If you’ve been feeling unusually angry, depressed, lackluster, or generally in disagreement with things as they are, you could be experiencing grief. No one needs to have died for you to be grieving. You may be grieving the loss of normalcy, connection, or certainty.
Humans are better at dealing with trauma when we know the endpoint. But events such as the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, where there is no clear end in sight, hit us much harder because indefinite uncertainty undermines our resilience.
If the conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria were not gut-wrenching. and anxiety-provoking enough, after two years of a global pandemic, the steady stream of graphic, news, and videos from Ukraine may be acutely distressing.
You don’t need to be a veteran, have lived through the Cold War, have family connections in Ukraine, or suffer from PTSD to be unsettled by the unfolding scenes. Even the sense of the unfairness of being safe while others are threatened can itself be traumatic.
This is especially true for people with connections to other conflict zones where refugees have fled their homes but have not received the empathy or attention afforded to the Ukrainian people. Reports of racial discrimination against refugees of color at some border crossings has compounded the trauma for many people too.
I trained as a grief counsellor and if I were to share the two biggest things I learned they would be these:
• When we grieve, it is not so much for the person who has died as it is for who we once were when they were in our world. We are grieving the unconditionally loved son or daughter, the dependable wife or husband, the joyful best friend, who we will never be again to the mother, father, partner, child, friend, or dog who has died.
It is no different with world events: We feel the world has changed. We mourn the safe, peaceful future we imagined before COVID or before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
• Grief is not reserved for our feelings of loss towards a person. We also need to grieve who we once were and will never be again. We can grieve our spent youth or our lost fertility; we need to mourn the opportunities and prospects that time and aging take away.
So too with world events. it is often the death of a belief about who we previously thought our neighbors at home or abroad to be.
Sometimes it’s a part of our identity which we feel has been stolen or the sense that something precious to us – reproductive rights, racial tolerance, gender equality – has suddenly been threatened. Or that our values of fairness, truth, humility, inclusion have been irrevocably challenged.
There is also what the world’s leading grief expert David Kessler calls “Anticipatory grief.” The feeling that “There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there.””Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening. This breaks our sense of safety.”
If you’re not familiar with the five stages of grief, as defined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler, which occur in no particular order, I have summarized them here. You can explore how they match up with your own responses to world events.
Denial helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of numbness and shock.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. The more you allow yourself to feel it, the more your anger will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.
After a loss, the “if only s” cause us to find fault with what we think we or others could have done differently. We may even bargain with our pain. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. “If only Ukraine was part of NATO.” “If only Angela Merkel were still German chancellor, she could speak with Putin.”
This stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on.
Acceptance is often confused with being “all right” with what’s happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK about their loss. This stage is about accepting reality and recognizing that it is permanent.
If you recognise any or all of these feelings and no one has died, it’s interesting to ask yourself, “what have I lost?” “What Am I mourning?”
As with the grief of losing a loved one, there are a few things that may help a bit.
Come into the present
Say aloud to yourself; “I am alive, I am safe, I am free, I am healthy, I am sane. I can feel the breath coming into my nose.” Hug a cushion or a blanket.
Stop watching and Do something
Break the addictive stream of gory, distressing, unfiltered images on TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter. Turn instead to any hobby or creative process that you find peaceful or uplifting, from writing to yoga, listening to music to decorating your living room.
Be patient and kind with friends or colleagues who seem ‘out of sorts.’ Like you, they could be distressed and grieving, Be compassionate with yourself.
Don’t hide your grief
Communicating your sad or angry feelings with friends or colleagues and naming it as grief can be a powerful way of normalizing these feelings for yourself and connecting with others. It may not help you alleviate your feelings, but it could help you explain your seemingly inappropriate feelings to yourself.
Sleep, exercise, and diet are hugely important to our sense of well-being. Especially sleep. Make sure you are getting enough.
Find balance in your perspective
If you are catastrophizing and allowing the worst scenarios to take shape, challenge yourself to think also of the best possible outcomes. The worst possible scenario might be a nuclear war. The best possible might be the removal of Putin and lasting peace.