Image via Shutterstock It's normal to grieve your pre-pandemic life
Image via Shutterstock

We’re all struggling with loss in some way right now. A counselor offers some tips on how to cope.

Going to work, having dinner with a friend, scheduling playdates at the park, catching a movie, cheering on your favorite baseball team—all of these unconscious routines of our old, “normal” lives have been put on hold. Indefinitely. 

Because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has sickened tens of thousands of Americans, people in 22 states, including the Navajo Nation, are being urged to stay home. City and state government leaders have installed strict social distancing regulations, banned public gatherings, and closed schools and nonessential businesses. 

Experts say these measures will help slow the spread of COVID-19 so healthcare systems aren’t overwhelmed. Abiding by these restrictions, however, means that the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people have been completely turned upside down. 

As a result, our sense of what is familiar has been permanently altered. The predictability of our daily lives has been dramatically disrupted due to an unprecedented global catastrophe, which means it’s impossible to plan, well, anything.

“Routine is so important to us as humans,” Maria Bonello, a Maryland-based licensed clinical professional counselor, told COURIER. “It helps calm down the primal part of our brain where we feel like we’re always under threat.” 

Bonello said it’s normal to feel some sense of grief right now. We’re all struggling with loss in some way—whether it’s grieving the ability to make decisions about our own lives, social connection, or security that our family and friends will be safe.

When something like a global pandemic upends our daily lives and threatens our health and wellbeing, our central nervous system kicks into overdrive, Bonello explained. “While this pandemic is unfolding, we’re trying to find ways to get predictability back into our lives any way we can.”

That may be difficult, given that the United States is now the country hardest hit by the virus, and public health experts don’t expect things to get better anytime soon. Depending on the success of social isolation and distancing, the rate in which a treatment will become available, and if the spread of the virus will slow down during the summer, Americans may be looking at this “new normal” for several months to a year. Possibly even longer.

In addition to feeling a longing for the way things used to be, many people may find themselves wrestling with anxiety, which is a common experience with grief. 

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“I haven’t left my home in 13 days, save for one very stressful trip to the grocery store,” Madeline Dames, a pregnant woman living in Tiffin, Ohio, told COURIER. “It’s kind of crazy because not many things scare me normally.”

Bonello said that it’s important to acknowledge these feelings without being hard on ourselves. “Feelings are signals to us that something is not right or we need to readjust,” she explained. “When we discredit them, it can have us stay in places of negativity that don’t do us any good.”

Self-compassion in a time of crisis can help reduce stress levels and enable us to see things more clearly and rationally. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or experiencing spiraling thoughts, Bonello recommends verbalizing your thoughts out loud to someone you trust. Attempting to rationalize thoughts in your mind when you’re under extreme stress can prove ineffective. 

“When we talk our thoughts out with others, we can see how irrational or rational we are being,” Bonello said. Communicating with others alleviates feelings of isolation and helps further our validation because we all take comfort in knowing we’re not alone in our struggles. “It’s a sense of camaraderie that I don’t think we as humans experience often enough because we want to give the appearance of ‘having it together.’”

Being out of our regular routine and comfort zone can leave us feeling listless or helpless. There are plenty of ways to channel that energy into something proactive. Bonello suggests mindfulness exercises, journaling, or, if you’re able, donating money to food banks. Even simply reaching out to your friends and neighbors via social media to see how they’re doing or offer help if they haven’t been able to obtain essential goods or services is a way to feel useful.

Parents may find that their kids are also struggling with this new normal. Young children may not understand why they aren’t going to school or playing with their friends, and older children are likely to feel the loss of after-school activities, social gatherings, and their usual freedoms. They’re all grieving in different ways, but for the same reason—they miss their old lives.

“It’s important to talk to kids about what they are feeling and experiencing,” Bonello said. “They probably are going through similar things, and it is important to talk to them about what and why this is happening, based on facts.” She said having routine that is typically centered around school means parents and kids alike may be feeling lost with how to structure their time. Rather than trying to come up with a similarly strict routine, being flexible and accommodating each child’s needs is more beneficial to everyone right now. 

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As we continue to navigate these uncertain times, Bonello emphasized the importance of figuring out what kind of coping mechanisms work for you. “A common place to start is to identify how you like to spend your time.” She suggested listening to music, writing down whatever is on your mind, talking to someone you trust, watching light-hearted TV shows and movies, exercising, and spending time outdoors when possible. 

But above all, Bonello urges us to be kind to ourselves as we grieve our old lives. “It’s important to know that everyone is struggling to find predictability in this time and you are not alone. We are all trying to figure out what the ‘new normal’ is, even if this is temporary.”