‘We need to name what we’re going through’: The role of grief in coping with Covid-19

Extraordinary times result in extraordinary feelings. David Kessler and Julia Samuel, two authors who are experts in grief, share their guidance for all of us during the Covid-19 crisis.


During those first strange and confusing days of lockdown, there was one explanation of the feelings millions were experiencing in the unprecedented events of a global pandemic: grief.

When David Kessler, an author made famous by On Grief and Grieving, his and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s landmark introduction of the five stages of grief, gave an interview to the Harvard Business Review last month which helped articulate the anguish, denial and anger that was ricocheting around the world, it went viral. People were sharing it on social media, but also over the phone and on Zoom calls. Here, finally, was something to help make sense of our feelings at a bizarre moment in history.

Kessler, who’s up early in the morning in Los Angeles to speak to me, admits that the reaction was ‘quite remarkable’. He also witnessed one of the more surreal moments of the Covid-19 pandemic first-hand – being at Disneyland when the theme park announced it would be closing. ‘I went into the lobby and saw so many kids crying,’ he recalls. ‘For them their little world had ended, and I thought, “Oh they’re in grief”. And then, as I came home and heard people saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I feel so sad, I cried last night, I woke up with a heaviness”. I thought, again: “they’re in grief and they don’t know it.”’

Within days, graphics of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle drifted through Twitter, as people identified with being in denial, anger, depression, bargaining or acceptance. ‘Part of this is naming what we’re going through,’ says Kessler. ‘The more we talk about it, the more we name it, the more we’re likely to find post-traumatic growth.’

'Intentionally do thing you like: listen to music, buy flowers'

Julia Samuel is a psychotherapist and also an author on the subject, including Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass.

‘I would frame it as a living loss,’ she says. ‘There are many aspects of life that involve dramatic and intense change that isn’t actually death. It could be divorce, a health diagnosis, a pandemic.  It’s not a death, but it has all the hallmarks of grief, so it feels like grief.’

Samuel explains that the pandemic has triggered alert within coping systems that humans have gained through evolution. ‘Depending on your personality type, you will experience all sorts of feelings in an attempt to cope: numbness, shock, fury, sadness, despair, confusion. You might have all of those feelings or one or two of them, and the intensity will be affected by other things such as how much previous loss you’ve encountered, and your support system'.

'What's surprising is how people find meaning after tragedy'

One of the crueller aspects of the pandemic is the importance of social distancing and self-isolation, meaning that many people are separated from their loved ones at a time when those connections are needed the most.

‘Rituals and gatherings are so important to the process, that when we’re not allowed to have those it really compounds our grief,’ says Kessler. ‘It makes it more difficult to process, because part of grief is being with other people, having them see our pain and talking about it. All that has been lost in this moment.’

Samuel has some advice on how we can approach the complexity of simply trying to live a normal life under the shadow of the pandemic: ‘Fundamentally, we have to recognise what we can control and what we don’t control. Then, we can adapt and support ourselves to manage our own responses.’

She advises against doing things that might ‘block’ our natural emotions to change and grief, such as ‘alcohol, drugs, sex, any kind of obsessive behaviour’, and instead use what energy we have to ‘focus on how you respond, rather than what you can change.'

Both Kessler and Samuel explain that grief can manifest itself as fear, which sets our bodies into alert mode. This is why exercise, which releases the cortisol stress can build up, can be so crucial at times like this. Samuel also recommends a few minutes of breathing exercises as well as ‘intentionally doing things that you like: listen to music, buying flowers’. By doing all three: exercise, breathing properly, rewarding yourself at either the start or the end of the day, you can create moments of pause that can help to recalibrate the system.

Kessler recommends focussing on the unexpected benefits that have emerged from this turbulent time. ‘What’s surprising is how people find meaning after tragedy,’ he says. ‘Meaning is often in the small moment: the other day I was walking down the street with my dog, and I saw parents playing in the yard with their kids for the first time since I’ve lived here. We have to think about what are the meaningful moments we’re experiencing now, what can help us find the light in this darkness.’

Finally, stop beating yourself up for not starting that big project, Samuel says. It’s enough work just to give space to the new range of unexpected feelings you're facing each day: ‘Let them come through you like a wave – whatever you’re feeling, it’s normal. Don’t criticise it, don’t try and tidy it. Don’t feel you have learn Russian or learn to cook cheese five different ways. Now is not the time to make yourself perfect, it’s the time to be self-compassionate.’

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