woman looking out window

This year we’re all learning.

We’re learning patience. We’re learning new ways to live day-to-day with obstacles and restrictions we’ve never experienced. New ways to work and play. New ways to cope with an entire range of emotions we may have little experience with, and, in some cases, emotions we have no idea why we’re having them or where they’re coming from.

That’s what this article is about: how to deal with the emotional fallout of 2020. In particular, I want to talk about grief: what it is, what it feels like, and how we can process our grief in a healthy, productive way that, rather than keeping us stuck in negative cycles of emotion, restores us and allows us to move forward with our lives.

The grief I’ll address is grief not associated with death.

Before I get into that, however, I need to take a moment to recognize the pain, loss, sadness, and suffering of the families of the 240,000+ Americans who have lost their lives to SARS-COV-2. My heart goes out to each and every family, friend, loved one, and acquaintance of each and every victim of the pandemic. I’m deeply sorry for your loss and I wish you the strength to persevere to the day when the memory of your loved one brings smiles rather than tears and peace rather than sadness. You have my sympathy, my compassion, and my sincere condolences.

I wish it was easier.

I wish the same thing for the millions of Americans who haven’t lost loved ones but are nevertheless still experiencing a range of painful emotions from other losses, like jobs, homes, high school senior year activities and in-person graduation, sports, weddings, honeymoons, and so much more.

I want to suggest the emotions you’re experiencing are caused by grief.

Grief and Loss

When we think of grief, we inevitably think of death. That’s logical. The American Psychological Association (APA) agrees:

“Grief is the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person. Grief often includes physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future. Intense grief can become life-threatening through disruption of the immune system, self-neglect, and suicidal thoughts. Grief may also take the form of regret for something lost, remorse for something done, or sorrow for a mishap to oneself.”

However, death is not the only thing that causes grief: notice the definition identified significant loss as the prime cause of grief, and that the significant loss is usually death: usually. When we understand that, we understand that grief is a response to loss – and loss can take many shapes and forms.

That’s one of the things we’re learning about this year: loss that’s not related to death. Because so far this year we’ve lost a lot. Here’s a list, which is bound to be incomplete. In 2020, the things we’ve lost and may be grieving for include:

  • A sense of normalcy, which includes:
    • How, where, and when we work
    • How, where, and when our kids go to school and participate in extracurricular clubs, arts, and sports
    • How, where, and when we socialize
    • How, where, and when we exercise and/or participate in other forms of recreation
  • A sense of security, which may be a result of:
    • Job loss
    • Financial/investment instability
    • Uncertainty about how to stay safe from COVID-19
  • Feelings of freedom, including our ability to attend:
    • Live entertainment events, such as plays and concerts
    • Sporting events
    • Family gatherings
    • In-person worship and other events that are religious and/or spiritual in nature
  • Feelings of control, caused by:
    • Fear of getting sick
    • Fear of loved ones getting sick
    • Uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic
    • Uncertainty about the essential facts of the pandemic

The Mayo Clinic has valuable insight on some of the loss and grief we’re experiencing that’s not related to death. They point out that we form powerful emotional attachments – we bond with – things other than people. We form them to our routines, our jobs, our hobbies, our passions, and even places we may not think are important in our lives. We form emotional bonds to the coffee shops we frequent, the grocery stores where we shop, the gyms where we work out, and even the landmarks on our commute to and from work.

When we lose those things, we grieve – whether we realize that’s what’s happening or not.

The Symptoms of Grief and Loss

If the pandemic has you all out of sorts, consider the fact you may be grieving for all those things you didn’t know were possible to grieve for. Experts on grief divide the symptoms of grief into three main categories: emotional, physical, and behavioral. It’s important to understand, though, that response to grief varies with the individual, and the following symptoms may or may not be present – and symptoms not listed may appear.

Emotional symptoms of grief may include:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Despair
  • Emptiness
  • Loneliness
  • Hopelessness
  • Frustration

Physical symptoms of grief may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nausea/stomachaches
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in weight
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate/shortness of breath (as in a panic attack or bout of intense anxiety)
  • Muscular aches or tension

Behavioral symptoms of grief may include:

  • Isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty completing daily tasks
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and favorite activities
  • Overdoing it: trying to stay very busy all the time
  • Underdoing it: giving up attempts to meet personal standards at work, home, and school
  • Difficulty meeting work, school, or family obligations
  • Aggression/lashing out
  • Self-destructive behaviors, including increased substance or alcohol use

I have a serious question to ask all of you now, to which I want an honest answer:

How many of those symptoms are you experiencing, or have experienced, since March?

