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Managing Anticipatory Grief in a Pandemic

Each of us feels what we feel. Here are some tips for coping.

By Jill Smolowe

A profound sadness has settled over our planet. Whether it's the loss of visits with loved ones, the loss of steady work and income, the loss of our usual routines or the full-stop loss of a person in our life whose own life has been extinguished by COVID-19, grief is now a part of our daily landscape.

woman and dog looking into distance

So, let’s not deny it. And, please, let’s try to avoid constructing mental lists of who-has-it-worst, then arguing with ourselves about whether it’s appropriate for us to be upset about whatever is rocking our own universe.

Example: A neighbor of mine is quarantined at home with her two children, mourning the recent death of her husband from coronavirus. Given this family’s pain and isolation — neither friends nor family can drop by to offer comfort and support — am I entitled to the sadness I feel because I can’t see and hug my adult daughter? Answer: Yes, I am.

Instead, let’s acknowledge that, at a minimum, coronavirus is infecting all of our lives with anticipatory grief.

For some, it’s a sense of impending loss as we gird for the very real prospect that someone we know and care about may be felled by COVID-19: a family member, a colleague, a friend, a neighbor, a caregiver.

As the list of items stoking our fears and grief grow by the day, it helps to remember that while loss is universal, grief is personal.

For others, it’s anticipation, or the bald reality, of financial turmoil: loss of a job; loss of income; loss of a stock portfolio intended to see our grandchildren through college or ourselves through retirement.

No less real, anticipatory grief now darkens even what were once the simplest transactions in our lives. When we go out to shop for food, what might we bring home that wasn’t on our list (COVID-19) or what might we fail to procure (toilet paper)?

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When we phone a child for a weekly chat, what unanticipated news bulletin might explode in our ears? When we extract an envelope from the mailbox, what might it be carrying along with a greeting or a bill?

Grief Is Personal

As the list of items stoking our fears and grief grow by the day, it helps to remember that while loss is universal, grief is personal.

This means that we should honor whatever best enables us to process and handle the myriad disruptions and blows upending our lives, but should neither expect nor assume that our own coping strategies are appropriate for our partners, our children or any of the other people in our orbit.

At a stressful time like this, we need to steer wide of judgment (of ourselves and of others) and widen the space for compassion (for ourselves and for others).

We need to agree that there is no hierarchy to the sadness each and every one of us feels. We need to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all rule or remedy for handling all these feelings.

Then, we need to get practical and find ways to deal with our own grief.

Coping Strategies in the Face of Grief

Toward that end, here are some coping strategies that draw on my work as a grief coach; my personal experience with pre-COVID-19 family losses and my three-year meditation practice. Take what works for you. Toss the rest.

Just, please, don’t deny, dismiss or denigrate the grief you’re feeling. It’s real. You’re entitled to it.

Try techniques to quiet dark thoughts. When you find your thoughts spiraling into a black hole of what-ifs, try replacing them with a one-word mantra or phrase. Shifting your focus from a sprawling mental narrative to a simple word or phrase can help pull you back into the present moment.

One particularly timely phrase: “Don’t go there ’til you get there.” Quiet repetition of these words reminds both that you are in the here and now and that there’s no gain in trying to predict events hours, days or months from now.


Another approach favored by meditators is to focus on the in and out of the breath. Alternately, you can experiment with your five senses to see which best helps you achieve focus. Maybe it’s the warmth of clasped hands. (Touch) Aromas emanating from your kitchen. (Smell) The sound of birds or windchimes. (Hearing) A single flower petal. (Sight) The sensation of an ice cube dissolving in your mouth. (Taste)

Feel your emotions. When we are rocked by a wave of grief, we typically respond with thoughts that strain to parse, argue with or deny what we’re feeling. An alternate approach is to let go of those thoughts and instead focus on the physical sensations.

To do this, sit or lie comfortably. Next, train your attention on where the emotion is showing up in your body. Are you feeling a stiffening in your shoulders? A quickening of your heartbeat? An unease in your gut? A pounding in your temples?

Whatever the sensation, explore it with interest, not judgment. Say to yourself, "So, this is what grief feels like." By focusing on physical sensations, rather than thoughts, a strong wave of emotion often quiets and passes within minutes.

Practice self-compassion. Rather than argue with or dismiss your grief with harsh judgment and criticism, meet your pain with gentle understanding. Offer yourself words of comfort. Give yourself a hug. Treat yourself, as Kristin Neff suggests in Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, “with the same kindness, caring, and compassion [you] would show to a good friend, or even a stranger.”

Another important aspect of self-compassion, Neff notes, is to acknowledge that we are not alone in our pain. By remembering that grief is a part of the human experience, one that we all share, we allow our pain to connect us to our common humanity rather than isolate us.

Allow yourself to cry. For months after my husband died in 2009, I found that each day around dusk, I’d feel a gut-punch of sorrow and a tidal wave of tears pressing against my eyelids. Rather than try to ignore or blink them away, I’d grab a box of Kleenex, close myself alone in a room and let ’em rip. I’d sob. Keen. Pound the floor with my fists. After 15, 20 minutes, the tears would dry up and I’d feel my grief subsiding.

Sharing a wave and a smile while out walking, or accessing the myriad online efforts to comfort and reassure can help to soften your grief.

During the first week of the current lockdown in New Jersey, I went for a walk. As I took in the shining sun, the blue sky, the picture-perfect clouds, the budding trees, I suddenly felt a familiar gut-punch of sorrow. "Our planet is so sick," I thought.

With that acknowledgment, I began to weep. I didn’t care if the people across the street or the people 10 feet in front of me noticed. I just let my grief have its say. And you know what? After five, 10 minutes, I felt better.

Give it a try. Maybe you will, too.

Tap into gratitude. Within 14 months of losing my husband, I lost my sister and mother, too. During this protracted period of bereavement, I discovered that my feelings of extreme pain were attended by feelings of extreme gratitude. Appreciation for other people’s kindness. Appreciation for what remained good in my life.

These days, people are trying so hard to lift one another. Sharing a wave and a smile while out walking, or accessing the myriad online efforts to comfort and reassure can help to soften your grief.

This virtual orchestra project by a bunch of college kids opened the floodgates for me. It reminded that tears of gratitude can be as restorative as tears of sorrow.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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