*Article by Jane Fisher. Source: abc.net.au.
When you ask someone how they are at the moment, you might get a stoic response in which they compare their feelings to people who are really struggling.
“Things are hard, but they are worse for others,” is the way it often goes.
In the face of an extraordinary crisis that shows no sign of easing soon, I suspect many of us are getting good at minimising our own experiences of the pandemic.
But what if somebody asked you: What are you missing most right now? What has COVID-19 and its many consequences taken away from you?
Chances are, you can name at least one loss that has caused you pain.
Most of us have lost some freedom
In April, my colleagues and I conducted the largest survey of Australians’ mental health during the first month of COVID-19 restrictions.
It found that many of us felt worried and sad. It also pointed to another common experience: loss and grief in all its forms.
When participants were asked to list three bad things about the restrictions, some of the responses were heartbreaking. People wrote about losing a loved one and not being able to honour their life at a funeral with family and friends.
Some wrote about missing the chance to say goodbye to a relative who died alone.
There were people who felt humiliated by the loss of their job and others who were trapped at home with an abusive partner.
Even if these things haven’t happened to you, most of us have lost some freedom, autonomy and agency as everyday activities have been restricted or banned in an attempt to contain the virus.
Loss isn’t always simple
Some of these losses may not be so obvious or easily discussed because you might feel they are trivial and pale in comparison to other people’s problems.
It could be a missed opportunity to do something you had been looking forward to for a long time. A trip to visit a friend or relative, perhaps.
It might be the deferral of medical treatment for an ailment that’s been problematic, but which is now seen as less urgent by the health system.
Maybe it’s the closure of your local swimming pool, where you rinsed off your worries each week.
It might be even more subtle than that. Perhaps you miss the way people used to greet each other casually without fear of breaching a 1.5-metre barrier, or the feeling of your mum or dad’s embrace.
You might be missing the trust that existed in a relationship that wasn’t plagued by regular conversations about what is safe or unsafe, and what might put you and your family at risk of infection.
Maybe you wish you had more time alone or less time alone. Both are equally challenging.
It can be an isolating experience
If you are feeling a sense of loss, but haven’t found the words or the moment to acknowledge it, you may be experiencing disenfranchised grief.
Disenfranchised grief refers to experiences of loss which might not be recognised, either by the person or by others.
As with recognised grief when somebody dies, disenfranchised grief is accompanied by disbelief and shock, yearning for reality to be different or as it was before the loss, and then uncertainty and sadness as reality grows.
The process can be more difficult because unrecognised losses tend not to attract increased social support or public ceremonies or rituals.
These experiences can be isolating and induce powerlessness, rather than the problem-solving that is needed to reduce the psychological pain.
Just as knowing the signs of anxiety and depression can help people recognise and begin to manage these emotions, appreciating the impact of disenfranchised grief might help us understand our experience.
Try discussing what you’re missing
If you identify it, you can start looking for what might replace your loss, including in an altered way.
There might be a substitute for it or a way of postponing it. Solutions are generally easier to find when you discuss it with someone who can be empathic and suggest ideas.
So, if you are feeling low right now — or if you want to support somebody else — try discussing what you’re both missing.
It might help us all get through this extraordinarily difficult year.
Professor Jane Fisher is an academic clinical and health psychologist at Monash University. Her team is currently surveying Australians about their experience of COVID-19 restrictions as they are changing in different ways across the country, and what governments can do to help people recover. The survey is open until August 31.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
- Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) on 1800 008 774