Woman experiencing the collective grief of mental health and covid

How Are We Handling Our Collective Grief in 2021?

Over 625,000 people died due to COVID-19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even if you didn’t lose a loved one, there’s collective grief we’ve all experienced because of the devastating and mind-boggling loss of life.

The loss of life, however, doesn’t begin to factor in other losses like the economic impact and the many stresses created by the pandemic. It’s not a stretch to say how the entire world, let alone the United States, has experienced something profoundly life-altering. And, the common thread is loss.

Loss, however, can be defined in many different ways.

Ask yourself some hard questions:

In what ways did you suffer a loss because of COVID-19?

Does this loss require recovery time?

Do you need support as you heal?

How are you coping?

These are the questions to ask as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. For some, the experience is still too close, making it hard to see the long-term impact.

The Ranch Pennsylvania is here to support you and help families find ways to express the overwhelming grief and release from the stress of the past year and a half. Let’s take a look at our collective grief and how we can heal together.

Let’s first look at how COVID-19 affected families differently. Next, we examine common patterns of mourning. And, finally, let’s consider what red flags might mean you or a loved one needs help finding a safe place in this new world.


One Family’s COVID-19 Story

Eighteen-year-old Sarah lives in an alcoholic home. Her dad’s alcohol use disorder has caused her family stress for more than 25 years. Sarah’s mom has an autoimmune disease, which requires significant daily assistance and healthcare.

When COVID-19 initially impacted Sarah’s family, it meant everyone spent more time at home. Dad took over his wife’s daily care. He also increased his drinking, blaming it on the extra stressors he had on his plate. His moods became volatile. As was his norm, he turned his attention to Sarah and measured how much she helped around the house. If he felt she wasn’t doing her part, he would verbally assault her by saying things like, “God, Sarah, you’re so damn lazy. I’m sick of being the only one doing anything around here to keep things going.” Sarah felt as if she was living under a microscope and constantly watched her step.

Her dad’s words stung Sarah, who honestly tried every day to help her parents manage things around the house. But, even her best efforts weren’t enough for her dad, who was active in his alcohol addiction.

Around the six-month mark, the entire family came down with COVID-19. Sarah was infected but had the fewest physical symptoms of anyone in the house. As a result, the care of her sick parents and little sister fell on Sarah’s teenage shoulders. For many weeks, Sarah bathed her mom, assisted her in the bathroom, kept her sister fed and nursed her dad.

Once everyone was healthy again, Sarah found a therapist and moved out of the house.

Describing those weeks of COVID-19 nursing brings tears to Sarah’s eyes nearly a year later. Parts of the experience are still too difficult to mention. As she describes her dad’s treatment during COVID-19, Sarah only says, “My dad was doing his best, but he was really hard on me.”

On top of the complex trauma of growing up in an alcoholic home, Sarah now has some brutal COVID-related memories to get past.


Collective grief: Can One Person Make a Difference?

While Sarah’s experience may seem extreme, the “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health” reported 14.5 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder in 2019. Published by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the survey also reported 51.5 million Americans were diagnosed with a mental health disorder in 2019, with 13.1 million reporting a serious mental health disorder that same year.

What does this all mean in hindsight? Many Americans, like Sarah, experienced long-term consequences due to COVID-19. While these individuals already had family challenges before COVID-19, the pandemic worsened already difficult situations. The data on this toll on our collective mental health remains to be seen. As a nation, we have a lot of healing ahead of us.

Whether you suffered the loss of a loved one during COVID-19 or not, the impact of this last year hasn’t spared anyone from collectively experiencing grief. For the first time since World War II, the entire globe is feeling collective grief, exhaustion, stress depletion and sadness. How do we, collectively, recover from a mental health standpoint? How do we individually recover?

It’s easy to think, “I can’t do anything; one person can’t help an entire world recover.” This isn’t, however, the case. Each of us, especially those of us more in tune with our mental health, can guide the others on this journey. If you or someone you love is in recovery from a mental health disorder or substance use disorder, you have an advantage in this new world we are experiencing, thanks to the daily practice of self-awareness.

