As a therapist in private practice, I am comfortable discussing a wide variety of life stressors. To be honest, right up until a global pandemic sent us all home, I felt I had more than a reasonable handle on exploring grief with clients and family and friends. What I have since come to realize is this particular flavor of grief is more nuanced than any other form of grief I am used to deliberating with clients and in my own life.
Dating back to mid-March and the first round of shelter in place orders, I have spoken with clients, family, and friends and noticed a theme. Everyone is sharing an overwhelming sense of loss. Every single one of us is struggling to make sense of what our life is, now. Grief is a natural response to loss. Many people believe grief to be the emotional suffering we feel when someone we love has died. While death and grief are intimately connected, many among us are coming to the realization that grief is much more complex and not reserved for death.
COVID-19 has presented us with an epidemiological, political and emotional epidemic. Collectively we are dealing with loss: loss of health, loss of freedoms (oh so many)-the ability to leave our homes, go to work, play sports, workout in a gym, eat out, see a film in a theater, see a play, date someone new, get married or have a baby in a way we had hoped, visit family and friends, go on vacations, and hug one another.
The list continues, pay rent, find a job that provides satisfaction and a decent pay, worry about our children’s future, see them dress for and attend prom and kvell over them at graduation, go to summer camp, teach in a classroom that is familiar, mourn with a community when a loved one passes away.
The loss of how life had been and the loss of what will be? These are only a few examples of topics I have discussed with clients through video screens (at times freezing mid-thought) many times through tears and anger.
One of the biggest losses is the loss of a sense of control and predictability that our lives had a couple of months ago.
The belief that we can keep those we love, our partners, children and parents safe, is no longer a reality for many of us. Adding to this overwhelming sense of loss, in California is an additional layer of fire and smoke danger. A client shared with health issues shared, “this is just too much, I cry every day.”
I recently read an article featuring an interview with David Kessler who co-authored with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. In the interview, Mr. Kessler discusses anticipatory grief. With anticipatory grief we feel grief in anticipation of what could happen. This is particularly relevant in our current crisis because of our fear of becoming sick or for my client fear of losing their home to fire, the uncertainty about when life will return to a place where personal safety was taken for granted. What might that feel like?
We feel the loss of what was, of our normal routines, the mundane aspects of life many of us took for granted and we worry about what is to come.
This resonated with me as the type of grief most of us are experiencing and why it is so confusing. Cognitively, we understand something bad is happening (pandemic and wildfires = bad) and yet we cannot see the virus nor do many of has have raging fires out our window, unless we or someone we care for becomes sick or loses their home, the loss seems surreal. Not since September 11 have we collectively lost our general sense of safety. We are grieving on a community, national and global level. And somehow, we are more divided (climate and science deniers) have politicized our response. For those who trust science and are empathetic this is an extremely stressful time.
Anticipatory grief is our anxiety for what will happen in the future when we imagine the worst-case scenario. Many of my clients and friends are experiencing this. Here are a few things we can do to calm our minds now.
I get it, mindfulness and meditative practices have been getting quite a bit of hype, there is a reason for this, it is pretty easy to reap the rewards. Think of what you are doing right this moment, “I am reading your article, lady.” Great! That is one thing. Can you focus on where you are reading? Is the place you are sitting/reclining comfortable? Think about the temperature where you are, too cold? Just right? Now take a breath, a nice deep three second inhale, hold for three seconds and then exhale for three seconds. Right now, you are okay. In this moment, you are okay. Use your senses to help keep your present when you start to feel anxiety/anticipatory grief.
To them I try to focus on what they CAN control. We all know by now that we must wash our hands, wear a mask in crowded public spaces and maintain a social distance of six feet and conserve energy. Let’s focus on that and the other things that ARE in our control.
No one else’s grief is more important (or less important) than what you are feeling. Anyone who has ever worked with me professionally or been a part of my inner circle knows that I strongly believe in the power of giving feelings a name – Name it to Tame it.
This is especially powerful in naming grief. It is important to acknowledge what we are feeling and respect the feelings of those we love. In May an acquaintance posted an article about the graduating class of 2020 and shared her sadness for her child. It was her way of working through her grief and since it was on social media another “friend” took it as an opportunity to shame her by saying, “You shouldn’t feel sad about this, other people lost their jobs.” To this I say:
Do not “should” all over your (or anyone else’s) feelings. Instead, allow your feelings to be. “I feel sad, disappointed and frustrated.” All feelings are valid and real, we do not need to rank or rationalize a certain feeling. Allow yourself five minutes to feel those feelings. Fighting it does not work, if you allow yourself to feel freely, you are honoring yourself which is empowering – and yes, painful.
There is no recorded case of this occurring. Feelings can hurt, the real trick is to allow your feelings, the tears, the anger, all of it. We are feeling big feelings now, allow yourself to grieve, to breathe and be kind to yourself and those you love.