COVID-19: how grief affects our health

In uncertain times, worry is a fact of life. It’s especially real for anyone whose loved ones are ill, aging or working in situations that put them at risk of becoming sick. That can lead people into a place of anxiety, despair or grief long before it should, says Tammy Starling, psychotherapist and grief specialist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“It’s completely healthy to worry, but it’s not healthy to get to the point of becoming detached,” says Starling. “Part of grieving is letting go, and we don’t want to do that too soon. If you’re worried about someone who’s sick or might become sick, you may feel yourself becoming emotionally distant, and that’s a red flag.”

There are things you can do, however, to prevent a loss of intimacy, starting with understanding the grieving process.

Look out for emotional distance

If you have a loved one with a terminal illness such as cancer or dementia, you may experience something called anticipatory grief— the process of preparing for a major loss or the end of a person’s life in advance. The death itself could be weeks, months or years away, but you find yourself starting to grieve when the little losses show.

“Anticipatory grief can also happen in situations where you think, ‘I’m going to lose my job,’ and that leads you to realize, ‘I’m going to lose my house,’” says Starling. “The kinds of losses where the end is imminent are what we’re talking about.”

Anticipatory grief was first identified in the 1940s. Wives of World War II soldiers became so certain their husbands would die in combat that they mourned them and moved on, even though many of the men would survive.

“They would start going through the grieving process to prepare for getting the news, and that created detachment,” says Starling. “When those husbands actually came home, it wreaked havoc in families.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a war, it is a time of widespread anxiety and dread, and a spike in anticipatory grief is likely. Taking steps to connect virtually with loved ones, find a community or seek counseling can help you through this tough time.

Aim for uncomplicated grief

Grief is always going to be tied up with regret, says Starling, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. The more unresolved issues or big questions you leave unanswered, the more difficult it will be to work through your grief.

“It may be uncomfortable to say, ‘Can we talk about something that’s unresolved for me,’ and maybe that’s not something you feel you can say,” says Starling. “But it’s very helpful later on if you can talk through issues calmly with loved ones while you have the chance.”

Keep your grief from being complicated by:

  • Talking honestly with people
  • Focusing on quality time now
  • Talking about memories and asking to hear old stories

In stressful times, simply telling someone you care and bonding over the meaningful times is extremely powerful.

“You’d be surprised how many warm feelings are triggered just by saying, ‘Dad, do you remember that time I got stuck in a tree and you had to borrow the neighbors’ ladder to get me down?’,” says Starling. “Going back to our shared stories is an easy way to solidify our memories and our bonds.”

Ask for and offer support

It’s important to express your feelings of worry and concern, but consider your words and audience carefully.

“Calling up your 90-year-old grandmother and saying, ‘I’m so worried you’re going to get sick,’ isn’t productive unless you’re trying to convince her to take precautions she isn’t already taking,” says Starling. “But expressing to your circle of friends or family that, ‘Wow, I feel anxious about this,’ is both healthy and productive. Don’t keep your feelings bottled up.”

Taking small steps to support your loved ones daily may also alleviate some of your anxiety.

“Call and check on your loved ones, ask about getting grocery deliveries, send a video, or even just stay away if that’s the most important thing you can do,” says Starling. “If all you can do today is pray and journal, just do that.”

Focusing on one or two action items each day is key — as is finding something to be grateful for.

“These times are challenging, but I love that we’re really focusing on creating meaning and leaving nothing unsaid,” says Starling. “Do the things you can do and let the rest go.”

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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