And It’s Okay to Feel it During the Coronavirus Crisis
I keep having nightmares about going to Target. In these dreams, I walk through the aisles of one of my favorite places, enjoying a Saturday shop. Suddenly, as people brush by me or stand close in line, I realize my grave mistake: I’ve ventured out into a pandemic, and I’m surrounded by potentially infected people. Panic sets in. Anger at myself for somehow forgetting this new reality. Then I wake up feeling sad. I know I can’t go to Target, and I miss it. Once I can go back, will I be afraid, like in my dreams?
This is one of many minor things I mourn about our new way of life. As COVID-19 sickens thousands across the country and the world, the future we’ve all depended on is no longer a foregone conclusion, and it’s really, really sad.
Harvard Business Review named grief as the “discomfort” so many of us are experiencing, and that’s exactly true. I’ve cried for days on end, thinking about the things I thought I’d be doing. Worse, I cry when I imagine people in the near future I had neatly mapped out getting snatched away by an unrelenting illness. I grieve for those who are sick and dying, but I also grieve for my loss of autonomy, trips I’ve canceled, lost hours in the sun, and for the ideas I had about my future life that seem less tangible by the day.
I know I’m not alone. College and high school graduations won’t happen this year, leaving young people who are looking forward to a new chapter of their lives floundering. Many will miss out on prom, a pivotal coming-of-age moment for some. The going-away parties, weddings, birthdays — they’re all canceled.
Right now it seems trivial to mourn the absence of your college graduation ceremony or a school dance because of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as dead bodies overwhelm hospital morgues. It is kind of trivial. And it’s true that it’s better to miss a milestone if it means saving lives.
But as our lives are torn apart, rendered unrecognizable by social isolation and coronavirus cancellations, it’s only human to mourn the life you thought you’d have.
“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday,” David Kessler, grief expert and author, told Harvard Business Review. “Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”
It can also feel confusing because grieving a lost shopping trip, or even something bigger like a graduation, feels selfish. How can I feel bad for myself when I still have my life and, so far, my health? Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD with Talkspace, says ranking grief isn’t helpful.
“You may even be feeling guilty for being sad about missing out when other people are facing sickness and death,” she tells Teen Vogue. “I hope to encourage you by saying that grief comes in all shapes and sizes, and it is normal to feel all sorts of emotions when your reality does not match up with your expectations. Each of our emotional experiences is valid. We don’t compare our levels of joy, and we need to stay away from comparing our feelings of sadness. Sad is sad.”
Sad is, in fact, sad. Of course, no one would compare the grief of missing prom to that of losing a loved one, or even having and recovering from COVID-19. Everyone knows it’s not the same. Still, we feel sad, especially when the celebrations and rituals that “provide special meaning [in] our lives” are taken away, as Ertel puts it. Rather than push our feelings of grief and sadness away, Ertel recommends we allow ourselves to feel it. Acknowledge and honor your feelings, she says; then try to live in the current moment.
In this moment, I feel sad that I can’t go to my favorite restaurant on Fridays like I normally do. I feel sad that I might have to cancel my bachelorette party. I feel sad that this was supposed to be a happy, busy time in my life and it’s now marked by death and daily feelings of despair.
I also feel sad that people are sick. I worry about myself, my friends, and my family. I feel sad that people are dying, and I feel sad for their families. I feel sad that, when this is all over, we won’t know what’s normal and won’t feel familiar with the world around us. I feel sad that, more than ever, I don’t know what the future holds.
But I also feel excited for the dinner I’ll eat tonight. I feel thankful for my comfortable couch and my two adorable cats. I feel like I should brush my teeth. I feel grateful I have food in my fridge and a secure place to weather this storm. I also occasionally feel thankful for this big slowdown, for the canceled plans and postponed events. The mundane joys and discomforts of life are still here, amid all of this. Now, more than ever, I am reminded that there are things to be hopeful for, like the future trips to Target I know I’ll take. And I have hope that they will be happy, like they were before.
Until then, I think I’ll be sad — and that’s okay.
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