(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)

Grief-struck: Making sense of loss in the pandemic

As we continue to live amid trauma, closure has become harder to find. Take a look at how the Covid-19 year has altered the workings of grief.
By Melissa D’Costa
PUBLISHED ON FEB 12, 2021 07:18 PM IST

What happens when grief is a daily occurrence? How does the mind process loss in such a reality? In the past year, there has been more illness and death to mourn. There has also been the loss of normalcy, the loss of who we were in our other lives — at work, with friends, at the park or pub.

The pandemic represents big trauma, says psychiatrist Parul Tank. “Something many of us have never faced in our lifetimes. As a result, the way our mind processes it is different from how we would process grief or tragedy in normal circumstances.”

For people who have lost something or someone during this time, there is an incomplete sense of loss for two reasons — because even mourning looks so different, and in many cases, they never saw the loss coming. “The same holds true for other associated traumas, such as the loss of a job. Because many pandemic-era changes occurred overnight and unexpectedly, we were emotionally unprepared to face them,” Tank says.

It doesn’t help that, nearly a year on, the stressors are all still there. “This has led to a constant perception of threat, and this is the root of the anxiety many people are feeling,” Tank says.

In the midst of ongoing stressors, with continued threat perception, it’s much harder to find closure. “Amid ongoing trauma, the stages of grief can overlap to a far greater degree,” says psychiatrist Dr Sagar Mundada.

What makes it harder to process the grief and loss effectively is that, in many cases, the individual’s worst fears are being realised — job losses, an uncertain future for one’s children, contracting Covid-19 oneself, the fear of being unable to provide for one’s family and of course the fear of illness or death of a loved one.

Reality becomes an anxiety trigger, and the immediate stress-relievers and circle of support that would be available in normal times — friends, colleagues, extended family, a weekend away from it all — are also exit routes blocked off by the pandemic.

“Particularly during the lockdown, the lack of the ability to support a loved one through their grief, and the absence of one’s own support group, became a greatly distressing aspect,” says Dr Kedar Tilwe, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital Mulund and Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi. “This led to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and intense guilt in some. In others there was also a precipitation of depressive and anxiety symptoms. At the same time, the lack of a traditional support system did mean that new ones took shape — support came from neighbours, acquaintances.”

Social media became a place where one could reach out and grieve, though taking this path comes with its own risks. Responses can range from tales of more tragedy to comments of judgement, criticism, censure or denial of the subject’s experience and feelings.

Grieving has become more complicated, is how clinical psychologist Deekshaa Athwani puts it. If one is grieving on social media, Athwani adds, it is safest to treat it like a form of the traditional practice of journaling, allowing a close group of others to validate your feelings. “It is important to understand your needs and decide how to grieve,” she adds.

And this is true even if the thing you are grieving feels small — the loss of routine, the loss of your other selves, or even just the sadness of another summer spent indoors.

Parul suggests using social media to reach out to people you know, and find the help you need, whether it is a loved one far away, a support group or a mental wellness professional. It’s easy to forget that most of the people we interact with online are, effectively, strangers. “Anonymously reaching out online for information is also a good way to use social media without exposing yourself to unkindness or worse,” she says.

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