More than ever, it’s important we take responsibility for our own feelings during this process of recovery and become beacons of light.


Grieving a Death of a Friend, Loved One or Stranger

While the families of over 625,000 Americans grieve the death of a loved one, it’s important we honestly communicate our needs as we mourn.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, changed the world’s approach to death when she authored “On Death and Dying” in 1969.

Ross began her work on the grief process in the 1940s. During a visit to the German concentration camp Maidanek after World War II, Ross saw images of butterflies left on the walls by prisoners sentenced to die. Later, her work took on a different focus when she witnessed the poor treatment of dying patients in the United States. Ross believed the dying deserved respect and honest communication as opposed to the standard practices of denial among the medical community.

Based upon conversations with terminal patients, Ross established five patterns she witnessed in individuals facing mortality: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Ross didn’t see the stages necessarily as one following the other but believed individuals would experience them sometimes in overlap, out of order, or even miss entire stages altogether.

Today, these stages have been somewhat simplified in the media, but Ross saw them as guideposts to encourage open communication about difficult life transitions, primarily death.

Denial: Ross describes denial as a way of progressively adapting to a new reality. Denial softens the harsh transition from old reality to new. You may feel some disbelief as your mind embraces the event.

Anger: Anger gives you a chance to express frustrations with life’s limitations. You may ask yourself, ‘Why me?’ or ‘This isn’t fair; what did I do to deserve this loss?’

Bargaining: According to Ross, this is a complex emotional experience, giving the mourning person a feeling of control over a powerless situation. “Maybe if I just work harder, be better, improve my behavior, I can control the outcome of this painful situation.”

Depression: Here’s where sadness over the lost loved one, and even prior losses in life may surface. You might find yourself thinking about someone who passed away 20 years ago. Looking ahead at your own death and other big life transitions is also common.

Acceptance: In acceptance, Ross describes a point when there’s no hostility about the loss. Instead, you integrate the new reality into your life.

Ross also mentions the experience of “hope” as a stage defined by a positive outlook on the future. In this emotional experience, hope means you feel a reason to be alive again. The world doesn’t look so bleak after losing a loved one.

Again, Ross was adamant that people don’t experience these stages in any order. It’s possible to feel hope immediately when learning someone has passed away. Maybe, in this moment of loss, you feel acceptance and hope after seeing someone you love cease suffering after a long illness. At the same time, these emotions can also overlap. It’s possible to feel anger and denial simultaneously, “Are you kidding me? I have to find a new job and recover from my sister’s death? This can’t be happening.”

Whatever the stage, be kind to yourself and others experiencing these patterns of transition.


Collective Grief: When to Get Help

According to Debra Kaysen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the public mental health and population sciences division at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, it’s perfectly normal to feel irritable, sad, worried and anxious, regardless of whether you lost a loved one or not. Collective grief is a normal response to the events of 2020. Kaysen was interviewed for the article, “COVID-19 Q&A: Dr. Debra Kaysen on Individual and Collective Stress & Grief.”

According to the psychiatrist, this year was full of stress and these symptoms don’t mean you are experiencing a mental health crisis. Kaysen also distinguished the difference between trauma and stress. For most people, this past year included plenty of stress as opposed to trauma or complex trauma, which involves a life-threatening event or series of events.

If, however, you find yourself unable to function, it may mean you need some support. Maybe your symptoms aren’t lessening but increasing. Or, you may frequently experience difficulty getting motivated about work or the things you used to love.

In some cases, the pandemic brought to the surface challenging issues families may have been complacent about facing. In Sarah’s case, her dad’s drinking took on another level of interference in her family’s daily life.

Collective grief or individual grief is a process, not a specific one-time event. Over the next months and years, we will all continue to examine the impact the pandemic had on our lives. According to Ross, the process of grieving gives us valuable time to examine our lives and our place in the world. There is no timeline or set of rules to follow. Each of us must find the best way through.

Don’t hesitate to give yourself the gift of support during this transition to deal with any depression, anxiety, substance use issues or anything impacting your ability to stay present in your own life.

If you need guidance on this journey, reach out to The Ranch Pennsylvania for resources and support. Call us today at 717.969.9126

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