Coping with Grief

For me, if there is one word that incapsulates this past year, that word is grief. Not one of us has been spared the grief over someone we’ve lost, loved ones we’ve missed, parts of ourselves that have been shelved, or milestones we couldn’t share. Never in history has grief been so universal, and yet, grief is one of the most intimate emotions one can experience. It hits each of us at different times in different ways. There is not one way to experience it and certainly not to “get over” it. 

In the face of so much loss and such mass grief, I sometimes worry that we’re overlooking the deeply personal nature of what individuals are being asked to withstand. I wonder how you, sitting there reading this, are coping with your own grief. I wonder if you’re giving yourself the compassion, kindness, and care you would show another person. I wonder how much is being laid by the wayside in the struggle to be strong and get through each day.

In order to cope in the age of Covid-19, many of us have had to muster a kind of daily resilience we never thought possible. So much in our lives has changed, and the way we grieve is no exception. Millions of goodbyes have been said over Zoom. Safety guidelines have limited our ability to hold in-person wakes and funerals. Losing someone is never easy, but adding these gaps to our grieving process can leave us feeling even more lost and unresolved. 

Grief is already a rocky emotion that comes in waves, so how do we respond to circumstances that make it all the more disjointed and surreal? While I do not believe there is a singular or “right” way to process grief, I do believe that there are three things we should forcefully extend to ourselves and one another at this time. These are patience, acceptance, and compassion. 

Grief is not something that strikes hard then tapers off in a smooth, descending line that runs parallel with time. It comes and goes at unexpected moments. It waxes and wanes with all kinds of triggers, some somber and some joyous. Because of this, our patience toward ourselves and one another is critical to healing. 

This may be especially true during this pandemic, as our rituals around grief are disrupted. Our initial reaction to a loss may be shock. It may even be numbness. Our pain may leave us feeling still and somber, or it may feel overwhelming or intolerable. We must meet whatever we’re feeling with patience. Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions fully gives each wave the time it needs to rise and fall. In doing so, we honor our feelings for the person and are kind to ourselves.

Being accepting of these feelings without judgment is one of the greatest offerings we have to meet our grief. This includes emotions we may deem “unacceptable” like anger or resentment. When we lose a person, there is no one way we are supposed to feel. Our emotions may be messy and all over the place, and that is okay.

If we find it hard to find a sense of calm or peace, it’s so important to open up, be it with a therapist, a grief counselor, or a trusted friend who’s good at listening. It’s completely acceptable to be unfiltered, to tell stories, good and bad, and carve out our own way to make meaning of our memories. We should give ourselves the time we need to seek creative ways to process grief and honor our missing feelings. It’s easy to see everyone else as “moving on” and to put that pressure on ourselves, but the truth is we are all moving on our own timeline, and healing takes a different form for all of us.

Finally, we must be fierce with our self-compassion. Many of us grapple with side effects of loss we don’t necessarily expect. This includes a cruel and critical inner voice that turns against us. This “voice” may be sparking our guilt with thoughts like we should have done more for the person we lost, spent more time with them, or even that we should feel guilty for being the one to survive. 

This voice can also feed us thoughts that the way we’re grieving is somehow wrong. It may tell us that we’re feeling “too much,” that we’re being weak, and we should toughen up. Or it may accuse us of not feeling enough, asking “What’s wrong with you? You’re not as sad as you should be.” 

The reality is most everyone has self-attacking thoughts after a loss. Their inner critic turns much of their pain against themselves. Because it can be sneaky, we must be vigilant in our efforts to resist this internal enemy and meet ourselves with consistent self-compassion. We must remind ourselves that there is nothing wrong with us. There is no way we are supposed to feel on a moment-to-moment basis. It is okay to laugh, smile, scream, or sob, because all of it is a part of being human.

And this is one way in which being human offers us a bit of hope. Yes, our grief is personal and unique to us. It cannot be washed away by the waves of sadness anyone else is experiencing, but the fact that others are going through the same thing can help us connect even more to a sense of our common humanity, resilience, and compassion. Grief is part of the human condition, and we all have the capacity to heal and cope. This does not mean we will forget or get over anything, but we can start to make meaning of our experience and find ways to move forward. 

“Deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert. “When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope.” As we find our path, we can remember there are many people on their own paths simultaneously, stretching out beside us. The patience, acceptance, and compassion we show ourselves matters, and it carves out space for others to do the same.

If you’re interested in the subject of coping with grief during Covid-19, I strongly recommend this webinar with Dr. Robert Neimeyer. You can learn more here

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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