June 8, 2020

Get help for dealing with COVID-19 grief and loss, great and small

Knowledge Engagement Conversation June 11 with UCalgary expert Heather Boynton will explore coping techniques and how to get support
Heather Boynton
Heather Boynton

If you’ve had a hard time getting going during the ongoing pandemic, you’re not alone. Many have reported feeling unmotivated and listless as they struggle to deal with the fallout of the global pandemic. Part of it, suggests Dr. Heather Boynton, PhD, assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, is a predictable consequence of coping with grief and loss.

“We think we’re dealing with it,” says Dr. Boynton, “but it’s still under the surface. And so people are feeling tired, they’re having trouble concentrating. They may be feeling body aches and pains and muscle tension that they didn’t notice before. They might be feeling lost and empty or lethargic, or that there’s just a void … that joi du vivre is missing. And other things like impatience, irritability, and anger — these are all symptoms of grief and loss that people aren't really paying attention to.”

On June 11, from 10:30 to 11 a.m., Boynton will lead a Knowledge Engagement conversation that offers support for COVID-19 related grief and loss. The digital forum is free and open to those who want to learn and share their own experiences. This event is being hosted by the newly formed Knowledge Engagement team in Research Services, a unit specializing in knowledge mobilization and supporting partnerships for research with impact.

Many types of loss

Boynton will address the significant losses that people may have suffered during the pandemic, such as the grief of losing a loved one, and the associated communal grief of not being able to mark their passing with rituals and social gathering. She’ll also look at other serious losses such as the loss of a job or a home. In peeling back the “layers of grief and loss,” she’ll consider those smaller individual and shared losses that most of us are feeling.

“I’m also going to talk about some of the simple losses,” says Boynton. “For example, my husband does the grocery shopping and I keep putting Bagel Crisps on the list because I haven’t had them in months. And he says, ‘You need to let go of the Bagel Crisps. They are not in the store.’ So there's a sense of disappointment around things like that, and then the sense of loss, and isolation causes more sense of loss.”

Putting your worldview back together

As a social worker, Boynton takes a holistic approach to helping people deal with grief and loss. She often works with them to make sense of their experience and to integrate it into a new way of viewing the world. She says most people begin with a “stable and safe” benevolent worldview. When they suffer loss, this worldview is shattered.

“So it’s how do you put those pieces back together in a new coherent way that’s going to make sense for the person,” says Boynton, “integrating that narrative into a new way of viewing the world.”

Creating a renewed worldview requires making meaning and Boynton says that a good place to start is to focus on the things that bring you joy. That you’re passionate about. To take stock of the things that are important to you.

“Spend more time doing the things that can bring you a little bit more joy and satisfaction and improve your mental health,” she says. “Of course, if those things aren’t working, then you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for support. Talk with someone about what’s going on.”

Finally, Boynton says one of the most important things you can do during a time like this is give yourself a break and focus on self-compassion and gratitude.

“It’s OK if you’re not doing OK,” she says. “If I say, ‘How are you doing?’ How often do you say, ‘I’m doing really crappy, Thanks for asking.’ Right? So begin by asking yourself that question, ‘How am I doing?’ It’s OK to not be doing well. It’s OK to be in that place. Then just focus on being grateful for the simple things in life.”

About the Campus Mental Health Strategy

At UCalgary we continue to offer mental health support for students, faculty and staff with remote services. If you are experiencing significant stress related to your mental health during COVID-19, seek support — visit our Mental Health During COVID-19 web page for a list of resources and supports.


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.