Grieving the lives we had before COVID-19

“Before this all happened…” is a phrase that I catch myself saying every time I chat with friends and family now. There’s a before and a during, but the after is still a huge question mark — one that stirs up anxiety, uncertainty, and grief.

Whether we’ve been laid off, had to cancel the wedding, or work on the front lines, we’re all collectively mourning a life before social distancing became a fixture in our vocabulary.

Grieving a new reality

When the growing threat around the pandemic amplified in March, our lives abruptly changed. Scheduled events were cancelled, working from home was implemented, and FaceTime calls became the norm. 

These sudden adjustments hit every part of daily life and left few events unscathed, including weddings.  A Cold Tea Collective reader felt the devastating toll of the pandemic, both emotionally and financially. He was set to get married last month, in what was supposed to be a surprise wedding. 

“We told our friends and family that we were eloping and that it was just going to be a simple dinner,” he said. In reality, he and his fiancé were planning to surprise everyone with a ceremony “and get married then and there.”

Having to postpone a wedding indefinitely is unimaginable for such a long-awaited celebration. As the landscape grew increasingly dire and COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, the couple made the heartbreaking decision to cancel their wedding. What was supposed to be a happy and memorable day, quickly became overshadowed by pain and grief over lost income and a lot of unknowns about their future.

Collective, anticipatory grief

Grief is a complicated process. It isn’t limited to bereavement where a death has occurred. In the same way that we end a relationship or move to a new city, we mourn different types of losses. 

This current landscape isn’t an exception — our sense of normalcy has been replaced with uncertainty for our futures. We’re all collectively grieving as we grapple with a new reality that’s constantly changing. We can’t actively prepare for what’s coming either. It’s what grief expert, David Kessler, calls “anticipatory grief” on a massive, global scale. 

I can recall every conversation lately, where I’ve caught myself or my friends feeling embarrassed for complaining about how hard it’s been. “It’s not that bad; other people have it worse”, we’d say before denying our emotions and expressing gratitude for not being in a worse predicament.

What’s considered acceptable grief in the wake of this global crisis has created shame over valid emotions. It’s what research professor Brené Brown refers to as “comparative suffering,” a process in which we rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel. 

And it doesn’t help anyone.

Dismissing our right to grieve doesn’t help a frontline worker benefit more, simply because we choose to withhold our own grief. By resisting our negative emotions, it will — in the frank words of Brown — “eat you alive.”

Rather than react critically towards our emotions, we can grant ourselves permission to mourn and to feel frustrated. We can show ourselves the same empathy we’d exhibit towards our cousin who lost their job or the frontline worker risking their lives to save ours. 

Everything feels beyond reach right now. No matter who we are and what we do, our lives have been dramatically altered by this pandemic. 

Before this happened, we may not have had to mourn so many losses. But there will also come a time where we’ll talk about how we survived this crisis. 

By giving ourselves permission to grieve and feel, we can build the resilience we need to get through this together.

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