Grief in the pandemic

Pastor Mueni Wambua, a grief specialist, helps people facing the changes and challenges that come with life transitions. She describes how anxiety about the coronavirus is akin to grief and how to overcome it

Pastor Mueni Wambua, a grief specialist

What kind of grief situations have you encountered since the pandemic began?

I have seen the following:

Anticipatory grief: This comes from an “anticipated loss”, “impending loss” or a “looming loss”.  As soon as you accept and understand that you are about to lose something precious and/or important to you, you begin to grieve.

In this time of Covid-19, there are many uncertainties because it is a rather unpredictable time. As we see what has happened in other countries, we get caught up in comparisons and begin to panic over things that are yet to happen in our local context such as organisations closing down. National exam candidates in primary or secondary school who have been preparing to sit their exams at the end of the year are not sure what is going to happen. Even the possibility of a total lockdown has many people already experiencing anxiety as they imagine how life will be should it be declared.

Complicated grief: This is when a griever has experienced several major losses and therefore their grieving seems to be in layers and the emotions of one loss override and/or are intertwined with the emotions of another.

For instance, someone with a terminal disease who has been relying on their spouse as their caregiver as well as the benefits they receive from the caregiver’s employer, including housing, medical and education cover. Then as a result of Covid-19, the caregiver’s employer is forced to lay off staff.

Chronic grief: This is when the intensity of grief reactions does not subside over a period of time. One continues to experience extreme distress with no progression towards feeling better or improved functioning.

This is what we are likely to see when people go back to work and someone who incurred a major loss has not yet moved towards being able to fully engage with daily activities and is still debilitated by their loss.

Vicarious grief: This is grief that does not affect you directly but you still have an emotional reaction to it. It is also referred to as the grief of being human because while you are not affected directly, you can vividly imagine the depth of the loss.

For instance, when renowned actor Tom Hanks tested positive for coronavirus, there was an outpouring of expressions of support for him simply because he had brought people joy over the years through his movies.

How can one successfully come through such grief?

One of the things we must acknowledge is that over and above the deaths as a result of the coronavirus, people are still dying from other causes.

In regular times, there are certain practices that we have adopted socially that help with the grieving process – the coming together for funeral planning meetings, visits to condole with the family, funeral services with the attendant tributes and, for people of faith, the prayers and messages shared.

Sadly, with the imposed restrictions, these support systems are not in place so people need to find alternative ways to have this need met.

This is where people can become creative, for instance, by hosting a virtual funeral service through which family and friends can honour the memory of their loved one. Alternatively, you can plan to have a memorial service once the restrictions are lifted.

Besides the death of loved ones, there are other losses that people are experiencing. These emotions must also be processed in a healthy manner. The nature of grief is that it is a personal journey full of setbacks, breakthroughs, triggers and resolutions. It is also unexpected, unpredictable and inexplicable.

It is not a straightforward journey with specific timelines, and will look different from one person to the next and even for the same person – their response to one loss will be different from their response to another loss.

Talking to a therapist could help reduce the pressure and ease the tension that comes with loss. Journaling is another way to get the load off your mind. For others, it might help to engage in physical activity or spiritual practices such as prayer, meditating on the scriptures or listening to spiritual music.

In this day and age of technology, you can also try and connect with others virtually and create a semblance of the normalcy you are craving.

Be kind to yourself. Do not give in to the pressure of comparing yourself to others. Allow yourself to find your own space naturally. There will be good days and bad days – days when the most productive activity is getting out of bed and having a shower, and other days when you rearrange furniture in the entire house!

Embrace the rhythm of your body and work with it but also take note of any unusual physical or mental lethargy.

Avoid the flood of information, especially negative ones, and only get your information from reliable sources. Exit toxic spaces such as WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms that are full of negative talk.

Remember that you are not alone; there are many others experiencing the same thing.

Finally, do not be ashamed to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness, rather a testimony of honesty and self-awareness.

Could you describe some worst-case and best-case scenarios you have experienced in grief processing and recovery?

The worst case of grief I ever saw was of a man who was in his 60s. He was a vibrant man who had been fit all his life. He had retired from the military at 50 and did all the “right” things – he ate well, worked out and was in great physical shape. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer and became very bitter. His bitterness led him to pick up all the habits he had stayed away from. He began to smoke and drink excessively, stopped eating vegetables and ate nyama choma with abandon. He also rejected medical treatment and died within three months, a very bitter and angry man. The doctor said his body was very fit and wished he had adhered to the medical regime recommended.

On best-case scenarios, I had a divorced woman attend my 10-week programme of The Well. Although she had been divorced for several years, the experience had greatly impacted her self-esteem and as a result she was always second-guessing her choices, which was very detrimental to her business. By the time she completed the programme, she had regained her confidence and was not only able to get new business but also accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker at the Afripreneur Conference in Ghana in 2019. The Well helped her deal with all the unprocessed emotions from the loss of her marriage.

In your experience, how do Christians handle grief? Is it any different from non-believers?

Sadly, many Christians are ill-equipped to handle grief. However, this does not only apply to Christians but to most religions. This is because many religions do not teach their adherents emotional intelligence so they are not equipped to handle the overwhelming and often conflicting emotions that arise from loss.

Among Christians, emotions that are not “positive” are discouraged and in some cases even demonised as being fickle, unreliable and ungodly. For some reason, religion has perpetuated the fallacy that grief and faith are in competition so one negates the other – a person of faith should not grieve and if you are grieving then you cannot be a person of faith.

However, where a religious belief teaches that emotions are part of who God created us to be, we are better placed to deal with loss because our answers are anchored in our faith and the promises therein. We are therefore empowered, encouraged, equipped and at liberty to authentically embrace our emotions arising from loss as people who have hope.

Loss leaves one desperately seeking answers to the question on the meaning of life and this could lead to an existential crisis. Faith is a key component in recovery.

What would you consider your personal triumphs and failures in grief recovery?

I have experienced deep personal losses in the last few years, including the miscarriage that set me on the path to becoming a grief specialist. I regularly share my losses on social media and to read or hear grief recovery testimonies from other people is always encouraging. The Bible says we overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony; our stories are a form of healing. They are valuable and deserve to be heard.

On failures, I cannot think of any because the recovery journey is different for every person. Some move a bit faster than others; I have learnt that we all require a unique grace in our individual spaces.