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When Hidden Grief Gets Triggered During COVID-19 Confinement

April 10, 2020

Written by

Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP

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How to Use These Days to Heal Old Wounds Rather than Reenact Them

Our sense of loss during the current COVID-19 crisis can trigger hidden emotions from when we experienced a sense of loss before. Whatever early losses you have had in your life — whether they be your own divorce, your parents, or both, or the abandonment of one parent, a childhood or parental illness or death, financial upheaval, constant moving around, or growing up with parental addiction or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — they are likely to have left an unconscious residue on your mind, an unseen wound that at moments like this can become ruptured under the pressure of the current crisis. Because of this sudden, frightening, and uncontrollable event that we’re going through, we may reexperience when we felt blind-sided by life before, when we felt helpless, trapped, scared, and unsafe as kids.

We refer to these types of ambiguous or often unacknowledged, unrecognized losses as “disenfranchised losses.” Disenfranchised losses that have remained hidden can get triggered and remerge without our knowing what is happening. The emotions that you experienced related to that earlier loss will very possibly reemerge at a moment like this, giving them the opportunity to be more fully felt, seen, accepted, understood, and, hence, further resolved.

Let’s face it: We’re all losing our sense of normal, and this is a big deal. But for those of us who also lost “normal” as children, it can constitute a double whammy.

Let’s face it: We’re all losing our sense of normal, and this is a big deal. But for those of us who also lost “normal” as children, it can constitute a double whammy. Some feelings of loss right now are perfectly natural. After all, senior proms are being missed, weddings and celebrations are on hold, funerals are empty of communal mourners to say nothing of kids’ birthday parties, family outings, and shopping! Our routines during this crisis are turned upside down. The structures that we used to rely on to give our week shape and stability are topsy-turvy. We’re limited in our movements.

We feel trapped, and our ways of keeping ourselves happy or distracted, whether wandering down the vegetable aisle in the grocery store, going out for a cup of coffee, popping over to the gym, or having dinner with friends, we’re being told that we should not do. And the flood of information that the news pipes out 24/7 delivers continuous small, daily shocks. We feel threatened. Do I need to wear a mask? What kind, can I get it? Will there be equipment if I get sick? Will I be able to weather this, how long will it last, is my job safe, is the virus spreading right under my nose, is it in my nose? The orderly world we’re used to is feeling unpredictable and unsafe. We fear for the future; a sense of foreboding which can trigger a time when we might have felt that before.

Now we’re experiencing the next layer of the crisis and hearing that for some, this is a serious virus. And that healthcare workers, our first line of defense, are being asked to do their jobs without proper protection. It’s scary. As weeks stretch on, we start to wonder when normal will return. We hear news reports and speculation that it may not happen any time soon or even that it could stretch out for a long time. This speculation can make us feel a quiet sense of despair. Will life ever get back to normal? Will I feel safe again just going to the grocery store? What happened to my life, and when will I get it back?

There is a weekend phenomenon well known to psychologists when things fall apart just a little. Weekends can be stressful because there is less structure to your day, which can mean that your … let’s call it “usual level of anxiety” has lost its ordinary binders. That means the little things that you don’t let surface during the week — maybe because you’re in the workplace where they wouldn’t be appropriate or you just don’t have time to think about them — surface on the weekend. You’re a bit more irritable, your temper is short, your mood takes a dip, but then your weekly routine sweeps you up again and moves you into another zone.

Social Distancing

Enter: enforced confinement via “social distancing” or sheltering in place and, suddenly, life becomes one long weekend. Days run into each other. We don’t really have to get fully dressed, and our structures are feeling wobbly. If you’re on your same work schedule from home, it is still a different schedule, a new way of operating, unless you always work remotely. While parts of that can feel novel and even like a welcome change, there are other parts that can feel overwhelming and even immobilizing.

The feeling of being trapped, of not seeing an escape hatch, can make a situation feel harder than it actually is, moment by moment. So during this COVID-19 crisis, you might be dealing with understandable anxiety of the crisis itself, without the reassuring comfort of your regular routines. Add to that historical pain that may get triggered, and you have a cocktail (a perfect storm, as it were) that can set you up to slip into moodiness, fear, irritability, and over-reaction. It can pile up and become bigger than it needs to be. It can lead to self-medication (reports already show that liquor sales are up). But using alcohol to manage your mood not only reduces your physical immunity (a known fact), it reduces your emotional immunity as well.

