Still Missing Your Pre-Pandemic Life? Here’s How to Move Forward, According to Experts

"Honoring an ending prepares us for a new beginning."

When you hear the word “grief,” you probably associate it with major losses like breakups or the death of a loved one. However, all types of endings—big or small—warrant grieving. Case in point: Although it’s been seven months, you might still be grieving the loss of your pre-pandemic lifestyle. And if you deny the fact that this is a legitimate loss that requires a grief period, you most likely won’t be able to fully adapt to your new day-to-day life.

“Since the start of the pandemic, our ‘normal’ has died, and even when this is over, we will not go back to life exactly as we once knew it,” life coach Holley Gerth tells HelloGiggles. “We’ve broken up with comforting and familiar routines in every area of our existence—from work to school to simply how we shop at the grocery store. We’ve moved away from a sense of security that’s been with us all of our lives.”

Unlike clear-cut endings like deaths or breakups, our pre-pandemic lifestyle faded away into pieces, offering no satisfying closure. To top it off, there’s no end in sight to the current state of our lives. This blurry line between what we’ve lost and what still remains makes the situation hard to process.

“We don’t have formal ways to grieve this situation, like a funeral when we’re surrounded by supportive people,” Gerth points out. “Instead, we’re all figuring this out in messy, unpredictable ways, and often doing so apart from our support systems (at least physically).”

When we’re feeling low, it’s easy to use the excuse that “things could be so much worse” to avoid our negative emotions—especially during a global pandemic, when millions of people are suffering and over 200,000 people have died. While keeping the perspective of our privilege is important, pushing away emotions like anger and sadness doesn’t do any good in the long run.

“When we refuse to experience grief, we actually limit our capacity for joy,” Gerth explains. “A full life means fully experiencing and honoring the range of human emotions. When we give ourselves space to grieve, we’re choosing to show up in our own life—even if that means accepting that it looks different than before.”

Life in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is uncharted territory for everyone. To learn how to healthily grieve our pre-pandemic lifestyle and eventually adapt to our new one, HelloGiggles spoke to both a life coach and a therapist to get two different perspectives on the situation. These experts offered their advice on how we can close the door on our pre-pandemic life and open the door to our new one without feeling pressured to do so.

Advice from a life coach:

HelloGiggles spoke to Gerth, who has a Master of Science degree in counseling. She offered five tips for walking through the grieving process while making strides toward creating a healthy new normal.

1. Acknowledge what’s happening.

Anyone familiar with the five stages of grief knows that the first stage is denial—and when the pandemic first hit, we were definitely in denial. It was an unbelievable situation, and for weeks—maybe even months—we refused to admit that it was a reality, hoping that our old lives would resurface. But by now it’s clear that life will not be as it was for some time—and we need to acknowledge this fact in order to move forward.

“Until we recognize and honor what we’ve lost, we won’t be able to truly find our way forward,” Gerth says. “When we avoid our emotions it’s usually out of fear. If we feel, then what’s happening must be real.”

“It’s an act of courage to actually grieve.”

Holley Gerth

Carve out a time to sit and simply feel your emotions: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then, acknowledge that we have all lost major aspects of our lives and know that your feelings of grief are valid.

2. Adjust your expectations.

Once we acknowledge that we’ve experienced a true loss, we must take some time to think about how it will affect our day-to-day life and adjust accordingly. For example, chances are that your relationships with friends, family, and partners might be changing during this time because everyone is adapting to a new way of life. We cannot expect relationships, jobs, or everyday habits to continue on flawlessly as if nothing has happened.

“If we act like everything is fine or nothing has changed, we expect ourselves and others to keep performing in the same ways as before,” Gerth explains. “Unrealistic expectations paralyze us. Acknowledging our ‘new normal’ frees us up to instead take one small, imperfect step at a time.”

“What matters most right now isn’t perfection; it’s continuing to make progress.”

Holly Gerth

Cut yourself and the people in your life a break when it comes to meeting expectations you held pre-pandemic. We’re all on a learning curve, and compassion (with others and yourself) is key for getting through this difficult time.

