Feelings of profound loss pervade during pandemic

Collective grief

Grief isn’t limited to death.

It can come from the loss of a job, or the loss of financial security and routines. It can come from the loss of the sense of safety, or the loss of a highly anticipated experience, like graduation or prom. It can also come from missing seeing friends and family.

Vanessa Saenz, vice president of the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance’s Behavioral Health Hospital in Edinburg, said the most commonly known reason for grief is the death of a loved one — but grief can manifest itself in many other kinds of losses.

“People associate grieving with death, and that’s true, but it actually goes far deeper than that,” Saenz, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, said. “… People of all ages can grieve at all levels. Grief does not discriminate based on your age. It’s not only adults, it’s not only women or men — it’s everybody, and everybody on some level needs to address it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is both an epidemiological and psychological battle. The anxiety, stress and sadness that the virus has brought to the world, not leaving out the Rio Grande Valley, has led psychologists to deem it collective grief.

This is because losses many people are experiencing can be traced back to the same reason: the pandemic. Saenz said the last time she would say the nation experienced collective grief, or collective sorrow, was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s a universal loss, it’s collective because even though some may not have physically lost anything, the collective grief of the community still affects them,” Saenz said. “Even if I myself personally may not have lost something, I am still at a loss because my community is at a loss.”

Grief is a natural response to any significant loss, and the emotional pain often comes in waves and subsides overtime. Grief is considered a temporary condition, according to Mayo Clinic; while on the other hand, depression is a clinical, long-term disorder that can lead to severe problems if left unaddressed and untreated.

Someone’s grief can be because of many reasons, but the body’s response to it is the same no matter what the trigger is, she said. Some physical symptoms of grief include stomach and chest pains, migraines, loss of memory, diarrhea and loss of appetite.

Saenz laid out five stages of grief, and though the order varies person to person, the most common process is: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“Denial in the beginning was when people were saying it wouldn’t come here,” she said. “That ‘We’re in the Valley, it’s all the way on the other side of the world. It’s not real, it’s a hoax.’”

Then the backlash of social distancing orders arose, Saenz said it was the community going through the anger phase.

“Bargaining was when people said, ‘We’ve been shut down for two weeks, I think we can open up slowly,’” she said.

The goal is to reach acceptance.

“Acceptance is when everyone is wearing a mask, and no one is leaving their home without one in hand because we have accepted that we are in a state in the pandemic when we have to take care of ourselves,” she said. “… When you reach that acceptance stage, that’s when ideas start to implement strategies to build ourselves.”

However, the pandemic has barred many people from activities they normally confide in.

Usually, many find solace at work spaces, or resort to their faith and spend more time at church. Others may seek more time with friends and family. Since the pandemic has constricted people to their homes, there is no escaping the grief that comes with it.

Saenz’s advice is to stay connected.

“Even if it’s just by phone, or if it’s through FaceTime and you are not able to physically connect with your loved ones, don’t forget to do those daily check-ins with one another,” she said. “It helps you and it helps them.”

She also encourages people to start new hobbies and build a routine to follow. “Routines really help keep a sound mind, even though our routines look a lot different today than they may have back in January,” Saenz said. “Try to develop a routine you can stick to.”

Saenz worries that people are ignoring their grief, which can lead to severe psychological problems. Not appropriately and intentionally going through coping strategies can higher someone’s risk of experiencing a major depressive episode, or developing more severe emotional disorders.

“One of the direct results we see because of the pandemic is that people experiencing symptoms, either depression or anxiety or fear related to the pandemic, they are not getting help in fear of catching the virus,” she said. “They are delaying their care and as a result, I do feel that maybe not right now in this moment, but in the near future, we are going to see a large influx of patients that are going to have prolonged psychological distress from having to put off getting help because of the fear of the pandemic.”

Saenz encourages parents to have conversations about the pandemic with their children, and while talking to them, make sure to recognize the losses they are facing, be sensitive to their feelings, and then leave them with a message of hope.

“You want to remind your children that this is temporary and temporary can mean a couple of months and temporary can mean two years, but temporary is definitely not forever.

“Grief is natural, and coping strategies should be implemented right away. … Focus on the positives, and know that this is temporary. We as a community are experiencing the same thing; we can all relate to one another and continue to support each other. Continue to offer support to those you love, and to strangers.”