The Anxiety You’re Feeling Might Be Pandemic Grief

Despite a global pandemic that caused the deaths of millions of people and drastically altered our way of life, we still haven’t mastered the art of recognizing grief when it shows up.

Four years ago, life as we knew it slipped away. As news of the covid death tolls rose around the world, we watched footage on television of our front-line workers struggling with overcrowded hospitals, our children were sent home from school, weddings and graduations were canceled, jobs came to a halt, and toilet-paper flew off the shelves. Everywhere you turned someone was losing something or someone. But instead of grief rising to the surface, it was anxiety that was soaring.

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By November of 2020 research shows that in the United States reports of anxiety increased to 50% and depression to 44%—six times higher than in 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that globally the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, with women and young people being affected the most. But what hasn’t been studied as closely is the amount of grief we were also experiencing. I believe there is a direct correlation between the two.

As a therapist specializing in grief for almost two decades now, I’ve come to understand that anxiety is a common response to loss. At its core, loss is about change, and when we lose someone or something we care about the landscape of our world changes. Feelings of uncertainty arise, fear surfaces, and anxiety blooms.

I’ve also come to understand is that while loss is something that happens to us, how we grieve is up to us. We can choose to move through the experience of loss consciously and with intention, or we can avoid it and suppress it. Grief is a process that requires support, attention, and room to breathe. When we attempt to avoid or suppress grief it almost always spills out in the form of anger, anxiety, and irritability. 

There was a moment, early in the pandemic, when it seemed as though a new wave of grief understanding was cresting and that perhaps Americans were finally willing to acknowledge all the ways loss impacts our lives. In July of 2020, sociologist Ashton Verdery and his team at Pennsylvania State University introduced the COVID-19 Bereavement Multiplier and calculated that for every person who died of covid-19, nine grieving loved ones were left behind. Then in February of 2021 a coalition of national bereavement organizations and grief experts urged President Biden to fund grief intervention, services, and training for front-line workers. Later that same year, prolonged grief disorder was added as an official diagnosis to a revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, outlining a type of grief that can persist in a seemingly endless cycle of mourning that impacts daily functioning.

During that same time grief started trending on TikTok and Instagram. Art installations centered around mourning cropped up in major cities. The phrase “disenfranchised grief” was being used to validate all the kinds of loss (divorce, racial injustice, illness, lost jobs, and canceled vacations) that typically go unrecognized.

Now, on the fourth anniversary of the onset of the pandemic, many of these efforts have been thwarted or dismissed. It seems as though we have slipped back into our age-old habit of sneaking out the back door of the funeral home and dusting our hands of all that grief. The majority of my clients who lost a loved one directly or indirectly to COVID-19 tell me how no one recognizes their grief anymore. Even with COVID still surfacing, people have moved on.

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We have long been a “grief illiterate nation,” as Maria Shriver wrote in her introduction to Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s On Grief and Grieving. People tend to show up in the beginning of a loss, attending memorials, dropping off casseroles, and sending grief books, but after a few weeks or months, even the most well-meaning folks move on. When this drop-off in attention to the bereaved occurs it sends a message that they too are supposed to be ready to move on from their loss.  

When we lose someone significant the fallout can be immense. Grief can be a lengthy process and secondary losses in the form of finances, identity shifts, childcare help, and even physical health are common occurrences. But because of the lack of available and affordable grief support, many Americans are being denied the opportunity to grieve in healthy ways. And for someone who doesn’t know where to turn in their grief, they often struggle in silence, attempting to suppress their grief in the same ways our culture does externally.

When this happens an undercurrent of anxiety thrums beneath our surface. The world no longer feels like a safe place. Uncertainty and catastrophe loom on every corner. Panic attacks, social phobias and healthy anxiety take hold. We even become anxious about anxiety. But what if much of this anxiety is due to repressed grief?

The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed a new realm of grief for many of us–not just for all the deaths that occurred, but also grief for jobs lost, for the overwhelming technological advances, marriage inequality, racial disparity, illnesses, and political strife we have experienced, not to mention the loss of safety and certainty in the future. We don’t know what to do with these kinds of losses, all that accumulated and collective repressed grief is now showing itself in soaring rates of anxiety, making anxiety the most common mental illness in the world.

It’s time our culture does the same. We need to acknowledge the individual and collective grief we are carrying. We need to lean into it, embrace it, memorialize it, and let it teach us more about ourselves. I always say that grief asks a lot of us because I believe that is true, but in turn, grief can offer us a new lens with which to discover what really matters to us, what is meaningful in our lives, and who we want to be going forward.

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