3. Make a list of what you miss.

One way to tangibly honor what you’ve lost is by making a list of things you miss about your life pre-pandemic. “We can have vague feelings of loss without realizing what we’re actually missing,” Gerth explains. “Being as specific as possible can help.” When we identify what we really miss, we can unpack why we miss it and try to implement new ways to feed that need in our day-to-day life.

For example, Gerth recently had her wedding anniversary and was unable to celebrate by going out to eat with her husband like they typically would. On her “What I Miss” list, Gerth wrote, “Celebrating a special day at a restaurant.” However, she decided to take a step back and think about what made this event meaningful. Gerth found that it was spending intentional time with her husband and creating a new memory that meant the most to her—which she realized she could still do, just differently. The couple had a nice meal on their patio and created a new memory just the same.

“Shifting our focus from the how (i.e. eating at a restaurant) to the why (i.e. I want intentional time with someone I love) can help us start finding new solutions for our needs,” Gerth explains.

4. Make a done list at the end of each day.

Rather than making a to-do list at the start of each day, Gerth recommends making a “done” list before you go to bed. This is a concrete way to address the positive strides you’re making in your life. “In hard times, we often overlook how much we’re actually still accomplishing,” Gerth notes. “Recognizing little wins and every bit of progress can motivate us to keep going.”

While a longer list might make you feel more accomplished, this isn’t a tool for shaming yourself. Even if there’s only one thing on your list some days or your accomplishments are as simple as “I got out of bed,” any positive step is something to be proud of during these difficult times.

5. Choose directions instead of goals.

Rather than setting unrealistic goals, focus on the bigger picture by choosing directions you want to take in your life. Gerth explained the difference for us: “A goal says, ‘I have to go on as many business trips as I did last year,’ while a direction says, ‘I will learn and grow in my career.’ Again, it’s about refocusing from the how to the why.”

While taking business trips is impossible right now, there are likely many other ways you can learn and grow in your career. Likewise, instead of stating a goal like “I’ll see my parents three times a week,” you can focus on the direction of your relationship by saying, “I’ll dedicate time to nurturing my relationship with my parents.” Focus on the general path you want to take, and you can start making the strides that are necessary to get there.

Advice from a therapist:

HelloGiggles also spoke to adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi, who offered three tips for how we can fully grieve before moving on to our new lifestyle.

1. Say your feelings out loud.

Verbalizing your emotions can get them out of your head and, in turn, make them more understandable. Dr. Magavi recommends giving a voice to what you’re feeling and then writing about those complicated emotions in a journal, too. Putting pen to paper and seeing your emotions written down helps you identify what you’re actually experiencing, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“Make a log of your emotions and identify any triggering factors which exacerbated [your] condition, as well as alleviating factors which help [you] feel better,” Dr. Magavi says. “This activity helps us learn more about what we feel, why we feel, and what we can do to combat helplessness and take control during this time of uncertainty.”

2. Open up to loved ones.

Although you might not be quarantining with family members, partners, or roommates, you should still be vulnerable with them when you do communicate, whether that’s in person or over the phone.

“Grieving openly with family and friends may aid those who fear tackling their emotions on their own,” Dr. Magavi explains. “If you don’t grieve, you’ll hold on to feelings of anger, sadness, and denial when attending to daily tasks and speaking with loved ones.”

Gerth echoed the importance of opening up to the people close to you: “It’s important to have at least one person in our lives to whom we can say, ‘I’m not okay,'” she says. “So many of us are trying to be brave for other people in our lives, but being brave doesn’t require being emotionally isolated. Admitting how we really feel and asking for help isn’t weakness; it’s wisdom.”

By expressing how we feel to the people in our lives, we might connect with them over this shared experience and, in turn, hold each other accountable for sharing our emotions and working toward positive change.

3. Create three simple goals each morning.

Rather than making a full to-do list, which can be overwhelming, Dr. Magavi recommends writing down three goals for the day. These can be as simple as making a healthy lunch, connecting with a friend, or even just being kind to yourself. “Then, prior to sleeping at night, thank yourself for the goals you accomplished or any little victory of the day,” Dr. Magavi advises.

Practicing gratitude by thanking yourself and others fosters optimism and self-esteem, which leads to a more positive mindset. In fact, a 2015 study done by Berkeley College found that writing gratitude letters greatly improves mental health.

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