We’ve lost a lot due to COVID-19, but does that mean we’re grieving? HRM put the question to three psychologists who took us through the different types of grief.
You’ve probably heard someone describe the sense of loss we’re feeling due to isolation as grief. In many respects it is. But it’s also more complicated than that.
Most of us have lost someone at some point in our lives. While our emotional responses to such loss are complex, difficult and unique to us, there’s also a slight sense of familiarity. We’ve seen people grieving before; we have a roadmap for death. When it comes to the loss we’re living through with COVID-19 however, we can’t look back on our own emotional history for a reference point.
There’s been a huge loss of life due to the virus. In that sense, our response to this grief from a workplace perspective is fairly textbook. Employers can offer bereavement leave or access to an EAP service. But when there’s an absence of physical loss, navigating that ‘grief’ as both the griever and supporter can be much more difficult.
These are unprecedented feelings we’re dealing with and while ‘grief’ might be the best word available, HRM felt it was worth taking the discussion to the experts.
So, what should we call it?
Dr Jo Lukins, an author and psychologist based in North Queensland, says what we’re travelling through emotionally is slightly different to grief in her opinion, but she’s not sure there’s a better word to encapsulate it.
“It depends how you define grief,” she says. “For me, it can be a response you have that’s physical, emotional or spiritual in relation to loss. ‘Grief’ does some of the job of explaining it, but not all of the job.”
What’s unique about this form of grief, she says, is that it’s the only thing she can think of where the whole word is going through something together.
“We have cyclones in Northern Queensland and while our lives are greatly impacted, everyone else just keeps chugging along. This is different.”
Lukins points out that there’s a difference between ‘grief’ and ‘complicated grief’. For example, losing an elderly grandparent who’s lived a long life versus losing a child or partner. Of course, someone’s experience of losing a grandparent might eventuate into complicated grief. Everything should be assessed on a case by case basis.
What many people are going through right now might just be complicated grief, because it was unexpected and there’s no clear end in sight.
“We’re in an ongoing, chronic situation and we’re getting reminders of that grief everyday. People struggle with a life that feels out of control and unpredictable, which is 100 per cent COVID-19,” says Lukins.
Dan Auerbach, an organisational psychology consultant with EmployeeAssistance.com.au and psychotherapist based in Sydney, can see why the ‘grief’ moniker is being used. He says that’s definitely the right word for some people, but he cautions against using it as a blanket term for what we’re all feeling.
“For there to be grief we need to identify a significant loss for the person. That could be a loss of a loved one, a role or even be financial wellbeing. It could be a lot of different things,” he says.
“But for others who are in isolation, who have maintained their financial wellbeing, their job, their relationships, we’re going to be seeing a lot of symptoms that look a bit like grief, such as despondency, listlessness, hopelessness and a low mood. But there’s not necessarily that sense of profound loss of one particular thing. You’re not necessarily going to get that deep pain, sorrow and outcry that often comes with genuine grief of the loss of something very, very treasured. So that’s why I differentiate.”
Auerbach makes the interesting point that for those who are predisposed to feelings of anxiety or depression, the micro-losses that we’re dealing with might trigger more complex emotional responses that could be veiled as grief.
Instead, Auerbach suggests we call this feeling ‘loss’, a sense of unreality, or adjustment difficulty.
“As long as we’re going through those phases in an expected way and they’re not causing us secondary mental health complaints, this is just a natural adjustment to just a very strong change in reality – that’s what I’d call it. But I think we can use a lot of different and nuanced words.”
Everyone’s experience should be described individually, he says.
Collective and disenfranchised grief
Dr Lefteris Patlamazoglou, a psychologist and lecturer at Monash University, says the element of yearning for something is what sets apart grief from other emotional responses, like depression or stress.
“Also, there’s a sense of things never being the same again. We know that on the other end of this pandemic, there may be a new sense of normalcy, but at this point we can’t quite fathom that. There’s a sense of irreversibility and unfinished business [in grief].”
