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Photo by Mariah Wilson

Honour the fuckery of it: Grief in the time of pandemic

By Kristy Koehler, April 8 2020—

Life has certainly changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The seemingly mundane intricacies of daily life have been turned on their head, especially for students. There’s no more grabbing a latte with friends, having wings at the pub after class or going to yoga. 

With the University of Calgary’s decision to delay convocation ceremonies until November, many students are understandably upset. Earning a degree is a massive achievement, and being denied the rite of passage that comes with walking the stage in a cap and gown brings feelings we aren’t even sure we should be feeling. Students are expressing their dismay, but also questioning whether or not it’s okay to feel so upset over things that seem so small.

Meg Hasek-Watt, Registered Psychologist and founder of Calgary’s Heart Body Mind Psychological Services, says it’s absolutely okay. It’s also necessary to acknowledge that what we’re feeling is grief.

“We don’t necessarily have a term for what people are experiencing now, but we know this is a grieving process,” she says. “It’s that loss of goals, of dreams, of connections, of jobs, of celebrations and plans that were so important that we organized ourselves around them. When those get cut off from us there’s a full grieving process that starts. We think grief is only for people if someone has died, but there are so many layers of grief and bereavement.”

Anticipatory grief, she explains, is what can occur when we’re waiting for something inevitably bad that we know is coming. The grieving process starts before the event we’re waiting on. There’s also ambiguous grief, the type that often happens when people are caring for loved ones with dementia or other diseases that render them ‘gone’ while still here with us. It often manifests as a sense of ongoing mourning, when we aren’t quite sure what tangible thing we’ve lost. Most types of grief are applicable to the feelings we’re having during this pandemic. 

“We’re waiting for the storm to hit,” says Hasek-Watt. “The typhoon is out at sea, the rains have started and the winds are picking up and we’ve all been told to batten down the hatches but nothing has hit landfall yet. It is going to hit landfall but right now it’s hard to understand.”

Hasek-Watt specializes in grief and trauma, but she’s no ordinary psychologist. She’s tattooed, badass, down to earth and her advice is peppered with expletives. She’s just what we need in these challenging times. There’s no bullshit and no suggestion to  “breathe deeply and count to ten.”

“This is clusterfuckery for the head and the heart,” she says. “It’s absolutely okay to not be okay with what’s going on. Our entire system, our economic system, our social system, our socialization system and the way we were just functioning day to day has been flipped on its head.”

While many of us are hesitant to describe the loss of being able to go and get a latte or to go and get our nails done as grief, Hasek-Watt says that shouldn’t be the case.

Photo by Mariah Wilson

“When we name something we take power back from it,” she says. “People are so scared, they don’t want to say that they feel bad or angry that they can’t do this or that because it seems so privileged when there’s people dying and people are on lockdown or people have lost their jobs.”

Hasek-Watt says that acknowledging the privilege we have in even missing these small things, and acknowledging the grieving process isn’t mutually exclusive.  

“When we acknowledge it we give it some room, we give it some air and we get the power back from feeling that shame or that guilt from feeling bad about not being able to get a latte,” she says. “It’s not a latte — the latte is the iceberg. A latte, yes is a latte, but it’s more than that.”

Getting up from that assignment we were working on and going for a walk to get that latte is a piece in our day, a moment that made us feel better in a time of stress. Maybe we were having a fight with a partner or parent, and being able to grab a cup of tea with a friend to talk it out is a small solace that we’re now missing. It was a ritual in our day that can longer be performed. Hasek-Watt says there’s a trauma response that takes place when we lose these experiences.

How do we know if we’re having a trauma response, or experiencing feelings of grief? Hasek-Watt says that the mere act of questioning our own feelings can be a red flag.

“If you’re having a shame gremlin pop up and say ‘I shouldn’t even feel this way’ that is a red flag. Of course, there’s also flags around if you’re quick to anger, irritable, anxious, tearful, crying — these are classic responsonses.”

These responses do not follow a linear pattern, she says. They don’t follow a step-by-step, textbook process. There might be an overwhelming sense of dread and doom, confusion, uncertainty, or anger and anxiety. But, there might also be numbness and shutting down.

“You’re gonna feel the feels,” says Hasek-Watt. “There’s a lot of going back and forth. You vacillate between, ‘I’m so mad I can’t go to my graduation on time’ and then you flip to ‘Oh my God it’s so bad to think this way — at least I’m not dying. This is not important, I shouldn’t be feeling this.’ And then you push it down and you just pendulum swing versus just hanging out in the fuckery of the middle.”

That middle ground is where we need to be to acknowledge grief, she says. 

“Number one is to acknowledge that we’re grieving. It’s not fine. Nothing about this is fine. And that’s okay.

“The fact that physical distancing is being required of us compounds the problem,” says Haskek-Watt. It’s complicated, and she’s hesitant to admit that being isolated from others makes this even harder.

“I’m hesitant because I don’t want people to go and say ‘See, you’ve gotta go socialize and who cares about public health,’” she says, reiterating how important it is that we follow all the guidelines provided by health officials.

For students, this pandemic poses unique challenges. Some were already at the end of their semesters, facing plenty of stressors that certainly haven’t been helped by the situation.

School is such an important part of life for many people, and even though students are still attending online, there’s been a fundamental shift in how the experience of school is being lived.

“People work really hard to save up to go to school, says Hasek-Watt. “There’s the financial cost and also the heart — the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it, including a whole social circle that comes from school and you’re being cut off from that. That’s not nothing.

