The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to experience grief in varied and layered ways. Most of us feel like we’re missing out – losing our ability to go places, have new and exciting experiences, spend time with those we love, or reach and celebrate life’s milestones. Many have lost opportunities and livelihoods, jobs and homes. Infants and young people at formative ages are missing out on critical social interactions and in-person learning experiences. College students have had to forego scholarships and foundational coming of age interactions. Many people are deeply lonely, isolated from family, and struggling to form or maintain romantic and friendship bonds. And, of course, some have experienced the ultimate loss, the death of loved ones.
This is related to a feeling of grief that many undergo after they quit drinking – usually after the initial high of the pink cloud subsides and we return to a more regular emotional rhythm. It’s a sense of having lost time and opportunities in the important years of our life due to heavy drinking. We may feel that we’ve completely missed out, burned some bridges, or gotten behind on reaching our personal goals and life’s milestones. Maybe we expected to be married by now, with kids or grandkids. Maybe we didn’t pursue a track of study or work that we were once passionate about.
The amount of time, and the opportunities that feel lost, vary greatly among those who’ve cut back or given up on alcohol. Regardless, this sense of grief can be tremendously painful – and it can feel impossible to make up for those losses.
Many sober people who once drank heavily go on to do amazing and impressive things with their lives, like winning marathons or publishing novels. When we hear those kinds of stories, we may compare ourselves to those individuals and wonder why we can’t make similar strides in our own lives. What about the perfectly average among us? Even though we may improve our lives in considerable ways and be more stable and resilient, we sometimes feel like we’re not living up to our potential.
My own grief during the pandemic
A few months into lockdown, I started experiencing this sense of grief myself. I’ve become increasingly aware of what I lost – or didn’t build – during the years I was drinking heavily. The feeling was worsened by the isolating effects of the pandemic. I also don’t feel that I’m making as much progress with passion projects as I was before all this started. I’d been prolific with writing poetry, excited about learning guitar, and fulfilled as I got to travel for work and vacation. My eyes had been opened to a world of possibilities brought on by my sobriety.
But all of that growth got turned on its head on March 12, 2020, when my office shifted to full telework. Along with the rest of the world, I had to shut my doors to face-to-face interactions, travel, in-person poetry workshops, guitar lessons… all of the things that had been making me feel alive and whole for the first time in years.
Sure, a lot of these activities can be continued or replicated in the virtual environment, and I’m taking advantage of that. But just like everyone else, I quickly burned out on video calls and other virtual hangouts. And I’ve lost my internal fire for a lot of my hobbies. I feel more scattered and less focused, with a general sense of malaise.
Though my sobriety at first made me feel more secure and resilient during the pandemic, recently it’s begun to hover a magnifying glass over my life, homing in on what’s meaningful and what’s not. This has forced me to question my identity, my purpose, my career track, my relationships, and even the value of my new passions. It’s made me wonder whether I should (or could) go back to school and pursue a career in something that interests me at a deeper level. But then I worry that it’s too late, that I’d be too far behind – or maybe it wouldn’t feel quite right, or that I still wouldn’t feel fulfilled in that area of my life.
I’ve also become more aware of holes in my knowledge, such as history and geopolitics, which can feel embarrassing and painful. I begin to criticize myself, thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t have those gaps if I hadn’t been so absorbed in meaningless activities that involved drinking. If only I’d been focused on finding the right career path and enriching myself intellectually. I know that I’m still fairly young and curious enough to fill many of these gaps, and that everyone has knowledge gaps – we don’t need to be ashamed of them. But I still stress over this awareness, and knowing that our minds are substantially less elastic after our 20s adds to my frustration.
With all this uncertainty and reflection comes a lot of pressure, a sense of only having one life to live and wondering if I’m doing enough with it. Am I even capable of making some large change, and if so, what would it be? I worry about both my capabilities and my purpose, unsure of what I really want out of life. I wonder if this is drinking’s legacy or just one step in sobriety?
When it comes to finding answers to these questions, I know I’m not there yet and should go easy on myself. At a high level, I’m aware that these aren’t unusual things to ask yourself in your early 30s, often a transitional time in life. In fact, it’s typical to compare ourselves to our peers throughout our lives, questioning whether we’ve made the right choices. I also recognize that this is a newer feeling that must be due in part to the pandemic. It’s probably temporary. It may also be something I need to experience to have some significant realization of a change that’s needed in my life. Or perhaps incremental changes will add up to transformation over time. I don’t think I can know any of this yet.
In the meantime, when I let my emotions overtake reason (and I recognize that’s normal and okay sometimes), what I experience is uncomfortable and demoralizing. It’s grief. For my own well-being, I must acknowledge that what hurts is to know that I might be in a different place – fully content, more successful, and thriving – if I hadn’t handed over many of my formative years to drinking. Or, it may have had less to do with drinking, and more to do with other decisions I made at pivotal times in my life.
In truth, I can’t disentangle how much of this uncertainty is related to having had problems with alcohol in the past, and how much of it’s related to other factors like my age, the pandemic, my personality and other psychological factors, or things outside of my understanding. I can only be patient with these unknowns, and hope that a path forward will become clear eventually. Most likely, that will be after the pandemic finally ends. And that’s a good reason to avoid making rash life changes right now, knowing that this is such an unusual time.
It’s not about “fixing it”
A work acquaintance recently told me she’d just found out her husband of 26 years was having an affair. It was the first thing she said on our call, with tremendous pain in her voice. Though it wasn’t the most professional way to kick off a work call, it was evident she just needed someone to recognize that the situation entirely sucked – that nothing could hurt more than this did right now. The last thing I wanted to do was tell her it would get better. Instead, all I said is that the situation was completely awful, and that I was so sorry she was going through this on top of all the other challenges the pandemic has brought.
I’m no expert on grief counseling, and in fact struggled with how to respond in the moment. But I know it can be counterproductive to succumb to the knee-jerk response of telling people things will get better. During the pandemic, we’ve grown desensitized (even annoyed) by empty, optimistic clichés like “we’re all in this together” or “hope you’re okay during this trying time.” They either fall flat or run directly against our lived experience. Though our human instinct is to want to alleviate pain and make things easier for one another, that’s not always the next step for someone in an early stage of grief. So the goal of our social interactions can’t always be to fix things for one another.
Our pains – and their impacts upon us – are diverse. Some of us are struggling with a sense grief due to missing out and experiencing loss due to COVID-19. Others, like me, feel they’ve lost opportunities and time in the wake of a long period of heavy drinking. Perhaps you’re struggling with grief due to something else, like my work acquaintance. Regardless, the simple acknowledgement of pain (not to mention, counseling or therapy) can go a long way. I think that may be all we can do, for ourselves and for each other, right now. Recognize loss, acknowledge pain, and let the answers come in their own time.