It’s Okay to Mourn Your Pre-Pandemic Life: Here's How
It feels like just about everyone has lost something to the pandemic—a loved one, a job, an opportunity to celebrate a milestone, a less-fraught way of interacting with the world and others in it, and so much more.
Grief—the anguish or sorrow a person may feel after a significant loss—is an appropriate and common feeling for people to experience during the pandemic. It’s understandable to feel grief when life looks different than it did before, says Karyn Rosenberg, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Boca Raton, Florida, and specializes in grief and loss counseling. It helps you adapt to change and losses, whether of people, places (like a shuttered local retail store or favorite restaurant), or routines.
Grief also helps us look forward to the future. “Sometimes, the best we can hope for is simply to keep moving, or to move forward toward the new life or way of being that is emerging,” says Sherry Cormier, Ph.D., a psychologist and bereavement trauma specialist who authored Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief.
Why Pandemic Grief Can Be So Difficult
“Any grief associated with any loss in the pandemic can be uniquely difficult because it was such a traumatic loss,” says Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D., who serves as director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition and is an author, researcher, and psychotherapist. “Even nondeath losses can weigh heavily on us.”
Maybe you didn’t get to have the wedding or graduation you imagined. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable working out at a gym anymore, or don’t have the financial resources to do what you used to do. Perhaps you can’t travel as easily or attend in-person religious services as you might have before. We may grieve all these things that we used to do that are no longer, Cormier says.
How to Mourn Aspects of Your Life Before the Pandemic
Give yourself permission to grieve those changes to your pre-pandemic life. “When we truly let go of what we used to have, we create space in our lives for new possibilities and opportunities to emerge,” Cormier says. “This is how grief can help us grow and move forward over time. The journey of grief helps us learn to cope with these transitions by mourning what we’ve lost and by developing acceptance of what we are becoming.”
Here are three actionable tips for acknowledging your feelings and working through grief, without holding you back from enjoying your life as it is now.
1. Write About It
It can be helpful to process your emotions by putting some language to what you’re feeling in a journal, Cormier says.
Writing is an organized way of coping with your loss. Some studies suggest that expressive writing such as journaling may improve both physical and mental well‑being. Journaling can be an outlet to help identify your losses and ways to move forward.
Cormier suggests writing about a stressful situation or a loss several times a week for a short period of time to help you process your emotions around that situation.
Not sure what to write? One idea is to write about how you got through other challenges, such as a divorce or job loss. Discuss how you recovered and healed. "It’s very helpful to see the progression from how you felt at the beginning to where you are at now,” Rosenberg explains. “Doing this can show you just how far you have grown, tapping into strength and resilience."
You can also ask yourself questions that you can reflect on, says Neimeyer. For example: What did you once believe in that you no longer do? What valuable insights have you gained from that experience? Reflect and review, and go beyond just a dump of emotions.
“[Journaling] is a way of taking a vague and troubling sense of emotions that are milling about inside us,” Neimeyer says. “We can externalize it and put it onto paper. A journal always has time for us, even if our friends don’t. We cultivate ourselves as a compassionate audience and see ourselves with more perspective.”
Through journaling and reflection, you may even see that some of these losses did have some usefulness. For example, maybe you were laid off, but it's leading you to take a newer, exciting career path. “You look at life lessons and learn to see the benefits hidden in the loss,” Neimeyer says. “You’ll see what you’ve gained in the past few years—what qualities you’ve been able to discover or create that have helped you survive.”
Remember, you don’t have constraints when you write in a journal, either. Write as if no one else will ever see it. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or hold back in expressing yourself.
2. Stay Connected
Humans are social creatures by nature. Social support can be critical in helping move on from grief, rather than getting stuck in it.
“Sadness is healed primarily through social connection,” Cormier says. “[Connection] is very important, as grief feels very isolating to those who grieve. Even though we have all lost something from the pandemic, unless we learn how to share our feelings of sadness and sorrow directly with others, we miss an important way of moving through the grief and learning from it.”
You can stay connected with people you know through texts, emails, phone calls, video chats, and social media, though Cormier says to aim for in-person social interactions when possible. For example, you could try seeing a grief counselor or participating in social or hobby groups, like hiking, biking, knitting, or book clubs.
Joining a club or group activity may be of particular benefit, some research suggests. In one study, for example, people experiencing grief who sang in a choir for 12 weeks had improved levels of well‑being and self-esteem after 24 weeks, while those who didn't engage in the social activity had worse depressive symptoms and lower levels of well‑being.
“The internet gives us a chance to meet with people who we never would have from our own home, but we still need to touch and embrace,” Neimeyer says. “It might be great to like a text or tweet. But it’s another thing to receive a genuine hug and reintroduce physical closeness.”
3. Tap into Your Strengths
Look to your interests and abilities to mourn in a way that’s right for you, Neimeyer says. If you’re artistic, you could create a collage of experiences from magazines. If you’re sentimental, construct a memory box of images and notes memorializing a lost loved one, for example. If you’re tech savvy, you could use the internet to share stories through video clips set to music.
Ultimately, these tips are about more than simply helping you express yourself. “All of these ideas represent ways in which you can create a connection to the community,” Neimeyer says. “Look for opportunity hidden in the loss and crisis.”
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