I suspect many of you have experienced at least half – and you wrote them off to the “stress of the pandemic.”

You’d be right.

But you’d be more right to say this to yourself:

I’m feeling these emotions, having these physical sensations, and acting in these ways because I’m grieving.

Now that you understand why you may be experiencing all these things, it’s time to learn how to deal with it in a positive and productive manner.

How to Process Grief: Tips from the Experts

You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned the stages of grief yet: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. That’s because our thinking on grief has evolved since Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified them in 1969. We now understand that people may experience these stages of grief in sequence exactly as she wrote them, they may experience them in a different sequence, and they may only experience one or two of them. In addition, experts now recognize that there is no predetermined path for grief, nor is there a specific timeline: we experience the symptoms of grief at different times and at different intensities.

We each heal our grief on our own time and in our own way – and that includes grief not associated with death. With that said, the experts agree there are specific steps you can take to help deal with the grief you may be feeling now, as the result of losses related to the pandemic. I’ll outline those helpful steps below.

How to Process Grief (Not Related to Death)

  1. Acknowledge it. The first step is admitting you’re grieving and allowing yourself to feel the associated emotions. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to name and feel your emotions. In this case, it’s also important to recognize the things you may have lost in 2020 that cause your grief. And here’s the real pro tip: if you feel sad and need to cry, then cry. I bet you’ll feel better afterwards.
  2. Talk about it. Get on the phone, get on Zoom, get on your instant messaging apps and talk to people about how you feel. But before you do that, talk to the people closest to you, such as your spouse, your family, your kids, and your friends. Sometimes simply admitting out loud to a sympathetic listener that you are grieving – or angry, sad, hopeless – goes a long way to processing those feelings. I bet they’ll commiserate with you, and admit that they’re feeling many of the same things.
  3. Be patient with it. One reason patience is required right now is the pandemic is ongoing. This means that additional losses may lead to additional grief – so be prepared. The next reason patience is required is that emotions can be messy and complicated, and working through them is rarely a linear process with a clear beginning, middle, and end. You will have good days and challenging days. Understand that the good days are a sign of progress, and the challenging days are a sign of process.
  4. Act about it. Do your best – within the context of the pandemic – to establish a new routine that includes all the thing you know are healthy. Take action. Re-familiarize with any emotional, psychological, or behavioral coping skills you have. Those include eating healthy food, getting regular exercise/staying active, pursuing hobbies or passions, and getting plenty of good sleep every night.
  5. Help others with it. This may seem contradictory: how can you help others handle the very things you’re having a tough time handling? In this context, help really means companionship, compassion, and commiseration. You don’t have to solve their problems, but it helps to support others who are experiencing similar emotions. And although you may haven’t figured it all out yet (no one has), I bet you’ve come up with some great coping strategies that can help your friends or loved ones.

It’s my opinion that once you realize you’re grieving the loss of so many things, you’ll have a better understanding of why this year has been an emotional rollercoaster. Many of us see ourselves as tough, capable, and resilient – you can be all that and still be poleaxed by the emotional fallout of grief and loss. That doesn’t mean you’re not tough, capable, and resilient.

It means you’re human.

Move Forward With Purpose

When I read through the five tips I offer for processing grief not related to death, I realize I’m asking you to do some of the things you’re grieving the loss of – if that makes sense. I’m telling you to get back on your exercise routine when the loss of your typical exercise routine is one of the things you’re grieving. I’m telling you to reach out and connect to people even though the loss of contact is one of the things you’re grieving. I’m suggesting you get good sleep even though grief is causing you to lose sleep.



Irreconcilable contradictions?

Absolutely not.

The only way out is through. And the way you can get through this grief is by being proactive and creative about building the life you want to live, given the default set of circumstances we all face right now.

It won’t be exactly the same as before, but if you’re aware, intentional, and thoughtful about what you create – it might be just as good or maybe even better.


  • Dr. Lori Ryland

    Chief Clinical Officer

    Pinnacle Treatment Centers

    Lori Ryland, Ph.D., LP, CAADC, CCS, BCBA-D serves as the Chief Clinical Officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment services provider with more than 110 facilities in eight states. She has a broad scope of 20+ years of healthcare experience including inpatient psychiatric care, addiction treatment, criminal justice reform, and serious and persistent mental illness. Dr. Ryland received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Western Michigan University and completed the Specialist Program in Alcohol and Drug Abuse. She is a board-certified behavior analyst, and a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor and supervisor.