He believes grief is the appropriate word to use right now, but says we should think of it beyond an individual level.
“What we’re experiencing at the moment is grief on a collective level. What we call ‘collective grief’,” he says.
“We’re in an ongoing, chronic situation and we’re getting reminders of that grief everyday. People struggle with a life that feels out of control and unpredictable, which is 100 per cent COVID-19.” – Dr Jo Lukins
There are pros and cons to this shared experience.
“Because we’re all grieving, some people might have difficulty seeing past their own grief. On the other hand, some people might be more empathic because they’re experiencing the same thing.”
Patlamazoglou says what makes this grief even more complex is that we’re grieving for both micro and macro losses.
An example of a micro-loss might be something personal, like losing your financial stability. A macro-loss encompasses loss from a society-wide perspective, such as the loss of businesses and services and of nation-wide economic stability.
Importantly, he says, “grief is a natural, healthy response to loss”.
“When I see people grieving right now because of the significant change that’s happened to the world, I’m not surprised. It’s an indication that we are responding in a healthy way.”
Where it becomes unhealthy, he says, is when we enter into disenfranchised grief territory.
“This is when people don’t acknowledge their grief, or the grief of others; it’s not openly acknowledged or publicly mourned. The impact of this is that they end up feeling dismissed or undermined… then they may even start to disenfranchise their own grief. The stigma becomes a self-stigma.”
Patlamazoglou says a classic example of this is when people believe children are too young to fully comprehend loss. Or when people grieve the loss of a pet or a celebrity.
Having your emotions devalued, at any age, can have larger impacts. Patlamazoglou says it might mean they take longer to adjust to a new reality post-COVID or will find it harder to cope in the here and now.
“It’s important that HR acknowledge that everyone may be grieving but in different ways. If they don’t, we run the risk of dismissing someone’s experience and therefore not making allowances for it,” he adds.
Another thing that differentiates the sense of loss caused by COVID-19 from most grief, says Lukins, are the new opportunities presented to us and the rollercoaster it takes us on.
“The majority of my income has disappeared because I mainly do seminars and workshops. So I’m on JobKeeper payments. I had a grief response after [Scott] Morrison shut everything down. But I’m blessed… I’m not in financial distress. So I’m able to say, ‘Well how great is it that I’m running my first webinar.’ All of a sudden, business opportunities are coming up that never would have happened before.”
She says one minute you might feel despondent about not being able to be at work, but then you might flip to feeling blessed to have more time to spend with your kids.Then, a second later, you might feel panicked about homeschooling. Many of us are flung between different emotional states on a daily basis.
What’s unique about this situation is that not only are many of us grieving for what we’ve already lost, we’re also experiencing anticipatory grief for what we could lose. We’re thinking about whether our jobs will weather this storm, if our relationships will survive and we worry about the impacts on our mental health from the long hours working and living behind closed doors.
Subtle anticipatory grief is common. For example, every now and then you might feel a pang of sadness at the thought of your parents one day passing away, but we mostly don’t allow ourselves to ruminate on it. But COVID-19 has meant many are experiencing anticipatory grief on steroids.
“It’s a chronic, ongoing stress that’s different to, say, the news that someone has passed away,” says Lukins. She says it might be similar to the emotional uncertainty we feel when a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. On one hand, they might get better, but then again, maybe they won’t. We just don’t know.
To put it into context, Patlamazoglou says, “This type of grief is also common before the loss of a relationship. You start grieving because you know it’s coming to an end.
“Anticipatory grief is quite common. But like many aspects of grief people don’t always acknowledge it,” says Patlamazoglou.
An article for the Harvard Business Review does an excellent job of describing anticipatory grief in an interview with grief expert David Kessler.
Kessler says, “Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety.” He goes on to describe how anticipatory grief is really anxiety. Our mind jumps to the worst case scenario and stays there. To overcome it, he says, we must do our best to return our minds to the present.
