COVID-19 grief: modes and reflections

Today I’m having a bad day. My concentration is shot. My emotions are up and down. I keep crying for no good reason. I’m very easily tired.

In many ways, I am extremely lucky and have no real justification for a strong emotional response to the COVID-19 situation or the lock down. I have a house, a garden and a family; I haven’t lost my job; no family members have died. I’m able to get on with work in some ways. My children are old enough to organise their own work, feed themselves and even help to look after me and each other.

I realise many others are in much more difficult situations: in small spaces, no gardens; still working and feeling terrified and/or exhausted; looking after small children and doing a full time job; caring for elderly or ill family; dealing with bereavement; in hostile or even dangerous relationships. I salute you all and send my sympathy.

Yet I’m still finding this hard. My friends too are undergoing their own struggles. One had a book tour cancelled. Another has an elderly father who is in and out of hospital, but she can’t be with him. A third has an immuno-compromised daughter and is struggling to look after his family while protecting his own mental health.

We will all experience grief in our lives, at varying levels of intensity. Right now, everyone is experiencing loss of some sort. This is world sadness.

I want to briefly outline my experience of COVID grief, point to some shared phenomena I’ve noticed, and suggest that some of the positive effects of this situation can illustrate the power of sadness, which is the wider topic of this project.

To start with, I, like many others, ignored the situation in Wuhan. It was far away and not relevant. Perhaps like SARS it would go away. Perhaps it wouldn’t. Then as it became apparent that it was going to seriously affect the UK, I watched with a degree of distance. Then suddenly my husband decided lock down was sensible, my daughter was ill (with the virus?), and we were into lock down before I realised it. I did not return to my office.

The next week was frantic: constant updates, changing situations, decisions to be made. I found myself scattered and confused, but functional and getting on with the necessary changes to put my courses online and support my students. There was no room for an emotional response. This too is a sort of denial. There were moments of sadness as I saw events on the calendar disappear, as we fully accepted that musical ensembles just could not take place online, as I lost half the assessment for my modules. However, there was also a sense of relief to be free of some of the pressures of life, to focus on my family and stay at home. The Easter break was a period of numbness mixed with a sort of euphoria that we were, broadly speaking, OK.

Now it’s starting to hit home: the uncertainty about the future; the fact that my children are still ill on and off (still don’t know if it is COVID); the emptiness and monotony; the fact that video chat does not create the same sense of authentic contact as face to face communication; the up and down emotional relationship with my work (I can still do it; I can’t do it).

The uncertainty. The second hand grief. Will my husband’s business get through? Will my brother-in-law’s business survive? Will my parents be OK? I haven’t seen them since December. Will the university be able to teach face to face again? Will my son be able to complete his A-levels next year? Will my son and daughter be able to pursue their dreams of possible careers in music?

I find myself focussing erratically: checking the stats obsessively; repeatedly searching for grocery delivery slots; frequently attempting to phone my parents who don’t pick up.

My daughter comforts herself with baking sprees that leave the kitchen looking like it’s been hit by a tornado of flour and sugar. My son wanders the house blasting people with his bass trombone. The cats help me do yoga by attacking my yoga mat and my feet.

It is beautifully sunny. I cry.

I can feel the waves of grief and the different states: numbness, yearning, denial, bargaining, depression, cynicism, altruism, anger, empathy. Each comes and goes: I note, acknowledge and try to accept.

A particular challenge is the fact that the situation is always changing.

My main experience of grief is through my eye condition. You can read about it on my other blog, narrowing world, if you are interested. I have retinitis pigmentosa, a deterioration of the retina that will first give me tunnel vision and then make me blind. It’s always changing, and you have to keep adjusting. First you accept that you have the condition; then that you can no longer drive; then that you can’t read physical books anymore; then that you need to adjust how you present research papers, or use your computer. You have to keep adjusting and going through the process of grief again.

The COVID situation is also constantly changing. It’s hard to accept the situation when you don’t really know what it is or what it will be in two weeks time. First we thought maybe three weeks of lock down, then maybe three months, then maybe six months, then maybe a year, then maybe we will never be wholly free of it. And decisions are not straight scientific judgements, but also political. Should one lobby for change? Do we trust our government? All these questions affect our emotional responses.

In short, you may feel that you shouldn’t be sad right now, but your grief is valid. You may be aware that you are relatively lucky. That doesn’t mean you can’t also be sad. You may feel you are handling it well, and the next day feel you are handling it very badly. We are all different and all need to be kind to ourselves.

How does COVID lock down relate to the central idea of the power of sadness, the idea that negative emotions can lead to positive change?

For many, the huge disruption in our lives has led to a heightened sense of our own mortality and a period of reflection about what is really important to us. It is frustrating not to be able to go to my office or to have band practice, but the real, deep problem is not being able to visit my parents and my sister and give them a hug.

We might be learning things from the lock-down and how we deal with it which we can apply to make life better in the new normal, whenever it is established. Increased confidence in recording video, for instance. Greater proactiveness in contacting old friends and meeting them virtually.

Some feel very angry about the narrative of productivity associated with the lock-down: none of us are going to write King Lear or invent the theory of evolution (especially while also cooking and shopping for a family, supporting distressed students, and looking after ill people). But it’s worth remembering that some people write in order to cope. Writing can be a displacement of emotion. Productiveness can be a sort of addiction to avoiding the realities of emotional life.

When you hit that spot between jittery anxiety that makes it impossible to focus on anything, the hazy euphoria of denial, when sitting in the sun is all you feel is necessary, and the sludge of misery, when you can’t remember how one word can go next to another, there can be a sort of restless energy and a clear-sighted sense of what could be different. That’s the power of sadness, for me.

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