Coping with Disappointments in 2020

Have Yourself a Merry Little Pandemic: Coping with Disappointments in 2020

In Grief & Loss, Parenting, Relationships by Kelsey Nimmo

When I imagine the holidays, my mind fills with images of traditions (both joyful and chaotic) and my daydreams focus on planning food and gifts and crafts. Usually it is all a sign of things to come — but maybe not this year.

The infamous “dumpster fire” year of 2020 has held countless disappointments for all of us. Through each new development of COVID-19, we have learned to cope with more and more let-downs.

You all know what I’m talking about.

Remember those two weeks in March when this all began and still seems so surreal? That birthday party in April that had to go virtual? The wedding in May that got postponed? The vacation or music festival in June that got cancelled?

Mother’s and Father’s days were celebrated at home, with many of us adults attempting to tell our parents how much we appreciate them through a scheduled Zoom call, homemade signs through the window, or (if we were lucky) a small outdoor gathering with cautious interactions.

In July, we felt more free (almost normal, even) — meeting small and local in the fresh air. Even if we celebrated the 4th of July alone, at least we still saw the cheerful fireworks from our neighbors. My own holiday was spent driving around Kalamazoo and Galesberg to catch the best light shows in the sky. We perched on the car with the kids and graciously smiled and clapped for the firework shows we witnessed.

Then there were the heart breaks of August — that family reunion and 70th birthday trip that got cancelled. September came with increased regulations and additional stresses due to virtual schooling. Remember October’s cancelled parties, limited trick or treating, and virtual costume contests? And of course Thanksgiving’s quiet football games and small turkeys.

What about all of the weddings that were postponed this year (with hopes to happen next year)? Many couples had to continue adapting their wedding plans up until the last minute because nothing could be reliably planned in advance.

And then of course there were the funerals.

So many of us couldn’t attend funerals of those we loved dearly — or perhaps they weren’t held at all. Not getting to say goodbye at a funeral can be far more devastating than we realize (until we miss it).

Now here we are in December and we have had almost nine months of consistent disappointments and losses.

That’s pretty heavy.

Even with such huge divides in the way everyone is choosing to respond to the pandemic, we are all united in experiencing disappointments.

Whether you spent Thanksgiving alone for the first time ever, kept your Friendsgiving small, or even carried out a normal-ish holiday, there was still disappointment.

Maybe the family gathered but your cousin with her newborn baby chose to stay home. Not only have you not gotten to meet the baby, but you lost your best pictionary partner.

You might have been looking forward to Black Friday shopping or you were excited to see all the nieces and nephews play together.

No matter how big or small, the disappointments unite us. And unfortunately, they aren’t done. A pandemic holiday, no matter how “normal,” won’t feel quite the same to any of us.

Maybe Christmas will be smaller, cancelled altogether, or look like the Brady Bunch on screen.

Maybe that annual cruise won’t be happening after the new year.

Maybe meals will arrive by mail and presents through never-ending Amazon shipments.

So how do we cope with all of these disappointments?

We grieve.

We grieve the losses — and there are a lot of them. As we move into colder weather and more holidays ahead of us, the losses are likely to grow.

To cope with each new disappointment, we must grieve each new loss. But how do we grieve them? How do we cope with disappointment?

Unresolved grief is cumulative — which is part of what makes this year of 2020 so hard. Every time we experience a new disappointment, the heaviness of all of the past ones tag along with it.

One of my favorite resources in understanding and processing through grief is The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. James and Friedman do a beautiful job in helping us understand that “most of us were socialized incorrectly on the topic of grief” and we have some really poor, ineffective, and damaging ways of grieving.

In their book, they talk a lot about the six primary lies about grief:

  1. Don’t feel bad.
  2. Replace the loss.
  3. Grieve alone.
  4. Just give it time.
  5. Be strong for others.
  6. Keep busy.

Most likely, you use some or all of these techniques for your own grief. So do I. So do most of us.

But they definitely aren’t very healing.

To really understand how to challenge these lies about grief and find your own recovery in 2020, definitely check out The Grief Recovery Handbook. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back. I’ll give you a few tips right here, right now, to help you find your own way of coping.

Step 1: Make a list of your losses

Just because we know all of the things we’ve been disappointed in this year (or the things to come), that doesn’t mean we are creating space to grieve them.

Walk yourself chronologically through the year (starting in March when the world shut down — or maybe even before that if you find yourself weighed down by disappointments previous to COVID) and scan for what you’ve had to grieve.

