'There's no wrong way to feel': The grief of the coronavirus pandemic

Meghan Holohan
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'There's no wrong way to feel': The grief of the coronavirus pandemic

Some have noticed that life during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to feel some sort of way. Maybe thinking about visiting the gym causes a profound sense of longing. A song from high school sparks an intense pang of nostalgia. The cancellation of a relative’s high school graduation triggers sobbing. What is that feeling the pandemic is causing?

“There's no wrong way to feel and to be certain there are going to be a lot of different people feeling a lot of different things,” Dr. Jack Rozel, a psychiatrist at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “The way people feel is going to shift over days and it's going to shift over the weeks that we're going through this.”

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As the pandemic evolves so do our feelings. Even since the first case occurred, people’s thoughts have transformed.

“The initial set of emotions included anxiety, fear, worry, panic,” Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, told TODAY. “What's now set in — along with physical distancing and physical separation — is a different kind of negative emotion beyond just fear, anxiety and panic and worry. It is a deep sorrow and distress.”

Adapting to an ever-changing world and its responsibilities adds another layer to it. People who felt like they had excelled at their careers are now finding they must juggle this with home-schooling their children or caring for an elderly parent, for example.

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“Coping with multiple responsibilities … that’s anxiety provoking and stressful because the way that our lives are set up are not intended to accommodate multiple roles at 100%,” Rinad Beidas, associate professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told TODAY. “People are a little bit crankier than usual. Easily set off. We’re in tight spaces and then, of course, there’s some boredom.”

On social media many share that they’re feeling grief and the experts agree this is to be expected. During the pandemic people have lost so much whether it’s enjoying a favorite restaurant, attending a yoga class, missing a concert or sporting event or losing their job.

“Historically, grief has been thought of as the death or dying of yourself or a loved one,” Phan said. “Grieving is really about the sorrow and the sadness and this distress over loss. And we've lost so many things.”

Much of what’s missing from people’s lives shapes their identities, such as hobbies or their careers.

“These things, by the way, have always made us as humans, who we are. We value them intensely and what’s more is that those are things that we typically rely on in times of stress and adversity. So this is a double whammy," Phan said.

As people think about things they love and how they can’t engage in them anymore, they feel nostalgic. Suddenly a memory from just a few months ago of a mundane activity causes a flood of emotions.

"We feel further away from who we used to be,” Phan said. “It causes this notion of nostalgia.”

The experts agree that people shouldn’t worry about experiencing a wide range of emotions. But if these feelings are becoming too consuming, they should ask for help.

“When people start to feel that they are overwhelmed or about to be completely overwhelmed by those emotions, that’s a great time to seek help,” Rozel said. “If emotions are getting in the way of important daily activities.”

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People can call the National Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990 or texting TalkWithUs at 66745, he said. People who feel suicidal should call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

The pandemic brings much uncertainty about who might get sick or die, how long it will last, if people will lose jobs and houses, what school will be like in the next months or years. But Beidas said that understanding that it won’t last forever can help some.

“This is a finite period of time and it may be a long period of time, but this will end and we will get through this,” she said. “I don't think the pandemic will fundamentally change who we are as people. It's just going to teach us some new lessons about ourselves in difficult times.”