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How to give yourself time to grieve a year of disappointment and disruption

While it feels a little like life is slowly starting to open up again, there’s no denying the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll. As we kick off the new, it’s only natural we reflect on the year just past .

Of course there are the more obvious losses, such as the more than one million people who have lost their lives globally, along with countless people who have lost jobs or businesses. Not to mention the isolating effect the pandemic has had on our everyday lives, particularly in Victoria, for the better part of 2020.

So, in the midst of all this, is it trivial to feel a sense of grief over what we’ve missed out on – everything from weddings, to travel, parties, graduations, births or the excitement of Year 12 or first year of uni?

Definitely not, says Dr Rebecca Diehm, who is a registered clinical psychologist and a lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology. ‘I think it’s very normal to be distressed by it, and normal to be disappointed.’

Feeling guilty just makes things worse

It’s pretty easy to feel guilty for your sadness over missing a season of sport, 21st birthday celebrations or having to postpone that long-awaited adventure. But Dr Diehm says those thoughts or emotions are perfectly valid.

‘People will judge themselves, and think “I shouldn’t be thinking like this, there’s people that are in much worse situations than myself”,’ she says.

‘But then that can add to your distress if you engage in that kind of negative thinking, because you’re feeling bad anyway and then you’re feeling worse because you think “I shouldn’t be thinking this, and I shouldn’t be feeling this”.’

Managing your emotions

It’s important to acknowledge your emotions, then to accept that has been your experience, and that it’s OK, she says. Ask yourself: why am I feeling this way, what’s triggered it?

‘And understand it’s in the broader context of a pandemic. It’s not something most of us have ever experienced before,’ Dr Diehm says.

In terms of coping strategies, she recommends trying to focus on the things you can control – not on all those things still outside your reach.

If you are starting to make plans, and you’re worried they won’t go ahead, Dr Diehm suggests having a back-up plan to help ease any uncertainty. ‘Say to yourself: if this can’t go ahead for whatever reason, what could we do instead? Or could we do it differently?’

'I think it’s very normal to be distressed by it, and normal to be disappointed.'

Dr Rebecca Diehm,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Meanwhile, she says you should continue to look after yourself, by exercising regularly and perhaps journalling or enjoying your favourite hobby.

And don’t forget to make efforts to stay connected – if not face to face, then at least over the phone, via text or online.

Knowing who to talk to

She says it’s best to avoid talking about your disappointments with people who you suspect are just going to tell you to ‘build a bridge’ and get over it.

‘Most of the time you have a bit of an idea of people who might be able to help you process your experience. So, go and talk to someone you think is going to be responsive and understanding.’

If you can’t think of the right person, or you don’t start to feel better as time goes on, it’s worth checking in with your GP or talking to a psychologist.

Coming out of your cocoon

It’s also important to manage your transition back to ‘normal’ or at least ‘COVID-normal’ life, Dr Diehm says.

While returning to your social life, for instance, might be enjoyable, it can also be a little anxiety provoking at times.

‘It can feel weird from not being able to connect with anyone or being in the same room, to then being in a room with 10 people.’

Dr Diehm says you may also need time to emotionally process what’s happened – or in many cases not happened – in 2020.

Be kind to yourself – and others

Very few of us have found this year easy, says Dr Diehm.

Try to remember that everyone’s experience is individual, but that everyone has a right to feel a certain way about a situation. And people’s experiences of COVID will all be different based on their other life experiences and the resources they have to cope with it.’

If you are grieving the loss of what you’ve missed out on this year, that’s only natural, Dr Diehm says.

You just have to really be kind to yourself at the moment. Everyone just has to be kind to themselves and one another because it’s an incredibly difficult situation,’ she says.

‘I think they say it’s a once-in-100-year kind of event, and as a population, as a group or a generation, we haven’t been through something like this.’

But she suggests also trying to remember that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And hopefully not too much fear of missing out in 2021.

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Dr Rebecca Diehm
Dr Rebecca Diehm

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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