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Grief and self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic

by Karen Ung

How to deal with feelings of loss and care for yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we self isolate and physically distance, it is ok – and actually healthy – to grieve our pre-pandemic lives. Here are some tips on dealing with loss and self-care to help you cope with the new normal during these unprecedented times.

Grief and coping strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic

Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. If you feel distressed or depressed, please speak to your family doctor.

1. Understand that Grief is Not Linear


If there’s anything I’ve learned while grieving my husband, it’s that grief comes in waves, often overwhelming you unexpectedly. Instead of gradually feeling worse or better, sometimes one sad song or challenging event triggers tears. As we deal with isolation, fear, job loss and financial insecurity, homeschooling, and/or caregiving, anxiety can also rear its ugly head. It’s normal to feel sad, angry, anxious, or disappointed when you’ve experienced a loss, so be kind to yourself (vs. asking “What the heck is wrong with me?”) when you feel this way. Feelings associated with loss come and go, but acknowledging them (#2) and getting into a healthy daily routine (#4) can get you on the path to more good days.

2. Acknowledge the Loss


Acknowledging loss is simply that: recognizing what you are grieving and letting the feelings of loss wash over you. You don’t need to fix anything in this moment. Various grief books will use the analogy of water off a duck’s back, a wave crashing on the shore, or balloon floating away. Experience the feelings – then let them go. This is easier for some people than others. If you’re not super in touch with your feelings, it may help to journal at the beginning or end of the day when you don’t have any distractions. Example: I was bummed out this morning because I couldn’t go to the mountains with friends (grieving: the loss of mountain adventures with friends; main corresponding emotion: anger). Acknowledging feelings is more therapeutic than bottling them up and ignoring them. Somehow recognizing and labeling emotions makes them less powerful too.

Sometimes we don’t know exactly why we’re upset, and that’s ok. Just acknowledge the emotion without letting it consume you: I’m disappointed/sad/mad/lonely. Over time, you’ll figure out what made you feel that way (and identify sources of solace and joy to feel better – see #5).

3. Talk About the Loss


Once you’ve acknowledged the loss, it helps if you can share what you’re feeling with someone who will validate your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend or relative who is a good listener, and preface the conversation with “I’m not asking for advice, I just need someone to listen right now.”

Sometimes all we need to hear is that it is ok to feel the way we are feeling. During a very difficult time in my life (my Grandpa passed away, I broke up with my boyfriend of 4+ years, started a new job, and found out my Dad had lost his house), I worried I was losing my mind because I cried every single day. After telling a mental health nurse everything that had happened over the past two months, she said, “You have many reasons to be sad right now, so no, I don’t think you’re losing your mind, but if you want to come back and talk to me any time, you can.” Hearing those words made me realize what I was feeling was normal, and I would eventually feel better.

Right now, I am missing my work (Crazy, right? But I love what I do!), meeting up with friends, mountain adventures, spontaneous road trips, and quiet time (with the kids home from school, it’s busy and noisy all the time). Although I feel sad sometimes, I almost always feel better after chatting with a friend. We commiserate, and then make plans for when life returns to normal. Having things to look forward to promotes optimism.

Call a friend or family member, set up a videoconference via Google Duo / Facetime / Facebook Messenger / Skype / Zoom, or contact a counselor and make a text/phone appointment.

4. Take Care of Yourself


Self-care is always important, but even more so when you’re grieving. Being kind to yourself will not only (hopefully) stave off depression, it will put you in a calmer frame of mind better suited for dealing with new stresses and challenges. Have you tried helping your child with math before your first cup of coffee?! Take care of yourself before you care for others.

Aim to eat well (frozen veggies are better than no veggies), sleep enough (most people need 7-9 hours), hydrate (but go easy on the alcohol), and exercise daily. When starting an exercise routine, ease into it, and always incorporate a warm up and cool down to avoid injury. Yoga is gentle and soothing and suitable for most people no matter their fitness level.

Sleep disruption and stress eating are two major symptoms of grief that can lead to fatigue and weight gain. I experienced both after my husband passed away – binge watching Netflix and eating chips were my downfall – and still struggle with getting enough sleep.

To improve your odds of a good night’s sleep, avoid exercise and screen time two hours before bed, and get into a soothing bedtime routine. Reading, meditation /relaxation exercises (Insight Timer is a great free app), listening to mellow music, or taking a shower or bath are peaceful ways to end the day. Evenings are also a great time to catch up with friends and family by phone (choose supportive and uplifting people to talk to before bed).

Stress eating is a hard habit to break, especially if you have lots of junk food around the house. The best thing you can do is not keep junk in the house, and avoid late night snacking. I lost nine pounds in a month by giving up my guilty pleasure: potato chips! If you need a treat, make your own. Homemade treats can be made healthier with less fat and less sugar. For a tasty guilt-free treat, try this cherry sorbetto (reduce sugar to 1 tablespoon or omit). If you’re too tired to cook something healthy, support local businesses and order in! You deserve a break every now and then!

