that grief does not always get easier or lighter over time, but you can grow stronger for the love you continue to carry with you.
Strength training gives a mindset to build resilience for the long haul. Today you’re carrying a lot, and grief feels overwhelming. Tonight, you might find small ways to rest so you can face tomorrow.
Looking back over the past months of pandemic life, can you see any small ways that your endurance has increased: new coping strategies, creative outlets for grief, or simply permission to slow down when you need it?
Carry the weight together
Whether you’ve lost a semester at school, a job opportunity, or a family vacation — or whether you’ve lost someone you love to COVID-19 — grief is defining this year for all of us.
Rather than competing in the suffering Olympics (for example, debating whether it’s worse to be quarantined alone or with the same people for months on end), we can turn to empathy for what we’re grieving collectively.
Look at what each of us is carrying. Look at how heavy it can be.
How could we carry an edge of the burden for each other, the way every roommate used to grab a corner of the couch to move the bulky load into a new apartment?
We cannot change or control most of what is happening around us right now. But we can find new words, share our stories, grow in endurance, and carry our griefs together.