Here in Melbourne, Australia, we find ourselves facing the grief and trauma of Covid in a way we haven’t had to face since the big lockdown of 2020. With at least 15,000 known contacts and over 120 exposure sites, many of which are of significant concern, people are understandably worried. Many are feeling triggered and anxious, after the extensive lockdown of 2020.
There is a heaviness in the air hanging over the city. A stillness. A quietness. A sense of foreboding… We’ve been here before, which possibly contributes to the looming sense of doom. We’ve beaten it before, but at a significant cost. What will it cost to beat it again?
Covid has a way of creeping up on you, stealthily sneaking its tendrils throughout your city until it suddenly knocks you off your feet and sends everything crumbling down around you.
So here we are. Lockdown 4.0 in Melbourne, Australia: a city known for its vibrant nightlife, its culture, its laneways filled with art, culture, food, and coffee. But today the clubs and bars are closed, the laneways are deserted, the streets are eerily empty, and…. did I say coffee?
Now we have to brew our own.
And so we grieve.
We grieve the loss of freedom.
We grieve the loss of autonomy.
We grieve the loss of cultural norms.
Is anyone going to the footy this weekend?
We grieve the loss of normality, predictability, safety, and good coffee.
There are some who say it’s “not such a big deal”, but for those who have experienced significant loss, or who fear that fate, the grief is real. And the experience, however it is felt, is validated by the one who experiences it.
COVID and Grief
A person doesn’t have to die for someone to grieve. Grief can be experienced after losses of any kind, including non-death losses such as divorce, redundancy, retirement, estrangement, companionship, or financial security. One of the losses many people in Melbourne have already experienced is the loss of a business, which has rippling effects extending far beyond the closing of the cash register for the final time. There are so many empty shops now. “Businesses gone bust.” Even JobKeeper couldn’t save them.
Grief is multi-faceted and can be experienced in a multitude of ways. More than just unrelenting sadness, grief can also be anger, rage, disappointment, regret, dread, pining, ruminating, jealousy, busyness, denial, and despair. And it doesn’t end there.
In the case of ‘COVID Grief,’ there can also be secondary losses such as:
- Feeling trapped in a house with a partner you were planning to leave
- The isolation of living alone and not having someone you can call on to be in your ‘COVID Bubble’
- Financial security: savings or superannuation are withdrawn to make it through
- With reduced numbers permitted at funerals, many are denied the opportunity to participate in mourning rituals
- Celebration rituals – with the cancellation of weddings
- Inability to travel to see loved ones, some of whom may never be seen again, such as ageing relatives
- A sense of mate-ship and teamwork. State is pitted against State, the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, and mask-wearers against nose-exposers
- Fear of strangers AND loved ones – could we ever have predicted the day that every single other person is seemingly a threat to our health and safety?
COVID and Trauma
When faced with danger, it is natural for our nervous system to automatically respond with either fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
Fight! People who are typically demure and quietly spoken have been known to erupt in a fit of rage at people not wearing masks. The fight response has them behaving in ways that may normally be quite foreign but in the face of danger, the compulsion to protect and fight back is strong. Rage at those who break the rules – rage at those who make the rules.
Flight! There are others who cannot get away quickly enough. They may cross the street if they see an unmasked person or change grocery store checkouts; they may dash across the border before the chance of escape is slammed shut in their face. Everyone is a threat, everything is dangerous, and it’s too scary or dangerous to fight. So they run. Either physically, mentally or relationally.
Freeze! There are some who feel claustrophobic during a lockdown, and others who may, in a way, thrive. Sort of. The challenge for the freeze types is returning to society and social situations afterwards. It may feel easier to stay hidden. During the Lockdown, this type of response may lead to shutting out the news, denying that Covid exists, turning off notifications, refraining from answering the phone, cocooning inside the walls until the danger hopefully passes by. If this state persists, the danger can be increasing isolation and significant hesitancy to embrace ways of connecting in spite of the lockdown. Life gets smaller and smaller until the only thing left to face is themselves.
Fawn! Fawning is less often talked about as a trauma response. This occurs who someone must appease, conform, comply… They are compelled to make sure everyone else is complying and that everyone is okay. This is the one who may exhaust themselves trying to help and fix anyone and everyone else. Except, perhaps, themselves.
All of these can be very normal responses to traumatic experiences. The most important thing is to move through this response and have the capacity to shift back to a state of calm, rather than staying stuck. Dr Stephen Porges speaks about another nervous system state: the social engagement system, where we feel safe enough to use play, face-to-face contact and the voice to regulate our emotional states. This can be more challenging when wearing masks, but there are still ways to connect with our eyes and voice and utilise other elements that help us feel safe enough to connect with one another and settle our nervous system response to trauma.
