Anticipatory Grief: What We're Feeling & How To Cope with COVID-19

In psychology, a lot of what everyone is experiencing can be named “anticipatory grief”

5 min read
Anticipatory Grief: What We're Feeling & How To Cope with COVID-19

One of the most pervasive refrains I am encountering in therapy these days is how do we not let the millstone of uncertainty break our backs. The coronavirus outbreak accounts for staggering statistics globally. Apart from the snowballing numbers, mainstream and social media are teeming with visual chronicles of people trying to navigate this weary load on a daily basis. We are reading through twitter threads narrating the experience of frontline responders and medical professionals fighting the grim vise of this virus.

The vicarious trauma is so strong and unrelenting that it leaves us shaken like a weather-beaten tree. In psychology, a lot of what we are experiencing can be named “anticipatory grief”.

Anticipatory grief is when people experience a deep sense of sorrow before the tangible occurrence of a loss. The term usually refers to loss through death or illness but is equally applicable to separation, difficult surgical procedures or medical treatments (e.g. chemotherapy) as well as community/environmental disruptions (e.g. Australian bushfires or the anti-CAA protests). Trepidation is the defining characteristic of anticipatory grief. This is a skulking presence that sits heavy on the chest like a determined predator. The impact is compounded if the person experiencing anticipatory grief already deals with other psychosocial disabilities and/or a mental illness. On the flip-side, it can also unlock and suddenly shine a light on our ability for deep reflections about our lives, our relationships, our careers, our communities and our social/political climate. If there are well-guided and considerate methods through which we are able to channel these reflections, this process can alter the course of our existence in a healing way.

Stillness is not welcomed in a world driven by capitalist frenzy. Stillness is perceived as inactivity and penalized for being unproductive.

This outbreak has forced us into a form of stillness with which we have to reconcile. This has also made the disparities and injustices so rampant in our social order glaringly obvious.

Videos of daily wage earners left stranded on the streets while being roughed up by a heavy-handed law enforcement machinery evoke rage and anxiety. They disallow us to hush the conversation about the nature of privilege. We can no longer hide or shun this awareness. We have to acknowledge it even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Grief and Hope

In her essay “The Long Road”, Jennifer Allen states – “My arsenal was depleted. There was nothing to do but surrender and redefine hope […]”

This is critical discernment. This world is not inherently organized to make sense to us but we carve meaning out of its “dis-order”. Allen also presses upon the importance of how trepidation requires us to be keepers of contradictory emotions—grief and hope. If we try to instantly lean into one or the other too much, the imbalance will make us feel more powerless or less prepared. Yes, there is uncertainty and underlined anxiety about loss—the loss of loved ones, loss of a job, loss of a home. Our sense of belonging is threatened and it is important to acknowledge how we feel. However, this doesn’t mean that we are completely bereft of possibility for renewal, for change and above all, for surmounting this crisis.

We have to choose what we integrate into our daily awareness if we want to move beyond these crashing waves of anticipatory grief.

Buddhist monk and clinical psychologist, Jack Kornfield wrote about what he calls the “bodhisattva response” to the humanitarian crisis in the wake of coronavirus.

“The Bodhisattva path is in front of us. The beautiful thing is, we can see Bodhisattvas all around. We see them singing from their balconies to those shut inside. We see them in young neighbours caring for the elders nearby, in our brave healthcare workers and the unheralded ones who stock the shelves of our grocery stores.”

We have to go beyond ourselves now and that is why collective healing begins with social solidarity. Despite the fact that we are physically isolated and quarantined to protect ourselves and each other, we must hold space collectively.

Anticipatory grief is a 5-stage process in most cases. I am borrowing and further modifying these categories from T. A. Rando’s (1997) study on anticipatory grief and its impact on caregivers:

1. Mourning

This is the feeling of helplessness crashing against us, breaking us bit by bit. We can’t escape this even if what we fear is a possibility more than an eventuality. A pandemic is particularly difficult to deal with because it positions us squarely against our mortality. Its immensity seems invulnerable in the moment. However, it is important to reconnect with our resilience. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, it is harrowing. But natural disasters, conflicts, illnesses, oppression and other forms of accelerated turmoil are a part of our existence in this world. It is ok to be saddened and even devastated by the possibility of loss as well as the ongoing reality of loss. It is ok to let mourning lead the way.

2. Coping

Mourning if attended to thoroughly, can transform into coping. Life is a series of choices. We feel powerless when we feel that our choices have been thieved from us. Slowly within the depth of mourning, we have to make space to recognize that we need to cope in order to rise to the surface again. In tarot readings, the card “Tower” is considered ominous because it is symbolic of breakdowns. It shows a burning edifice crumbling to the ground but if you look closely, little leaves are sprouting at the base as if to indicate that given time, life can be reaffirmed and built back up. Coping means solidarity and acceptance.

Coping should translate into offering and seeking help. Coping begins with acknowledging that we are carrying a heavy burden but we have to find ways in which we can put it down for a while.

3. Interaction

In order to cope, we can’t remain detached and disengaged even when we are alone. Yes, the pandemic necessitates that we remain physically separate but most of us we are privileged enough to live in a time where technology allows for easier connections. A text, a phone-call, a video chat, all of these can be means of empathetic witnessing. Once we find stable ground for ourselves, we can extend help forward. We can be more vigilant of other people’s pain and challenges. A little bit of interaction can remind us that we aren’t forgotten islands.


4. Planning

On a personal level, planning means figuring out resources to deal with our grief. What kind of a toolkit do we need to keep steady through instability? On a larger scale, this is where our social awareness needs to kick in full throttle. Community wellness is a matter of intersectionality, not hierarchies. We plan better when we plan together whether it is in the form of digital care circles, food/grocery distribution communes or online reading club.

Planning shouldn’t be about personal hoarding and stockpiling of resources but creating cohesive, inter-connected units that center and build up from the needs of the most under-privileged members of a society.

5. Reorganisation

The world as we know it will change. We have to reorganize mentally to handle this. This is not going to happen in one giant leap, it is a step-wise process. We have to sit with the evident paradoxes and contradictions that we might face on this journey. It is not easy at the onset but survival has always been cumulative.

These steps are sometimes rooted in a slow-moving awareness. This awareness isn’t always neat or linear. We are allowed to fall off the wagon. During these months of shelter-in-place, let us not forget to tap into our collective resilience.

(Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan is a clinical psychologist, community catalyst and author.)

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