Our Hidden Grief When It Comes to Social Distancing

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing have created a strange new world for all of us — and for many, it hasn’t been easy.

Yet even if we’ve been lucky enough not to have lost loved ones, what we have lost is still real. From regular playdates for our kids to get-togethers with family, coworkers, and friends, we collectively feel the impact of what COVID-19 has temporarily taken away from our lives.

The experience has left us with an unfamiliar mix of feelings — and many experts are calling it grief.

“There has been growing awareness to grief as part of each of our experiences of social distancing,” says Erica Lehman, Ph.D., a licensed therapist with Orange County Health Psychologists who specializes in grief. “What we don’t always realize is what grief means; that it’s not just sadness … or a longing for what was lost.”

So what might grief really look like during this challenging time? And how do we recognize hidden grief?

Identifying grief

Many sources of grief right now are abstract. They may not involve a direct loss of an object or person, but they can still be painful.

For instance, in our pre-COVID lives, we had certain routines: our local coffee shop runs, afterschool pickups, weekly support group, etc. We also were able to divide work from our home lives. But now that those things have been disrupted, we’ve lost our sense of normalcy. The framework of our day-to-day experience is suddenly gone, leaving us feeling unsettled.

We’ve also lost our basic sense of safety. Even if we didn’t have many health concerns when it came to ourselves or our family before, the pandemic has changed that. Seeing everyone out in public wearing masks, or noticing empty grocery store shelves also shakes up our baseline assumption that we are always safe.

Not feeling safe can lead to both grief over felt safety and increased fear and anxiety over what we may lose in the future. We may even feel an anticipatory grief, which is a feeling of loss over a future that we were expecting or hoping for — which in this case could be our health, or ultimately, our lives. The feeling of ambiguity can make us feel hypervigilant (like overreacting whenever someone coughs), angry at things that wouldn’t have bothered us before, or simply exhausted.

And in the midst of all this, we don’t know when this crisis will end. The ambiguity creates its own type of loss, known as ambiguous loss. A term coined by family therapist Pauline Boss in the 1970s, ambiguous loss refers to the experience of losing something or someone without certainty or resolution. Boss calls it “the most stressful kind of loss,” and the concept has been used to describe many loss experiences aside from death. It can make us feel confused, hopeless, and even depressed.

With all that said, it’s important to name our grief. When left unattended, grief can give way to depression and anxiety. Says Lehman, “Once we can use the term grief, and we can better understand that it is more than just sadness or longing for what was lost, then we can also talk about what we do next.”

So, what can we do?

Depending on how your grief shows up, you can address it in different ways. If you’re feeling angry or hypervigilant, you can pay attention to when something is out of your control — and focus your energy only on things you can change. Or, if you’re anxious and feeling anticipatory grief, try to focus on both taking action and appreciating the present moment.

It can also be helpful to think about how we can address grief in young people. Kids can be encouraged to use a creative outlet like drawing, painting, or writing to express what they’re feeling inside. Teens, who may be greatly missing their friendships, may benefit from looser rules around social media during this time.

Finally, when it comes to grief, Lehman feels it’s important to note that we all experience it differently. “It would be good to avoid comparing our experiences to those of others,” she says, “even though we desire to do so in order to know whether we are okay or not.”

If you’re experiencing grief related to COVID-19 or other issues, please call our office at 949.528.6300 or email us at info@OCHealthPsych.com. We’d be happy to match you with a skilled therapist to meet your needs.

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—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists

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