COVID -19 continues to push up against the boundaries of even the most emotionally resilient among us. Although some are thriving, many of us are finding it difficult to stay sane, balanced and hopeful. This emotional distress has a name – it is called Grief.
As distractions recede and boredom and monotony set in, unresolved “stuff”, particularly unresolved losses can bubble to the surface and provide another opportunity to face, dissipate and clear what has been unfinished. Blocked emotions that have been suspended in time, sometimes for many years, or even decades can finally be freed.
Complicated grief filters our lens in crisis
Grief is simply the emotional reaction to the loss of someone or something with which we are attached. The intensity of the reaction depends on many factors including:
- depth of that attachment
- innate personality
- trauma history
- compounded past and present losses of loved ones
- career security
- milestone events
- financial stability
How well these losses have been addressed in the past, or are being met in the present can play a major role in the ease with which each of us is able to manage our current crisis. Unresolved loss known as complicated grief (Horiwitz, 1997; Wolfelt, 2018) creates a filter over how we perceive things in the now.
For this period in history many have adopted the term The Sacred Pause (Brach, 2015) as a way to reflect and reset our lives. Others have expressed myriad reactions including taking offense to that depiction as out of touch with the level of trauma and suffering people are experiencing.
Whatever is true for each of us, no matter the variance of opinion, an undeniable collective truth exists – grief is in the air the likes of which we have not experienced before, and we are grappling with how to deal with it. A wide range of intense, distinct emotions are all part of the process. A variation of these feelings greet us in the morning, follow us around throughout the day, and put us to sleep – or not – at night.
Grief is not good or bad – it is simply a pathway to the outer edges of our potential
Grief doesn’t have an opinion, and is not good or bad, wrong or right. It is happening and our choice is to resist the process, or jump on the train and engage. The more awake and present we are to the experience, the more likely we are to move through it productively, and emerge having gained much – including increased resilience, inner balance and transformational growth.
Whether experiencing the loss of what was, what will become anticipatory (Lindemann, 1944) and/or ambiguous loss, (Boss, 2000), or the anguish of what is unfolding before our very eyes, this universal process once engaged in can journey us to places within we could never have imagined. And by revisiting such charged terrain, illuminate a pathway out of loneliness, overwhelm and despair into the outer edges of our potential.
Just as risking the uncertainty of love dares us to experience the full range of our heart, grief creates conditions to venture ever more deeply into the wonders of the soul and push up against the boundaries of our strength and resilience.
Naming it is a start
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the pioneer in the study of the study of grief, postulated in her many books on death and dying that there are five emotional stages to grief. She discovered through her work with terminally ill patients that there is an order to the phases; 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, and finally 5. Acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1993).
Acceptance is where the power lives
Acceptance is where the power lives. It is in this phase where we can release fear and control, and lean into the process of healing. The more we are aware of the process, the more we become a part of it, and more fully come to terms with what has been lost. The outward expression of grief is called mourning, which is key to moving grief through its’ process.
Circling the grief
In her later work Kübler-Ross, together with grief researcher David Kessler (2004) discovered that those who have experienced loss go through the same phases cyclically, and not in linear order. With my clients I call it “circling the grief. “ Each cycle creates more space between the point of pain and the individual experiencing the loss. Healing and transformation occurs within the ever widening gap created through circling the grief over and over. I imagine a revolving solar system in which each orbiting planet represents a defining moment of loss that can be addressed and worked through. Kessler, with the blessing of the Kübler-Ross family later added a sixth phase- finding meaning. (Kessler, 2019) This phase can elevate the work of grief to a spiritual level.
I share this to say that many of us woke up post-pandemic feeling angry or sad, and the next day or moment even, feeling a bit removed from the whole thing, or resolved until the next day, when we felt hopeless, or boxed in and angry.
My personal experience was to be late to the party. I had a hard time accepting that I would have to see my clients remotely. I was in the phase of DENIAL and, until I was ready, no amount of “ COVID-shaming ” from family, friends or colleagues could change my mind. And then I felt a bit blue…and so on. This is what grief looks like, and naming it and its’ phases can provide a sense of empowerment over what it is we are experiencing.
Feelings aren’t forever
The grief process is dynamic, because all processes by nature are ever changing and dynamic. Some comfort can be derived from knowing that the misery experienced in a moment is not static.The feeling of sadness is not forever. In fact, the more aware we are of this, the more inclined we may be to let go of the struggle and go with it.
Some cultures around the world create space for wailing and screaming with their entire body after a loss, repeating this ritual over and over as needed until the pain held within their heart and body has diminished. Anyone who has experienced profound loss can tell you how physical the pain is. This discharge of emotion with attention to the bodily sensation of where it hurts is an effective way to move grief forward.
Infants are Grief Teachers
Due to our cultural taboos and social mores around emotional expression, many of us are forced to conceal, mute, or hold our pain within. The “holding- in” arrests the process of grief, thus tucking the held emotion into the tissues of the body. Humans are quite adaptive creatures, and we find elaborate ways to go into the mind to “think” our way around a blockage. Micheal Singer in his book, The Untethered Soul (2007) uses the analogy of a thorn to describe the way we spend our lives adapting around an emotional blockage rather than facing it and removing it by the roots. He describes in great detail how we construct our entire personality, interpersonal relationships, living environment and career around not “aggravating the thorn”.