When we think of things we had to grieve, we have a tendency to minimize our experiences. Grieving doesn’t only happen from death, divorce, or job loss. Broaden your scan of losses to include:

  • Things you looked forward to and had to cancel or change
  • Daydreams or plans you hadn’t yet made but envisioned for 2020
  • Missed opportunities — or life paths that might have been very different in a non-pandemic year
  • Actual losses… meaning time, money, or peace of mind (just to name a few)

Likely you’ll come up with a pretty hefty list. Need some ideas? Here are some of the losses that came to mind as I made my own list:

  • Loss of weekly dinners with friends
  • Loss of visits with my mom
  • Loss of the excitement I saw in my kids when they knew they were getting to go to Grandma’s
  • Loss of trust that I would be able to see my mom again (ever)
  • Loss of date nights
  • Loss of the calmness and peace of mind that comes about from a regular schedule
  • Loss of childcare
  • Loss of patience with my children
  • Loss the identity I held as a mother when childcare was more readily available
  • Loss of intimacy with my partner
  • Loss of coworking relationships
  • Loss of making choices at the grocery store (or the unavailability of favorite brands and staple baking products)
  • Loss of live music and new food
  • Loss of being able to celebrate my birthday with… anyone
  • Loss of the excitement that comes with looking forward to a concert
  • Loss of annual traditions
  • Loss of long car rides to visit family when the kids can fall asleep and my partner and I can actually talk and connect
  • Loss of having my bedroom not also be my office

Your list might be totally different from mine — and that’s fine! Nothing is too small to be a loss.

Step 2: Find the meaning in your losses

For each item on your list, identify the meaning or value behind that for you. Essentially, what makes this loss so hard? What are you grieving? If you need some prompts, you can google a list of values and use those to jumpstart your brain. Sometimes it takes a little thought to dig deeper.

From my list above, here are some examples:

  • Loss of weekly dinners with friends — Loss of community
  • Loss of trust that I would be able to see my mom again (ever, kind of) — Loss of security
  • Loss of childcare — Loss of support, freedom, and experience for my children
  • Loss of patience with my children — Loss of compassion and trust in self
  • Loss of making choices at the grocery store — Loss of autonomy and choice
  • Loss of live music and new food — Loss of adventure
  • Loss of annual traditions — Loss of familiarity
  • Loss of long car rides to visit family when the kids can fall asleep and my partner and I can actually talk and connect — Loss of connection
  • Loss of having my bedroom not also be my office — Loss of identity and separation

You’ll notice that some of these are repeats. That’s what we want to pay attention to.

Step 3: Discover what you’re grieving

Look through your list of meanings and values and see if there are any themes. What are the themes of your disappointments? For myself, I discovered I am mostly grieving community, adventure, security, autonomy, and choice.

What are you grieving?

Step 4: Allow yourself to feel the feels

This might sound silly. Maybe you feel like you’ve been grieving all year. Many of us have walked around saying things like, “2020, right?” when another thing goes wrong. We roll our eyes and shrug our shoulders and lump it all into the dumpster fire.

But this doesn’t count as grieving.

Grieving looks like sadness, or maybe anger. It looks like sitting and feeling the heaviness — and recognizing that it’s okay to be sad (or angry) even if we can’t change anything about it.

We tend to forget this part. Many of us think that to grieve would mean to dwell in it. And if we dwell in it, won’t it just feel worse?

Not exactly.

When we tune in to our emotions (and the emotions of others), we are actually being really effective in soothing ourselves. When we suppress an emotion (meaning try to ignore it), our brain and body goes a little coocoo. In other words, we get more stressed. Here’s a short list of what happens to our body when we suppress our emotions:

  • We have impaired memory
  • Our brain experiences fatigue as it is putting in twice as much effort to both suppress the old information while still receiving new information
  • Our blood pressure and heart rate increase (causing stress to our body — and sometimes physical illness if this persists over a long period of time)

In short, suppressing our emotions leads to more stress. Stanford has actually done a lot of research about the negative effects of emotion suppression on our physical, mental, and social health. If you’re interested, check out the links below. It’s all pretty interesting.

Step 5: Create meaning and value where it’s needed

You’ve done it! You’ve successfully experienced your emotions instead of suppressing them and therefore you’re one step (or four steps, technically!) closer to coping with those disappointments.

After holding space for yourself to experience the sadness or anger (or likely both) for your losses, it is time to create meaning and value for yourself.

This does NOT mean to replace the loss. (Remember that was one of the lies about grief that James and Friedman mentioned.)

What it really means is that we look at what the true loss is and we find a way to nourish it. To heal it. We create new meaning to serve the same purpose.

Remember how I discovered that I am mostly grieving community, adventure, security, autonomy, and choice? I would want to nourish these needs. These values. And I have a lot of options.

  • I can start getting better and texting my friends back and communicating in our group chat to nourish the community around me.
  • I can start going on car rides to nowhere with no GPS to explore the great world of West Michigan and seek some adventure again.
  • I can make a list of all the things that have remained stable in my life during 2020 to remind me that my security might look a little different but is still there.
  • I can exert autonomy and choice over how my living room is arranged, what new meals I want to try cooking, and how often I want to clean my sheets.

So how do you want to spend your 2020 holidays? How do you want to enter into the new (hopefully better) year of 2021? Perhaps less weighed down by all the dumpster junk from 2020!

If you’re struggling with disappointments, grief, loss, and perhaps all of the anxiety, stress and depression associated with these, we’re here for you.

Resources

“Disgusting videos key to first-ever brain imaging study comparing ways of controlling emotions”

“Emotionally Intelligent People Reappraise Rather than Suppress their Emotions”

“Emotion regulation in adolescence: A Prospective Study of Expressive Suppression and Depressive Symptoms”

“The Effects of Acceptance and Suppression on Anticipation and Receipt of Painful Stimulation”

The Social Costs of Emotional Suppression: A Prospective Study of the Transition to College