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Does Coronavirus Grief Exist?

April 6, 2020

If you’re like most people, coronavirus affected your daily life rather suddenly. It seems like one day CU Denver was preparing for remote classes—and then it just happened. Professors and students had to adjust to a new pandemic schedule. Then the entire city went remote. 

Universities and colleges across Colorado closed. Private and public K12 schools closed. Businesses closed. Denver got a stay-at-home order. Colorado got a stay-at-home order. Now the state’s residents have been urged to wear non-surgical masks in public. While CU Denver News has been trying to provide some good news, we haven’t had the time to stop and think about the new normal. But according to Amy Wachholtz, PhD, program director of the Clinical Health Psychology program, “We need to start by acknowledging the struggles.”  

The 5 Stages of Grief

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlines the five stages of grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and Acceptance. According to Kübler-Ross, the stages apply to how people cope with illness and dying.

People have interpreted the five stages as a linear progression, but Wachholtz explains that research shows they aren’t stages people progress through. “They are more like domains in a Venn diagram,” she said. “People may jump back and forth among them.” People can ultimately reach Acceptance and later return to one of the other domains.

diagram of 5 stages of grief; via PsychCentral
PsychCentral represents The 5 Stages of Grief as a non-linear system.

Why Are We Talking about Grief?

This brings up another point: why discuss grieving at all? While many people think the stages of grief only apply to illness and death, the principles may carry over into other life events. “There are so many things we are grieving due to the COVID crisis,” Wachholtz said. “These may include loss of special occasions with families and friends (e.g. birthdays, graduations, vacations), loss of daily interactions, a sense of control over our lives, a sense of security, loss of jobs and income …”

What people grieve during this time is complicated, because worldwide pandemics happen so rarely. And some of the things people grieve over are not tangible, “like the loss of a sense of security or control,” Wachholtz explains. Of course, it’s important to note that the five stages of grief also apply to coronavirus-related deaths: “There may be grief for the death of individuals due to the COVID-19 virus, and what may make that loss even more difficult is the inability to be with that loved one during the last days of their life.” 

Ways to Mitigate Negative Feelings

After we acknowledge our feelings, we can shift our focus to feeling better. Wachholtz suggests implementing a plan of action: “The temptation is to sit at home, and binge watch TV and eat comfort food. It feels good in the short term, but it won’t sustain you for the long term. If you are lacking your usual schedule, create one for yourself. Set your alarm clock, and develop a daily or weekly schedule that will allow you to take control of some aspects of your day.” 

Wachholtz suggests that whatever schedule you establish should include time for things that are scientifically proven to improve your mood. These include good sleep, exercise, socializing with friends (via phone or video), work, good food, and spiritual practice or meditation. A schedule with time built in for happiness-boosting activities “gives you some control over your life during a very unstable time,” she said. 

Positive Psychology Tools for Coronavirus Grief

There is something else everyone can do to avoid getting stuck in one of the less enjoyable stages of grief like Depression or Anger. You can help someone else. “Research has shown that if you are feeling bad but you can help someone else, that negative feeling lifts a little bit,” Wachholtz said. Simple things like volunteering to sew face masks or teaching someone how to use video conferencing will improve your mood. Essentially, help creates help—by helping someone else, you can help yourself feel better too.

Simply talking about how we feel during this pandemic is important, but finding ways to counteract negative emotions is a vital way to move forward. “I think the goal is to help students find ways to focus on the sparks of light during this difficult time,” Wachholtz said. Regarding the five stages of grief, she points out that depression is a clinical diagnosis, and if people have depression, they should reach out to a mental health professional. Visit the university’s coronavirus website for mental health resources.