Grief in 2020
Updated: Aug 24
It is tempting to write-off 2020 as a bullsh*t year. Tempting to wish to turn back the clock and start all over. 2020 had already turned our lives upside down, then it went ahead and shook the change out of our pockets while we were dangling there. So, what is at the heart of making this year so awful? Grief.
Although grief is an exceptionally universal experience, it is also isolating in its vastness. What 2020 has really done is expand grief to every area of our lives, in ways both familiar and novel.
Never has there been a time that most of us can recall that loss has been so pervasive. Loss in 2020 has seeped into every crack and crevice of our social supports, our health, our traditions, our financial security, our safety, and our communities. Before 2020, we could perhaps seek refuge in times of grief with our families, or throw ourselves into work, or even engage in activities like haircuts or going to the grocery store without looking like an old-timey bandit.
COVID-19 has not only caused an incomprehensible amount of deaths, but it has also caused a dearth of opportunities for experiences, connections, and financial security. As we mourn the loss of life, we also mourn the loss of our traditions, such as graduations, weddings, and even funerals. As we endure personal financial hardships, we are saddened by the loss of community establishments that had personal meaning to us (farewell Shady Grove and Vulcan Video).
As if the coronavirus were not bad enough, this spring set off a wave of senseless deaths of black people in communities across the country. (Although deaths of this nature are not new, their frequency and manner have forced attention to this issue that is long overdue.) Shockwaves of sadness and pain, coursing after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. Pain, grief, and loss seem to be coming toward us from every angle.
Deaths of despair
Without some means of coping, grief can become all encompassing, or unrelenting. It can be tempting to reach for things such as alcohol and drugs to numb or escape. However, in most cases, this will exacerbate our problems and prolong our pain. One study projected that deaths of despair may be on the rise and could reach numbers as high as 150,000. (Deaths of despair are deaths caused by alcohol, drugs, and suicide). While there is debate regarding the accuracy of the projection, we all know that in times of crisis and hardship, rates of substance use and suicide go up.
Symptoms of grief
If nothing else, grief is complex. First, know that whatever you are feeling, it is probably normal. There is not one way to grieve, or a “right” way to feel in difficult times. In fact, for many people, grief looks a lot like depression. Grief typically does not progress through finite, linear stages. For many, it is an unpredictable roller coaster of emotion.
Emotional symptoms may include shock, sadness, guilt, anger, and fear. Physical signs might be fatigue, nausea, changes in weight, body aches and insomnia.
Coping with our grief
Regardless of how grief is impacting you, finding ways to take care of yourself can be critical for your wellbeing. There is no quick remedy to grief, but rather healthy steps toward healing.
1. Acknowledge your feelings. Suppressing painful feelings will not make them go away. At the same time, embrace those moments of humor or joy should they arise, even if only briefly.
2. Express your feelings in a way that is meaningful to you. Journaling, painting, planting a tree, protesting, writing a song, creating, etc.
3. Try to maintain your hobbies and your interests. It may be difficult to find the motivation, or you might even feel guilty for engaging in something you enjoy. But you serve no one by neglecting the things that matter to you.
4. Go easy on yourself. Grieving is not the time to be hard on yourself.
5. Do not let other people tell you how to feel. Well meaning people might tell you what is normal, or how you should be feeling. You feel what you feel, and there is no right or wrong in that.
6. Take care of your physical health. Grief can take a physical toll and even lower your immunity. Eat well, practice sleep hygiene, get some form of exercise, drink some water. Do your best to maintain the basics, even when things are hard.
7. Reach out. Grief and sadness can be incredibly isolating. Whether it is friends, family, social media, a support group—reach for what you need.
The other side of grief
In his book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari posits that depression and grief may not be all that different. He states, “what if depression is, in fact, a form of grief-for our own lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?”
If you search for the opposite of grief, you get words like joy, contentedness, help, and hopefulness. I began the article by saying it was tempting to go back in time and undo 2020. But, in doing so, we might undo the important, albeit painful, lessons we are learning. Lessons about what matter most to us, such as justness, safety in our communities, connections with our loved ones, and these lessons will hopefully propel us forward into a better way of living, connecting and respecting each other.
If you need additional support during this time, Substance Use Therapy is here. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need immediate help, please contact the Integral Care 24/7 crisis line at 512-472-4357.
Hari, J. (2018). Lost Connections. Bloomsbury, London.
About the Author
Kimberly May, LPC, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.