“If you make blanket statements that we’re all going through the same thing, you’re going to marginalise people who suspect they’re going through a more profound difficulty with adjusting than others.” – Dan Auerbach
Dealing with grief at work
HRM has offered tips for dealing with loss and death in the past, but we’re dealing with a whole other beast now. This isn’t just one or two people who’ve gone through a traumatic experience. Potentially, it’s the entire workforce.
“We’ve all been hyper alert for at least four weeks now. And then we wonder why we might snap at work or why we’re sensitive to feedback,” says Lukins. “We need to be aware how this chronic stress impacts our vulnerabilities.”
“Employees may experience poor productivity because of decreased capacity to focus,” says Patlamazoglou. “There may be some stress about meeting KPIs. So it might be a good idea to reconsider some of those.”
He also says that employers consider individual performance relative to opportunity to perform well.
“When it comes to annual performance reviews, take into account all the things that have happened in the last six to 12 months that may have impacted their productivity.”
For HR professionals and managers, Lukins suggests looking out for the following signs of potential grief, or other mental health conditions, in staff:
- If people seem irritable
- If they seem detached
- If they’re speaking more negatively than usual
- If they’re more preoccupied than usual
- If you’re less likely to see them laugh
- They might report feeling tired
- If they’re talking about drinking every night
Patlamazoglou adds to this. “There are different expressions of sadness. That might be tears or screaming, but it could also simply be withdrawal.”
He also says those expressing guilt, by changing their eating habits, socially withdrawing, ruminating on stories of what used to be, or yearning for a return to normalcy (in a way that’s out of the ordinary) could require a check in.
Is calling it ‘grief’ actually harmful?
The way grief is portrayed in popular media is very different to other mental health conditions. Those who come out of a grieving period are somewhat lionised. They retreated into their well of sadness and emerged a hero. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Other than offering a supportive shoulder, it’s felt there’s little you can do to help a grieving person – the sentiment is that it’s just something they have to move through on their own.
“If you make blanket statements that we’re all going through the same thing, you’re going to marginalise people who suspect they’re going through a more profound difficulty with adjusting than others,” says Auerbach.
He says businesses should absolutely fly the flag of ‘we will get through this together’. But it’s important to acknowledge individual vulnerabilities and reactions to severed attachment points that people feel are crucial to their own wellbeing.
Lukins says, “We medicalise depression. Grief is thought of differently. There’s specific leave for grieving in workplaces. Even though we’ve come so far in supporting people through depression, anxiety and other psychological experiences, we’ve been accommodating of grief for much longer.”
There’s also pressure associated with belonging to a lucky country. Australia got on top of the virus quickly and, so far, has been doing a good job of managing it.
“In Australia, if someone is going through depression or anxiety there might be some hesitation in saying that because we’re not in Italy or New York. This might make many people pull back on expressing what they’re going through,” says Lukins.
“In psychology we’re often telling people to decatastrophise things and get some perspective, but we don’t want to take away the permission to be sad about some of this stuff.”
Patlamazoglou says grief might be seen as more socially acceptable and elicits more explicit support. Often there’s a sense of shame when people express other mental health conditions.
“People’s sense of pride may cause them to mask their vulnerability or may feel that the outward expression of their depression, stress or trauma may negatively affect the way others think of them,” he says.
Auerbach says there are other issues with mislabelling the current sense of loss. “To compare it to the grief of losing something that is essential to your identity, which is often what profound grief is about – loss of a [partner] or child or loss of a limb or total loss of a job – I think there’s a risk of invalidating the profundity of some of those experiences. The current collective grief and loss we’re all feeling is about the change in situation, which is really more about adjusting to a very unusual ‘new normal’.”
While our experts have slightly different views on the semantics around grief, they all agree that, collectively, we are experiencing a sense of loss.
“Grief isn’t something we move on from,” Patlamazoglou says. “It’s something we move forward with. We can’t forget about this or pretend it never happened. Instead, we can try to gain resilience and new communication and working arrangements. It will be very unfortunate if nothing is earned from this pandemic.”
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