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portrait of Dr. Kelly Wester
Portrait of Dr. Wester
Dr. Kelly Wester

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many anxious about their health, job security, and future plans. But there are also less obvious losses that we are dealing with in this world of uncertainty, such as the loss of routine and social connections.

To weather these uncertain times, it’s important to acknowledge and grieve these losses.

“There are a lot of losses currently happening, and grief can look a lot of different ways. But once you acknowledge that the emotions you are feeling are experiences of grief, there are ways through it,” says Dr. Kelly Wester, mental health professional and professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development.

In the interview below, Wester discusses grief and the losses we all are grappling with during this time.

What is grief? How can we identify it?

Grief is about experiencing some form of loss. There’s not just one way that grief looks, which makes it very difficult to identify at times. Grief can involve a range of emotions. Most people associate grief with sadness, but grief can also include anger, depression, irritability, numbness, feeling detached, and feeling anxious. Because grief can involve so many different emotions, it can be hard to identify when there isn’t an obvious cause that we typically associate grief with, such as the loss of a loved one. When you are experiencing any of these emotions, think about what you may have lost that is causing you grief.

There are also different types of grief. When we think about grief, we typically associate it with the loss of a loved one, a marriage, and so on. That’s when society acknowledges the normal process of grief. An example of ambiguous grief would be the loss of a person who is still alive through Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. There’s still a loss of a person, but people may not understand that and acknowledge your need to process that loss. Complicated grief is a period of sorrow, numbness, or another emotion related to grief that extends for a long period of time. Both ambiguous grief and complicated grief can be harder to identify.

What are some of the effects of grief?

Grief can increase mental health symptoms including depression, hopelessness, worthlessness, unfairness, and isolation. If people don’t recognize that they are experiencing grief, it can actually lead to ambiguous grief or complicated grief.

What are some of the losses people might be experiencing as a result of the pandemic?

We see a loss of life, a loss of normal structure, the loss of social and physical connections to others (which is especially difficult as humans are social beings), the loss of habit and routine, the loss of experiences such as graduations and funerals, the loss of jobs, the loss of financial security, the list goes on. There’s so much that people are losing in their day-to-day lives that could lead to grief, even if they don’t realize they are experiencing it.

How can people work through their grief?

To work through grief, one must first acknowledge that they are experiencing grief. Then, try to think about what support system or resources can be pulled together to help you work through the emotions being experienced as a result of grief. Seeking professional mental health support is important to talk through the emotions of grief and the impact it has on one’s day-to-day functioning.

Another thing one could do on their own is put rituals into place. A common theme among many of the losses we are experiencing is the loss of rituals. We’ve lost graduations, birthday celebrations, funerals – rituals that help people grieve. Can you put a ritual into place? Even if it looks a little different than normal – maybe it’s socially distanced for now – think about if there’s a ritual that can be done that allows you to grieve and acknowledge the loss you are grieving over.

For example, you might set up an online video call or phone call to talk about a loved one, to remember experiences, or have a ceremony. There are different religions and cultural beliefs that create shrines to individuals, so you could make a shrine, a memory board, a blog, or anything similar.

How does one cope with a loss that has no definitive end, such as the pandemic? How can one handle the grief that comes along with that?

The difficulty with the pandemic and the feeling of loss associated with it is that there is no definitive beginning, middle, and end to process. For those grieving over something lost as a result of the pandemic, identify what exactly that loss is, with the understanding that it is quite possibly more than one loss, and think about what you can do now. Again, can you have a “remembrance ceremony” in lieu of a funeral right now or an online ceremony in lieu of a traditional graduation? Can you create a vision board of what your goals are and start looking forward to them instead of dreading the losses? It’s important not to avoid the loss, which won’t help the grieving process.

In addition to the pandemic, there has been civil unrest in recent weeks because of systemic racism and police violence. As we grieve these injustices, what can we do?

If you are grieving for the world and the systemic injustice against different communities of color and marginalized populations, think about what you can do. For example, you can become an advocate. There are meaningful steps one can take, including joining in protests or other forms of action that help to advocate for communities of color and marginalized populations. Educating oneself on the systemic oppression that exists can also be a way to help understand and increase knowledge about the experiences of marginalized populations and what one may be able to do to advocate.

Resources

Local:

UNCG Counseling Center

Hospice of the Piedmont

Databases to find a mental health professional in your area:

NBCC: Counselor Find

Psychology Today: Find a Therapist

Crisis hotlines:

Suicide Prevention Hotline

Samhsa Disaster Distress Hotline

Now Mental Health

 
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