If you are feeling traumatised by anything to do with the Coronavirus pandemic, please reach out for professional mental health support.
How to Help Yourself
Unless you are living under a rock, you will be hearing, reading and seeing relentless news coverage about the Coronavirus pandemic and the Lockdown. Whilst it is important to be well-informed, there is definitely a balance between information and overwhelm. It may be helpful to limit the number of times you search for information, and practice the art of scrolling by or turning off when you are feeling inundated. Preferably beforehand!
Give yourself compassion breaks. Treating yourself kindly in the middle of a crisis is a non-negotiable, really. Now is a great time to lower your expectations and do what is right for you, regardless of the pressure to create a masterpiece or take up a new hobby. What helps you decompress will often be quite different to what helps someone else. If you find cake baking and decorating to be relaxing and calming, go for it! If you would prefer to curl up with a good book or settle in for a Netflix binge, go for it!
If you find yourself spending disproportionate amounts of time in one activity, or hiding from life, it could be an important time to reach out for help.
No one needs to go through this alone. There are ways to connect with support systems and find resources to help. Here are some ideas:
- Griefline is a good place to start if you are needing compassionate, non-judgmental counselling support from trained volunteers.
- Lifeline is the go-to for a crisis. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, please, reach out for help.
- 1800RESPECT is a helpful phone support service for anyone struggling with violence and abuse.
- Counselling by a registered, trained professional is a great way to help you cope with challenging thoughts, feelings and situations. Counsellors often have no waitlist, they do not require a GP referral, they may offer health fund rebates, and you can receive unlimited sessions with an approach that is tailored to your unique situation.
- If you would like to book a free inquiry call with me, you can do so here.
There is no shame in reaching out for help.
Unfortunately, we cannot avoid this global pandemic. Trying to push away the reality of the situation does not make it go away. Ultimately, we need to face COVID. Dr Russ Harris has created a video and eBook that outlines some steps to face the challenges that COVID is presenting us with.
Focus on what’s in your control
Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings with curiosity
Come back into your body through grounding and the breath
Engage fully in what you’re doing, focusing your attention on the activity at hand
Committed action guided by your core values
Open up space for difficult thoughts and feelings, with kindness and compassion
Values – what do you want to stand for? What sort of person do you want to be?
Identify resources for help, assistance, support and advice
Disinfect and distance for the greater good of the community
5 Ways to Help Others
- Check in on your loved ones and those you think may be struggling. Your phone call might be the one thing that makes a difference and helps them know they are not alone.
- Validate, validate, validate. There is no hierarchy in grief. All grief experiences are worthy of being acknowledged by others. Disenfranchised grief that is pushed into the shadows tends to worsen, not lessen. Telling someone to “get over it” or that it’s “not that bad” may lead them to hold more firmly to their grief response. Knowing that their experience is acknowledged by another makes it easier to bear, somehow. Feeling supported and knowing that others ‘have your back,’ reduces the sense of isolation.
- Kindness, not Rivalry. Enough with the State wars. We are in this together. Star Wars is a great movie; State Wars not so much. The online disinhibition that is so often seen in social media comments can actually cause significant harm to other readers. Now, more than ever, we need an extra dose of common human decency.
- Be a listening ear, not a talking mouth. When someone needs to talk, they need to be heard, not told. The art of empathic listening is well worth practising. This might look like reflecting back key words or phrases that the person has shared, not in a parroting fashion, but in a way that shows you have really heard them in their distress.
- Ask, don’t assume. Check to see what they might find helpful, rather than assuming. Some people find video calls invasive and others prefer them to a phone call. Some people don’t like receiving phone calls uninvited and may prefer a text message first to see if it is a good time. When someone opens up to you about their distress or struggles, it can be helpful to ask if they are wanting supportive listening, or practical ideas and solutions.
Coronavirus is apparently not going away anytime soon, but neither are we, so we might as well get through it together.
From a distance, if you’re in Melbourne!
A Helpful Podcast
Jodie Gale’s Podcast, Finding Meaning and Purpose in Difficult Times, is both uplifting and down-to-earth. The podcast includes helpful ideas including journal prompts and a book list by inspirational authors who have found meaning in spite of incredibly adverse situations. Addressing the issue of toxic positivity, Jodie reminds us that we need to stay grounded in realism without denying our suffering, while also holding onto hope and the possibility of being transformed by the challenges we face. This podcast and many others on Jodie’s site are highly recommended.