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Moving forward from the pandemic: Navigating the dualities of grief and relief

Ryan Van Wyk headshot
Mental Health - Outpatient
May 27, 2021

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged everyone to embrace a “new normal” – wearing masks, social distancing, working remotely and limiting contact with your family and friends. Now, as mask mandates are lifted and signs of normalcy return, you may be feeling an array of new emotions. Relief that your kids are back in school or that your parents or grandparents are vaccinated, but also overwhelmed by this transition to a new normal.

Dr. Ryan C. Van Wyk, a licensed psychologist at the North Memorial Mental Health Services Center, says, “When we face big changes, we often move through waves of emotions and it is important to let ourselves experience both sides of the emotional coin: the relief that aspects of life are returning, as well as the grief from what we have personally experienced or lost.” Dr. Van Wyk shares his thoughts for how you can move forward in a more holistic way by acknowledging both the grief and the relief that might be present during this transition.

Why is experiencing relief AND grief important?

When we are in survival mode, which many of us, especially frontline workers, certainly were over the past 14 months, we don’t have time to process or deal with the fear, anxiety, sadness, or other overwhelming feelings that are living below the surface. Over the past year, you might have rescheduled important events or milestones, navigated schooling your kids at home, experienced job loss or financial insecurity, or lost loved ones. When faced with trauma or adversity, our survival instinct frequently kicks in, narrowing our focus to doing only what it takes to get through the immediate situation. When we get to a transition point and our survival system can relax, there is often a tremendous amount of relief as we experience the reduction in threat. This relief is, understandably, a welcome change. It is important that we also create space for the grief that can accompany that relief. When we don’t allow ourselves time and space to feel our feelings, those feelings do not just go away; eventually, they will resurface. As we move towards resuming previously enjoyed activities, it is important that we also tune in and acknowledge what has changed or been lost in the past year and make space for whatever feelings might arise in response to that acknowledgment.

The path to grief

It is important to take time to look back at where we have been to survey the landscape and acknowledge and honor the losses that we have experienced. Acknowledging losses and processing the associated grief can often feel messy. While sometimes described as occurring in stages, grief is rarely neat or orderly. Rather than a single emotion; it is frequently a composite of many emotions; sadness, anger, disbelief, disappointment, loneliness, heartache, at times hopefulness, acceptance ebbing and flowing over time. Grief does not come with a timeline, nor can it be overcome simply by engaging in self-care practices. To fully process grief is to make space for the full range of emotions that come with it, in whatever sequence or combination with which they arise. Some days that might mean needing someone to lean on or talk to and other days we might need to take time to be on our own with the flow of emotions. It can be disorienting, surprising, disruptive, and physically and emotionally demanding. What feels right and comfortable for one person, might not work for someone else. When appropriate, we might find comfort in coming together with others to allow the grief to be shared or witnessed.

“When we face big changes, we often move through waves of emotions and it is important to let ourselves experience both sides of the emotional coin: the relief that aspects of life are returning, as well as the grief from what we have personally experienced or lost.”

On adjusting to the new normal

We may also be feeling some anxiety about the resumption of previously enjoyed activities. People often remark that they cannot wait to “return to normal.” Normal is a bit of a myth. Neurobiologically, normal is the label that we put on repeated patterns and routines, so as those patterns change, so too does our normal. We went through an unprecedented pandemic and it’s completely appropriate to feel anxious as we move into new stages. With the onset of the pandemic, we adjusted to wearing masks and social distancing. These safety practices became our normal as we navigated an unsafe and changing world. Now, as we enter a new phase in the pandemic, we have the opportunity to adjust these patterns and routines. It might feel scary to take off your mask or hug a relative. So much has happened and as we take inventory of this change, we might ask ourselves, “Where do we go from here?” During the past year, many industries have adjusted and made significant alterations to the ways that they do things: Restaurants have reinvented themselves, schools have pivoted to online learning, and many companies are changing the way they do business. As we take inventory of what has changed, we need to create space to acknowledge how we feel about those changes, and then determine how we want to live in light of the past year. This may include setting different limits, prioritizing our wellbeing, and maintaining or ending practices that developed the pandemic. Tuning into our comfort zone and tending to our emotions, we can take this opportunity to move forward in a holistic way, taking small steps and calibrating how fast we want to go. You might not want to shift from having limited social interactions to a full social calendar overnight. We are readjusting to how we relate to each other and live our daily lives and it is okay to only do what feels right for you. If we take the time to move through the grief from the experiences of the past year, honor the anxieties or worries that arise as we begin to build a new normal, we might more fully experience the relief from the pandemic becoming less of our everyday reality.

About Dr. Van Wyk

Ryan Van Wyk headshotDr. Ryan Van Wyk, PsyD, LP, is a relationally oriented psychologist specializing in the treatment of trauma, PTSD and dissociative disorders. His work is specifically informed by Interpersonal neurobiology, an interdisciplinary field that synthesizes the latest findings from the fields of mindfulness, neuroscience, attachment, and other consilient disciplines to inform an understanding of both the person and the therapeutic process. He has a particular interest in helping people heal from trauma which has led to an ongoing pursuit of training and education in how to effectively help traumatized people heal.

He is also the founder of a non-profit organization called MN Trauma Project, which coordinates workshops and learning opportunities for professionals as well as community awareness events about trauma and how to help people heal.

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