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Cancellations and COVID-19: How to Handle Grief Over Everyday Losses During the Pandemic

A woman sitting in front of her laptop staring into space.

The stress of being stuck indoors. Anxiety over being unable to visit older or medically fragile loved ones. Uncertainty over when we’ll be able to do things we once took for granted, like eating out or visiting friends. These side effects of COVID-19 are getting a lot of publicity, but there’s an important one flying under the radar: grief over cancelled events and the loss of normal everyday activities.

We know about cancellations here at Southern New Hampshire University, where commencement, our annual “Super Bowl,” is currently postponed to an undetermined date. Some schools are cancelling graduations altogether, eliminating an important coming-of-age experience from an entire cadre of students. Events like birthdays and weddings that we take for granted are victims of social distancing. Some can be rescheduled, while others are fleeting moments in time. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. You can celebrate later, but it’s not quite the same.

These cancellations are losses that bring on a classic grief response. It fits right into the familiar pattern first identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, according to Psychology Today:

  • Denial, which manifests in thoughts like, “The media is making a big deal about nothing,” or “It’s not really that easy to catch the virus,” or “I’m healthy, so I’ll be fine even if I catch it.”
  • Anger, which shows itself in thoughts like, “Our governor has no right to tell me I shouldn’t leave my house,” or “If we would have done something sooner, we wouldn’t be in such a mess right now,” or “It’s not going to hurt to have some friends over, and I’m sick of other people telling me that I shouldn’t.”
  • Bargaining, which happens when you make mental justifications like, “I’ll be fine going to visit a friend if I wash my hands really well before and after,” or “It’s okay to walk around the store as long as I don’t go near anyone who looks sick.”
  • Despair, which sets in when you feel hopeless and powerless. You cling to thoughts of worst-case scenarios, like financial ruin caused by job loss, negative effects on your long-term plans, and fear of falling gravely ill or losing loved ones to COVID-19 and not even being able to attend a funeral.
  • Acceptance, which allows you to focus on the facts and find areas where you can still take control to protect yourself and your loved ones and improve your quality of life within the current constraints.

Even if you haven’t yet suffered a loss, you may still go through anticipatory grief. This type of grieving is centered on a sense of the unknown and losses yet to come. COVID-19 changed the world as we know it almost overnight, and we still don’t know all the repercussions going forward. How will the job market and the overall economy fare? What are the long-term impacts on primary and secondary schools and higher education? The most frightening question of all is: Where will the death toll end up, and might it impact your family and friends?

Despair is the bleakest stage of the grieving process, whether actual or anticipatory. These four tips can help you get through your grief in these challenging times:

1. Acknowledge Your Grief

“Keep Calm and Carry On” sounds good on the surface, but you can’t make your feelings disappear by forcing a smile. You can pack them down for a while, but eventually they’ll explode like an overstuffed suitcase. You may need to put on a brave face while you work, care for your children or carry out other responsibilities, but it’s okay to admit to yourself that you’re sad, scared or angry. These are perfectly natural emotions when you eagerly anticipate something, and it’s suddenly stolen from you.

2. Don’t Feel Guilty About Your Feelings

On the surface, it might seem selfish to be upset about a cancelled birthday party, graduation or wedding as the COVID-19 death toll rises. In reality, your personal feelings don’t turn themselves off in the wake of a worldwide crisis. You don’t minimize the importance of others’ suffering when you grieve your own losses. You have a right to honor your grief without being judged or compared to anyone else.

3. Find Outlets for Your Grief

Even with social distancing, or more accurately “physical distancing,” technology lets you reach out to friends and distant family members to maintain emotional connections. If you’d rather share your feelings anonymously, sites like Reddit have online support groups, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a list of phone support lines. If you’d like to speak to a professional but don’t have medical insurance or access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can access volunteer therapists and trained listeners through 7cups.com. You can also explore solo outlets like journals and mindfulness exercises.

4. Help Your Children Deal with Their Losses

Cancelled classes, sports, dance, music lessons and other activities all add up to big changes for kids who were used to active lives. Suddenly they’re cooped away from their friends, and possibly even some family members. Their lives are turned upside-down, and they’re missing things like vacations, school events, competitions, graduations and parties. The National Alliance for Grieving Children has some excellent guidance on how to help them deal with loss and change.

No one knows exactly when the COVID-19 threat will subside. Even when it fades from a deadly pandemic to a cautionary tale in history, grief will linger for cancelled events and lost moments we can never recapture. We hope these tips will help you handle it as you navigate these uncertain times.

Dr. Barbara Lesniak is an associate dean on the social sciences team at Southern New Hampshire University. She handles the programming side of the undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. Her past experience includes 15 years designing and delivering classroom and web-based courses in the corporate world and providing face-to-face and online counseling services. She specialized in helping online clients in acute crisis situations. Barb is also a freelance writer focusing on financial and personal development topics. She has a Psy.D. in psychology and expects to complete her MFA at Southern New Hampshire University this year.

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