Drugs, alcohol, food, sex, and spending are temporary mood managers. They feel good in the moment, but they leave a trail of effects that can undermine your feeling of emotional fitness to meet the challenges of your day. You need extra rest, extra true calm, and extra self-discipline at a moment like this. Drinking to help you deal with being home with the kids will not help.

Because these days provoke extra anxiety in us, we need to set up equally strong extra safeguards to keep ourselves sane and safe.

It’s important to find functional and healthy ways to “untrap” ourselves during this most unusual time, to create a sense of psychic space and safety. Putting a temporary frame around this time, getting outdoors into nature, using the internet to connect with friends and support groups are all “buffers” that can mean we emerge from this experience more resilient than when we came into it.

And in addition to these ways of creating inner strength and resilience, I would add one more resolve to use what is getting triggered as a part of your path towards your highest self. As I say in my book The Soulful Journey of Recovery, “let your pain light a path! Treasure your triggers. Your triggers send up a red flag marking the spot of your deepest pain.” Being mere humans, we tend not to go to these places inside of us unless we’re forced to by circumstances. Along with coping with this crisis, try seeing it as a challenge, a moment carved out of time when you can become more of who you are.

To Heal or Not to Heal: A Moment of Awakening vs Reenacting Old Pain

Herein lies the challenge, when these tender places within us do get triggered, we tend to take one of two routes, the conscious route or the unconscious route.

The unconscious route: In the unconscious route, when these feelings reemerge and make us feel helpless and hopeless all over again, we do not make the connection between what might be getting triggered from our past into our present. So we act out or project our painful feelings from the past and make them about the people, places and things in our present. We dump them on everyone around us, making our current situation much more painful and volatile than it might otherwise be. Or we act out, rage, we overeat or under-eat, act our sexually, spend, game, or engage in some other excessive behavior to go unconscious. Or we drink or drug, we self-medicate, we go numb. This is part of what’s referred to as “masked grief,” When someone is unable to identify that their symptoms or behaviors are connected to or related to some form of loss, they are masking their grief and it’s emerging unconsciously.

Man grieving

The conscious route: In the conscious route, we use what is getting triggered as an opportunity to grow. When we do this, we can emerge stronger and more resilient, experiencing what psychologists call post-traumatic growth. We sit with the feelings and witness them in our mind’s eye. And as we do this, we meet our younger selves again, seeing what we normally do not see, the vulnerable and hurt part of ourselves that has stayed hidden comes before us, yearning for the comfort it did not get enough of. In the conscious route, we give comfort to directly through accepting and loving this wounded part of ourselves. We become our own parent, our own best friend. We embrace and love rather than shut down, ignore, over-indulge, beat-up, or medicate. And by accepting what feels weak and needy within us, something paradoxical happens: We become less weak and needy, we become more whole.

Unprocessed, hidden grief that is the result of previous trauma can wear many masks and can pop out when and where we least expect it. Some manifestations of unconscious grief can be:

  • Sudden angry outbursts
  • Rage
  • Excessive rumination
  • Chronic negativity
  • Being easily triggered into overly intense emotional reactions or under-reactions/shutting down
  • Recurring or long-lasting depression
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Self-mutilation and self-harming
  • Caretaking behavior
  • Excessive guilt
  • Constant crying or feeling weepy
  • Low mood, sad
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Emotional numbness or constriction
  • Shame
  • Codependency
  • Body/health-related issues, soreness or stiffness
  • A desire to self-medicate

Normal grief tends to run its own course and lessen over time, although the time as well as the intensity may vary from person to person and according to the timing, nature, and intensity of the loss itself. The following is an overview of the forms that more hidden, unconscious grief can take.

Anticipatory grief: With anticipatory grief, we feel grief in anticipation of what could happen. This is particularly relevant in this COVID-19 crisis because of our fear of becoming sick, the uncertainty about when life will return to normal, and what that normal might look like. We feel the loss of what was, of our normal routines, and we worry about what is to come.

Disenfranchised grief (ambiguous): Some losses are hard to see and society doesn’t recognize them and support us mourning them. And we ourselves may not be aware of the impact that these losses had on us, especially if we were very young or the pain was in some way denied. Divorce, abandonment, growing up with addiction, mental or physical illness, miscarriage, abortion, death of a pet, adoption, moving/loss of “home,” job loss/retirement, or the loss of connection to a part of the self, due to trauma are all examples of this type of grief.

