Social distancing slows life down for us and changes what we consider normal. We may feel lazier and more unproductive than usual when we actually aren’t. During isolation, there aren’t many chances for big or impulsive decisions, like job changes or moves. Financial matters may become more urgent, deliberate, and purposeful, especially if you’re unemployed during a pandemic. Overall, impulsivity that manifests while grieving in a normal daily context (in which we are over-scheduled and subject to information overload) may not play as great a role during pandemic grieving. Though the demands on our time may be high (if you have children, for example), our time is allocated differently during isolation.
From a practical perspective, we cannot rush things during a pandemic. Any feelings of urgency to complete projects or tasks may disappear because the opportunity to engage them has been removed: we aren’t able to utilize in-home services, run endless errands, or over-schedule our lives to keep us distracted from reality (and from ourselves).
From an emotional stand point, our stress is compounded by our grief and by the circumstances in which we live. Life during a pandemic is stressful because of the unknowns, the vigilant behaviors we adopt and maintain, our worries for the future, and the information overload we experience from cable and the internet. These tax our bodies and make it difficult to get more (or sometimes anything) done.i
How do we operate within that natural self-isolation slow down and accommodate the additional fatigue brought on by our stress responses to the pandemic as it combines with our own grief?
8 Ways to Take Life Slowly While Grieving During a Pandemic
If you can’t do, organize.
Since you have no control over the pace at which anything happens during a public health emergency, one thing you can do is make lists of what needs to be done. Reread the list and separate the items into categories depending on what can be done presently, what needs to wait a little longer, and what needs to be adapted under the current circumstances. If you find that organizing but not acting causes anxiety, incorporate practices into your day (meditation, exercise, a hobby) that help reduce your stress. Use this time to calm and organize your external world so that you can develop a plan of action that will slowly but surely check things off your To-Do list.
Patience makes progress.
Being able to tolerate social distancing protocol requires patience, and lots of it. Just because things happen more slowly doesn’t mean you won’t feel a sense of urgency about them. You may feel more stress than usual (pandemic stress plus grieving equals increased anxiety), so you will need to practice even more patience than normal, with yourself and others. If you can’t complete certain tasks, surrender the stress and trade that time and energy for self-care: reevaluate your life and think about where you might want to change things post-loss and post-pandemic, and/or focus on healing the physical and emotional effects of grief. The more diligent you can be about reducing your stress and increasing your patience, the further you will go in calming yourself.
Take advantage of the chance to operate at less than 100%.
Try to think of isolation as a gift of time that you will not experience again. Isolation life may have new stressors (especially if you are out of work), but there may be more opportunities for self-care with a lack of social plans on the schedule. Allow imperfection into your daily life and avoid rushing to fill all your empty time with more items from your To-Do list. Plan a two-week schedule of tasks that gives you more time to take care of yourself and your household while coping with isolation and the loss of a loved one. If laundry doesn’t get done as usual, that’s okay. If you want to eat cereal for dinner, do it. If you food shop once every two weeks, good for you! Don’t feel pressure to maintain the same type of pre-pandemic/pre-loss schedule. Make a reasonable list of what you can do per day or week, and make sure to add in time to relax from added pressures of grief and isolation.
Approach communication productively.
A lack of social connection during a public health emergency may push some people to over-connect. You don’t have to be in touch with people 24/7 to maintain a relationship and/or show that you care about their well-being. You don’t need to be available for everyone who wants to leave you a condolence message. Let them leave the message and ignore your phone. Be smart about the type of communication you need and want while grieving during a public health emergency. Just because you are home and are more reachable, doesn’t mean you have to be reachable. Schedule thoughtful and productive encounters that help reduce your grief stress and that give you a place to be your grieving-self.
Calm an overtaxed mind.
Nothing good can come from “over-scheduling” your isolation day with distraction upon distraction in order to avoid facing the two-pronged stress of grief and pandemic. Keeping busy because you don’t what else to do with yourself (and perhaps because things like cleaning, organizing, or hobbies relax you) is a normal response to stress. Packing every hour of your day with “stuff” may backfire because it reduces the time you have to unwind your tangled emotions. Grievers may naturally experience difficulty concentrating (which is a response to extreme stress) and it may be doubly difficult with the added stress of self-isolation and social distancing. Make lists, be sure to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, meditate, engage in hobbies, and lower expectations of grief/isolation productivity. Feeling overwhelmed is a normal aspect of grief; this too shall pass.
Create a manageable schedule of social activity.
Your social life is already impeded by social distancing and self-isolation protocols; you won’t have to do much to slow it down for grieving. Though slowed, your social life doesn’t have to be non-existent. During a time where you are spending more time with fewer people, you should have regular interaction with people outside your home. Schedule some sort of social activity every one- or two-weeks and make it as low-stress as possible: participate in a game night or an online chat with a handful of friends with whom you are comfortable sharing your life. Avoid large group events that may make you feel more alone and less supported. Use this time to discern what social activities you would like to resume after isolation protocols have been lifted. Commit yourself to engagements that inspire personal growth and deepen relationships. Include time for yourself as you make social plans; your relationship with you is the most important one to maintain.
Familiarize yourself with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
If you are working during a public health emergency, get in touch with your human resources department to inquire about your employers FMLA policy. While working from home sounds like it leaves you with more time to accomplish grief-related tasks, it may take longer to accomplish some given isolation and distancing requirements. It may take several days to deal with one To-Do item that would otherwise have taken a few hours. Whether you need extra time during the day or not, consider that you are living through extraordinary times and may feel more stress that consequently impedes your ability to deal with grief tasks. You may want to take leave once isolation restrictions are lifted so that you can complete grief business without much pressure. Although restrictions may lift, social distancing will still be in effect and that may increase the time it takes to get things done. Not having to rush back to work may help reduce stress and give you time to focus on the task(s) at hand.
Cleaning out your loved one’s possession could be tricky, so take your time.
Discuss the necessity to clean out with landlords, and retirement home and nursing home execs. Because you cannot access residences as easily right now, cleaning out may not be possible. If your loved one lived alone, the home is vacant, and you are not putting any family members at risk, isolation may be the time to clean out, as long as you follow social distancing etiquette. Cleaning out during self-isolation may help process grief better as well, especially when normal mourning customs are unavailable. You may have a bit more time in which to clean out as retirement homes may not be able to enforce apartment vacating policies (but ask them to be sure!) and real estate agents may not be operating as freely as in non-pandemic times. While cleaning out should be fine, I would advise one person to do it at a time. If you are sharing duties with other family, consider taking non-overlapping shifts and leaving a few hours in between or just alternate days. Consult CDC guidelines and check with public health officials before making any plans. Avoid cleaning out with your entire immediate family UNLESS you are already self-isolating together. If your loved one had COVID-19, experts claim that there is little chance of contamination from household objects. The New York times article, “Is the Virus on My Clothes? My Shoes? My Hair? My Newspaper?” may be of help to grievers wondering if they can (or should) clean out during a pandemic. (Other pandemics may deal with infectious diseases that spread in a different way.) If there is an elderly survivor still living in the home, think carefully about whether you need to clean anything out during a pandemic. If your loved one had COVID-19 and was at home, make sure the surviving partner is not infected or a carrier before beginning any cleaning out. You want to make sure everyone remains safe.
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During social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, be gentle with yourself and use your time wisely. Self-care is of import when grieving, especially when it coincides with a public health emergency. Things will move at a pace to your grief and to public safety measures. While some things may be pushed into action because of limits outside of your control, take your time with everything else that you can. Move one step at a time, two if you can manage it; but remember to take time to contemplate your loss and to construct your path toward healing.