We can learn something from the cry of a newborn. An infant is not concerned with what you or anybody thinks about its screaming – if it is too loud, too sloppy or too shrill to the ears. An infant expresses pain with its entire being – flushed red, snot flowing, shaking from head to toe, wailing at the top of its lungs. I recall my second child’s cries and I swore he channeled the pain of the universe through those thunderous lungs. Judgements are of no concern to an infant. It isn’t until a child is old enough to understand social cues that they begin to modulate emotional expression to please others or adapt to protect themselves in an unsafe environment.
The body’s cues are like a toddler trying to get our attention
As a child becomes older, say three or four, when they need us they may call quietly from the other room. As we continue our animated telephone call, they start whining and become louder. Still ignored, they enter the room and yank on our sleeve. We remain distracted. Increasingly frustrated, the whining and screaming child becomes louder still, until finally they crawl up on our lap and slap the phone out of our hand. Only then do we take notice as we shout at the tantruming child. Our bodies and minds behave much like this frustrated three year old. At first throwing gentle symptoms our way to get our attention, such as, but not limited to negative cyclical thinking, mild headaches, a slightly racing heart or lump in our throat. Ignored, symptoms gradually ramp up. Amongst the possibilities are broken relationships, destructive patterns of behavior, full blown conditions like migraine headaches, heart disease, autoimmune and emotional disorders like anxiety, panic disorders and depression ( McCoy, 2016). Worse yet, rather than trying to get to the root of the problem we opt for numbing or distracting away from the pain through the use of substances, food and/or harmful behavioral patterns. It may take landing in the hospital or in the office of a psychiatrist or therapist to wake up to the issues that need to be addressed. This pandemic may have provided the final tipping point for many to seek out the support needed to begin unpeeling the layers of our grief.
Seeking help to move through the grief process
Body centered modalities such as Self Acceptance Training (SAT), Neuro Affective Relational Model (NARM), Somatic Experiencing, Focusing Therapy and Hakomi are some effective techniques to address grief and trauma. Skilled trauma and grief therapists are key to entering into this process effectively and safely.
And so all around the globe we grieve, while simultaneously forced into personal isolation. It is a strange dichotomy, and yet the work of grief is very personal, even when facilitated in a group. No one grieves the same and we need not grieve alone.
In the stillness of shelter in place, the muffled past stirs, calling us to face our emotions of old, held deep within the body, asking to be liberated. Without the distractions of frenetic daily activity, we are forced to take notice.
Pain is the delivery system of Light
Universal spiritual wisdom teaches us that pain is a delivery system of Light. Our work then is to extract the jewels held within its shells ( Berg, 2004). And what better time than now to take that leap into the uncomfortable, wherein we come to terms with, and uncover meaning through loss. Out of the chrysalis we can emerge transformed.
- CDC Foundation is an independent nonprofit created by Congress to mobilize philanthropic and private-sector resources to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s critical health protection work.(https://www.cdcfoundation.org/)
- Feeding America is a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies.
- Meals on Wheels supports individuals who are elderly, disabled, chronically ill and home-bound by delivering nutritious meals, reducing hunger, improving health and promoting independence.
- The National Domestic Works Alliance has set up a fund to provide immediate financial support for domestic workers, and enable them to stay home and healthy — protecting themselves, their families and their communities while slowing the spread of the Coronavirus.(https://www.domesticworkers.org/)
- One Fair Wage Emergency Coronavirus Tipped and Service Worker Support Fund provides cash assistance to restaurant workers, car service drivers, delivery workers, personal service workers and more who need the money they aren’t getting to survive.(https://ofwemergencyfund.org/)
Berg, Michael. Becoming Like God: Kabbalah and Our Ultimate Destiny: Kabbalah Center, 2004. Print
Boss, Pauline. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief : Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.
Brach,Tara. The Sacred Pause: Youtube: 2015. Video lecture
Horowitz M., Siegel B., Holen A.,Bonanno G., Milbrath C.,& Stinson C.(1997). Diagnostic criteria for complicated grief disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(7), 904–910.
Kessler, David. Finding Meaning, The Sixth Stage of Grief: Simon and Schuster, 2019. Print
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses,Clergy, and Their Own Families : Scribner, 1993. Print.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth and D. Kessler, On Grief and Grieving, Finding Meaning Through the 5 Stages of Loss : Scribner, 2004, Print
Lindemann, M.D., Erich. Symptomatology And Management of Acute Grief : The American Journal of Psychiatry: Boston,1944
McCoy, Cherie. Becoming Alive and Real, Journey into the Body’s Truth: McCoy, 2016. Print.
Singer, Michael A., The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself: New Harbinger Publications,Inc, 2007. Print.
Wolfelt, Alan D., When Grief is Complicated: A Model For Therapists to Understand, Identify, and Companion Grievers Lost in the Wilderness of Complicated Grief: Companion Press, 2018. Print