Establishing a daily routine can help you adjust to working from home (and homeschooling). Rather than schedule every hour of the day, we have made a checklist of things that need to be done each day: schoolwork, 30-60 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of Duolingo (the girls are learning French), 30 minutes of music, 30 minutes morning body break, 2 pages of math workbook. We also try to eat at regular times and take an afternoon walk every day.

5. Do Something Good for Your Mind, Body, and Soul Every Day


When was the last time you did something good for your mind, body, and soul? I read and exercise every day, but don’t always nurture my soul. While it would be nice to meditate for half an hour each day, that can be difficult when you’re working from home and home schooling (I get it!!). Make self-care part of your daily routine, but start small. Take a few minutes each day to do something active, mentally stimulating, and grounding. Here are some self-care ideas to get you started:

Self Care for the Mind

  1. Play your favorite song, an uplifting podcast, or watch an inspiring video to set the mood for the day. Upworthy has tons of heartwarming stories and videos.
  2. Be mindful of what you are doing while you complete a task. Instead of worrying about everything you need to accomplish today while doing laundry, just focus on the task at hand. Calming the mind (and deep breathing) will reduce your anxiety.
  3. Unplug for an hour (or longer) so you can be present and have fewer distractions. Turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode. Facebook can wait!
  4. Tidy the spaces you use the most so you can clear your mind (and donate items you no longer use). The living room is a no-kids-toys zone, so I have a tidy space to relax in at the end of the day.
  5. Write down three things you are grateful for today to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. I like to do this at bedtime to reflect on my day and go to sleep with a positive mindset. Read more about gratitude journaling in Finding Gratitude During Postpartum Depression.

Self Care for the Body

  1. Do a Body Scan Meditation first thing in the morning or before you go to bed to check in with yourself and release any tension. Allow 5-10 minutes to do this properly.
  2. Get outside every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Morning sun is especially helpful at perking up your mood!
  3. Move your body. Dance while you sweep the floor, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and get out for a walk every day.
  4. Stretch throughout the day to relieve tension. You can do this at your desk, standing, or seated on the floor.
  5. Rest when you need to. Catnaps are so refreshing! (Just don’t oversleep during the day or it’ll take a while to wake up. If you’re like me and find it next to impossible to sleep during the day, do a mini meditation: close your eyes, focus on your breath, then focus on one sense at a time. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? This awareness helps you be more present and can help you handle stress better (vs worrying about things in the future that may be out of your control).

Self Care for the Soul

  1. Determine what you need today. Do you need to be around people or do you need some quiet time? If you crave the latter, say no to invitations and plan to get together with friends and family another day.
  2. Spend time with positive people, and limit time with downers. In this time of physical distancing, that could also mean unfollowing negative people so their posts don’t show up in your Facebook feed.
  3. Do something enjoyable that is just for you: read that book you’ve been trying to finish, watch a movie in the middle of the day (screw chores!), take a long shower, or go for a solo run/walk to enjoy some peace and quiet.
  4. Perform a random act of kindness for a friend, relative, or stranger. I love what The Wine Ninjas are doing around Alberta! Read more about it here.
  5. Plan a day trip somewhere new-to-you (somewhere close to home since non-essential travel is not recommended at the moment) that incorporates a favorite activity like hiking, biking, or photography.

6. Ask for Help

fruits and vegetables

Nothing about the current situation is normal, so it’s ok to ask for help if you need it. Forgot something from Costco? Ask a friend to get it the next time she is there (and then return the favor the next time you go). Having trouble teaching your kids from home? Email their teachers and ask when they can provide help via videochat/email/phone call. My girls have been making use of virtual drop-in times to ask for help with homework and it has taken one major (and frustrating) responsibility off my plate. Struggling to pay your bills? Phone your bank / insurance provider / utility company and see what they can do for you. Many business have plans in place to defer payments for up to 6 months.

On a day to day basis, ask your kids to help out with chores and cooking. They’re home every day and chores and cooking are life skills! This will hopefully free up time for fun and relaxation. Tired of shopping? Get groceries delivered!

If you’re feeling worn out from being around the family non-stop, plan to leave the house every day for a while (take turns with your spouse) to clear your head. Single/solo parent? I feel your pain! Schedule some “quiet time” each day where the kids go to their rooms so you can have some alone time. Actually asking my kids to give me space so I can be a happy mommy made them stay out of my hair for an hour. If you have a yard/balcony, sit outside with your coffee in the morning to compose yourself before the craziness begins. Finally, breathe. This too shall pass.

How has your life changed since the pandemic began and what have you learned about yourself?

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