Photo by Mariah Wilson

“There’s high incidences already among students of depression, anxiety and trauma happening,” she says. For many, coping strategies of dealing with those emotions are self-isolation and withdrawal, and now that we’re being forced to do those things in response to the pandemic, people already dealing with depression and anxiety are going to have a very difficult time.

What does Hasek-Watt recommend? The things we would normally do for self-care are largely off the table. There’s no more manicures or massages, no more trips to the store to browse, no more theatre or sports.

“Getting outside and socializing is often the recommended treatment and now we can’t,” she says. “We’re even as psychologists having to be creative because the behavioural activation strategies that we invite folks who are already struggling with depression and anxiety to do, we have to very carefully be coaching and creating new ways of thinking about that. We have to get on board with this new normal and support people to do that.”

She knows it’s been repeated ad nauseum, but harnessing technology really is an excellent strategy. Whether it’s playing a card game online with friends, having chats with friends via Zoom or Skype, choosing a recipe and cooking together over FaceTime, Hasek-Watt says it’s imperative that we stay connected.

“We have all the skills and strategies to do this,” she says. “We don’t like it because we don’t like change. We’re built to do it because it happens all the time, but it’s the thing we resist regularly.”

The grief we feel, she says, is compounded by the fact that there’s no end date. We’re facing the realization that things have been cut off — one day we woke up and we couldn’t go to school, or go out with friends.

“The things that are being asked of us, it’s hard to do, and we don’t know how long we’re supposed to do this,” she says. “If someone said ‘Ok everybody, for three days just fucking lock it down and deal with your shit and then you can get your lattes and your sexy time,’ we would be cool with that.”

The other compounding factor is that the information is constantly changing. We have what Hasek-Watt calls “grief brain.” Our brains aren’t fully processing everything that’s coming at us, especially when the messaging is often frightening. It’s also difficult to process what’s happening around us because things don’t seem that bad from where we’re sitting. Canada doesn’t seem like Italy and New York City, the large epicentres of the virus we see on the news — when we go outside there’s still cars on the streets, a few people in the grocery stores and our brains are choosing the path of least resistance, trying to get us to just keep plugging along as we were before. 

But, if we keep continuing as normal, we risk becoming like Italy or New York — hospitals overflowing and health care professionals having to triage who gets life-saving ventilators and who doesn’t. So, we have to adapt to our new normal and take things day by day. We do, however, need to acknowledge how difficult it is to be asked to physically distance and to change our lives for something that we can’t really tangibly see.

“Yes, our world is fucked out there and it’s flipped on its head, but it’s taking that step, and saying ‘I can do this,’” says Hasek-Watt. 

Photo by Yasmine Elsayed.

While it’s important to tell ourselves we can do this, we also need to have some self-compassion. We don’t have to fill our days with a million things or to learn five new skills. If we need a Netflix and PJ day, that’s okay. We need to ignore the incessant flood of memes in our social media feed that tell us about Sir Isaac Newton discovering gravity while in quarantine or tell us about how many things we can accomplish. Hasek-Watt calls this “toxic positivity.”

“To the people who say, ‘This will pass,’ well sure, it fucking will, because that’s how humanity and humans go, but those platitudes can actually be quite toxic,” she says. “Don’t think that if you just sit at home, and you don’t do something today, well then you’ve failed at pandemic-ing. I would invite you to cast off expectations. We have to understand that we’re making new neural pathways to come up with what the new normal looks like and we haven’t finished that yet. We haven’t normalized this yet.

“Tell your shame gremlin to stop being an invalidating asshole about what’s happening right now. For the people that are in a grief and trauma response, they just feel shittier about feeling shitty. For those of us who have the ability to create messaging, normalize that this is fucked and we’re upset. Resilience actually is acknowledging that it’s shitty. Toxic positivity says resiliency is just about thinking positively. But it isn’t.

“This chapter of our lives is ‘shit is fucked’ There’s no quick fix. Step one is admit it’s fucking shitty. Say it out loud with me — ‘It’s fucking shitty.’ Have that moment. Honour it. Air it out.”

When should we go beyond just airing it out and talk to a professional? Hasek-Watt says there’s layers to that answer, because while she believes that everyone can benefit from talking to a professional, she acknowledges that there are many barriers to doing so, not the least of which is financial. If professional services can’t be accessed, she recommends talking to friends and family, but to keep the time spent discussing the pandemic to a minimum. There’s a contagion effect that occurs — if someone is spiraling and panicking, you might start down the same path.

“Put a cap on COVID hour,” she says. “Come up with other things to fill your heart and nourish your body and mind.”

She’s also quick to point out that if there are feelings of hopelessness or suicidal ideations, those things cannot be ignored.

Despite all the upheaval, Hasek-Watt says the most important thing is to know that our feelings are valid and to acknowledge the things we’ve lost, even if they feel small. She wants people to know that it’s neither shallow nor selfish to lament the loss of that latte, or to grieve the fact that catching a baseball game with friends is out of the question for the foreseeable future.

“Honour and hold space for the fuckery of it,” she says. “Normalizing the grief is so important.”

Hasek-Watt posts updates, tips and strategies on her Instagram page at @heartbodymind_. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needing immediate support, the Distress Centre offers 24⁠–⁠7 mental health support by calling 403-266-4357. Alberta Health Services also offers a list of resources online.

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