As uncertainty lingers, we find ourselves trying to create a "new normal" while also grieving the loss of our pre-Covid life. With access to an abundance of information, we may find it impossible to distinguish between fact and fiction, judgement and acceptance. For better or for worse, everyone has a different way of coping with this pandemic, making it hard to find a consensus on how to live safely as Covid variants continue to emerge.
September 2021 is the 18-month mark since lockdown. One year and six months of life in a global pandemic. The tentacles of Covid reaching around the world shifting our orientation from moving, for the most part, freely to treading with an abundance of caution. Everyone has faced loss and had unique situations to navigate, some with greater degrees of complexity than others.
Loss is systemic, and when one part of a system changes, those attached to that system also change. As a result, there is a realignment of how life will be moving forward. We can move with it or against it, and the change will still happen. When we lose a loved one, for example, we must move forward without their physical presence. And in doing so, we mourn the loss and grieve what it means to live without the life we knew with that person. Likewise, we must adapt to loss and the relationship shifts that come with it. For some, this brings closeness to friends and families, while others may experience rupture, fragmentation, and additional loss.
Pandemic life falls in line with loss and Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief. In the beginning, there was denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The first stages do not form a straight line to acceptance. The periods of grief oscillate and are circular. And as it became clear that the pandemic was not short-term, it also came to light that the grief itself is ambiguous. Even with hope on the horizon, we face uncertainty about the dos and don’ts etiquette. Moderate relief comes with vaccinations, while others remain unsure of its safety.
With breakthrough infections and a lack of consensus on safety protocols, we are tasked with deciding what is best for ourselves and our loved ones. And, after endless months of languishing and longing for our pre-Covid life, we find ourselves facing re-entry anxiety. Wait, what? How is this possible? Well, the target keeps moving, and no one knows what is truly safe for them and their loved ones. And just like the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance of 2020 days, we find ourselves in 2021 gazing toward the horizon of anticipatory anxiety.
As humans, we like certainty and routines. It helps us regulate our emotions so we can cope better with challenging situations. So, rest assured that feeling of ambiguity surrounding our current Covid climate is a normal emotional response. However, without a cohesive narrative on what is best, you may feel aimless, angry, and alone on what to do in this time of uncertainty. What you are experiencing is a form of ambiguous loss. It is the feeling of not having a clear path to acceptance. In essence, our healing stalls, and we are in a holding pattern that keeps us from fully grieving.
We must grieve fully to rebuild ourselves and move forward. And the challenges posed by living with the ambiguity of Covid as new viral strains come to life can feel impossibly difficult. Without clarity, we are vulnerable to a range of emotions that keeps us from being present in our lives. Quality of life, then, becomes compromised. If you find yourself struggling to navigate the bewildering terrain of the Covid world in 2021, you can benefit from talking to a professional. Some helpful tips for ambiguous loss include:
Self-Care: Remind yourself of the things that help you manage stress. We all know that stress management is a preventative health measure. Still, it can be hard to practice good habits when the world around us feels fragmented—all the more reason to develop some healthy habits. So, pay attention to the self-care basics such as exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep and connection. You can combine these and make it more fun by asking a friend to go for a walk and bringing a healthy snack with you. In times of high stress, it is common to forgo our health habits for the quick fix of something more effortless. Remember that self-care is an act of kindness.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries: If ever there was a time to evaluate your limits, this is it! What works for one person does not work for another. Keep in mind that you can make choices for yourself and your family that others may not agree with. You do not need permission or peer pressure from others about your safety. It is okay to say "no thank you" when a situation makes you feel anxious. Keep in mind that listening to what you need is critical, especially in cases that misalign with what makes you feel comfortable.
Mindful Acceptance: Remember that we live our lives from moment to moment. Catastrophic thinking is unhelpful and takes us away from being present. Regrets lead to depression, while worrying about the future leads to anxiety. Neither of which feels good to us. One goal for managing in these ambiguous times is to engage in mindful acceptance. To be mindful, you need to focus your energy on the current place of time. It requires being aware of your surroundings and finding something to be grateful for. Instead of battling against our present circumstances, we engage in unburdening negative emotions such as regret and worry when we accept where we are each day.
Talk to a Professional: In the current Covid climate, where everyone is experiencing varying degrees of loss and uncertainty, it can help to talk to a professional. Our lives and relationships have shifted, and our typical support systems are also trying to cope with this pandemic. A marriage and family therapist (MFT) has the expertise to work with relational issues. Whether you seek individual, couple or family therapy, MFTs can help you sort through the ambiguity of living well in these challenging times.
If you need help finding a therapist, you can use the AAMFT Therapist Locator to find someone in your area -- Find A Therapist
Written by Vanessa Bradden, LMFT, AAMFT Product Development Specialist