Age correspondence reaction: For parents, when your child hits the age of a time in your life when you were traumatized, your unconscious pain from that time in your life may get triggered. If you do not make the connection between your past and your present (if you do not know it’s old relational or situational pain getting triggered by a new relationship), you will tend to make your pain from the past about your present. You, the parent, may go to one extreme or the other. You may experience extra worry and anxiety for your child, you may want to over-protect your child because the child in you felt under-protected or unsafe. Or you may want to distance from your child, because the child in you wants to go numb, doesn’t want to touch or feel that old wound.

Complicated grief: Complicated grief is the kind of grief that doesn’t seem to resolve itself over time and becomes prolonged or chronic. This can occur due to the nature of the loss being sudden, violent, or hidden (e.g. prison or addiction), where we are ambivalent about the loss and don’t really mourn it to begin with. Some warning signs of this kind of complex mourning could include addiction, sexual acting out, self-harming behaviors, chronic and disabling feelings of guilt, worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, violence, or radical lifestyle changes. The age correspondence reaction may be seen as a form of complicated grief.

Inhibited grief: When a person does not let their grief show, whether it’s because they want to keep it private or because they have hidden it even from themselves, their grief becomes inhibited. When someone cannot allow themselves to grieve, their body with do their crying for them. They may have physical symptoms like muscle stiffness, back pain, migraines, or illnesses that are directly connected to deep, emotional stress. Or they may act out or self-medicate.

Cumulative grief: Cumulative grief occurs when losses accumulate because they occur on top of each other. This may happen if the COVID crisis continues to disrupt people’s lives.

Collective grief: This a form of grief felt by a group. It might be racial, class-related, the death of a public figure, or the result of a natural disaster. Certainly, our world right now is experiencing a form of collective grief. It is important that we come together and “hold” each other through this time. The Italians singing out of their windows, the Greeks doing the Zorba dance on their rooftops, and the 12-Step community and other support communities moving online are all wonderful vehicles for sharing concerns as a community so that the grief doesn’t pile up get acted out in destructive ways. When we find the support we need to transform our grief into personal growth, we become more resilient.

Take Steps Now: Get Your Supports in Place

We are very much aware of what is happening, and we can do a lot to make sure we don’t fall into the obvious traps.

It’s very important to institute the kinds of buffering basics into your day that keep you resourced, that reduce stress and build resilience. The supports that you put in place now, can serve as safeguards to alleviate or lessen some of the unusual stress that could become cumulative. They can even help you to use this experience as a moment of significant personal and interpersonal growth. Setting up a schedule, a support network, and recovering a sense of safety, personal space, and quiet, can help you to avoid falling into the kinds of problems that could worsen over time.

We are very much aware of what is happening, and we can do a lot to make sure we don’t fall into the obvious traps. We can build safeguards into our days that buffer the negative effects.  We can be proactive, which in and of itself is one of best ways of creating resilience. We can grow interpersonally and intrapersonally, if we accept the challenge.

Here are some practical ways to do that:

  • Put a mental boundary around this period. Understand that this will not go on forever. Even though there is uncertainty, there will be a beginning, middle, and an end to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Maintain important daily routines and rituals and institute new ones. You know what they are for you: morning meditation or inspiring reading, coffee, a walk, exercise, a meeting.
  • Create safety and order in your home; keep it clean and pleasant. Be proactive in creating your best environment.
  • Have a schedule. Don’t let time crowd you into a dark corner, take charge of your day.
  • Maintain relational connection with others, use Facetime, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, telephone, and text to stay connected to those you care about!
  • Look for the silver linings. Is it more time with your children? Your family? Yourself?
  • Get sleep, eat well, and exercise.
  • Cook lovely food and eat is slowly and enjoy it Have a brown-bag Zoom dinner date or party.
  • Meditate: Create a sense of calm and safety within.
  • Play music, dance!
  • Watch uplifting videos.
  • Maintain a positive attitude and an attitude of gratitude. Look for what’s going right.
  • Do not be perfect!! We’re all slogging through this together, do the best you can, then forgive yourself for slipping — we’re all slipping.

And finally, affirm what is beautiful in life. Take deep breaths throughout your day. Go easy on yourself and those around you. Stay safe and well, for “this too shall pass.”