Understanding and Coping with Grief
Grief is a reaction to losing someone or something we love dearly. During this period of COVID-19 we may lose our jobs, our possessions, friends, loved ones or even our own lives. All of us are losing something as a result of this virus, including our felt sense of safety and security. Not being able to be close to the ones we love, and holding them in a warm embrace is also a loss that can and will trigger grief in many of us.
Grief works in mysterious ways. No two people react in the exact same manner to loss. Let me share two examples from my own life. My father was killed when I was 12. He and I had an almost non-existent relationship in that he and my mother divorced before I can remember, and I only saw him a couple times after that. Almost twenty years later I was in a church service and the speaker was talking about the loss of his father. Something inside me broke wide open and I found my self sobbing for a long time. I was heartbroken over not having a father, and realized how badly I needed one. This story reveals how grief can sometimes be buried and even unrealized for a very long time.
Several years ago my best friend died. When I heard the news I burst into tears and became almost immediately depressed. The pain was excruciating and remained actively painful for a couple years. Even now, it’s not hard for me to think of my friend and feel like a part of me is missing or at least, badly broken.
No one knows how long grief will last and there are myriad ways to think about grief. I remember an interview I heard with the Dalai Lama. The interviewer asked him if he had any regrets. After a period of reflection, the Dalai Lama related the story of an aging monk who wanted to join a monastery that practiced very challenging physical practices like those of the Shaolin monks who developed Kung Fu. The Dalai Lama suggested that joining this monastic order would not be good for him given his age and physical health. The monk was dejected, returned to his monastery and killed himself in the hope that he would be reborn and able to join that monastery in another life. The interviewer was clearly shaken by the story and asked him how he got over the tragedy. The Dalai Lama’s response was shocking to the western mind. He responded by saying, “Get over it? Why would I ever want to get over it?” The point here is that the Dalai Lama is able to hold that pain of that loss in his heart and also experience the joy and love of life at the same time. I share these stories to briefly relate the complexities of grief.
While grief can be complicated, the subject has been studied extensively, and much understanding has been gained about the grief process and the stages of grief that many of us will experience during COVID-19. I will list the stages and examples below, and, important to note, is that these stages rarely happen in order. People will often move back and forth between stages or experience some and not others.
Stages of Grief
Shock & Disbelief
Early stage grief is often characterized by shock and disbelief. We might say things to ourselves like, “How can this be real, I can’t believe this is happening. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think. The shock stage provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This stage may last for weeks.
As the shock wears off, emotional pain is characteristic of stage two. Although the pain can be excruciating and almost unbearable, the pain is a natural reaction and needs to be experienced fully. You may also have feelings of guilt or remorse over things you did or didn’t do that you believe might have made a difference. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.
Stage three is characterized by anger.We want the pain to stop and nerves are frazzled. We become easily irritated and want to lash out or make someone pay. Please try to resist this urge, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is not a time for the release of bottled-up emotion. Also know that anger, like all emotions passes. The body is simply not designed to stay in this stage unless we continually fuel the anger. We will be discussing methods to deal with anger throughout this program.
Deep sadness. Everyone has some idea, usually not founded in science, about how long this deep sadness will last. During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and you feel depressed. Your energy will probably be low, you will want to isolate, activities that used to bring joy, are no longer enjoyable. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair. Well meaning friends might unknowingly make this period worse by thinking you should snap out of it, or be over it by now. These sentiments are neither helpful nor accurate.
The Upward Turn
As you start to adjust to a new and different life, you become a little calmer and start to add new organization and structure to your life. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your “depression” begins to lift slightly.
Rebuilding & Working Through
Your mind begins to feel like it’s working a little better. You are able to plan, organize finances, and pockets of joy may emerge. New systems fall into place, and some energy returns. Activities start to become interesting again.
Acceptance means you are functioning well while living with the loss. You are living a new life, and you are not generally overwhelmed. Acceptance does not mean you are no longer sad, that you don’t miss what you had before, or that you don’t have strong feelings like those mentioned before. Acceptance means you are facing reality, and adapting. You are learning and growing through the loss. You will start to look forward and actually plan for the future. Eventually, you will be able to think about your losses without such enduring, excruciating pain. You might notice a sunset and smile. You begin to reengage with life. New possibilities emerge and can be embraced.
While understanding the stages of grief may not make them easier, the knowledge and science behind them will help you know you are not crazy. What you are experiencing is normal and predictable. You at least have a trail through the mountain, even though that trail can feel straight up.