Last week, I lost my aunt to Covid-19. She was 97- a strong, relatively healthy 97- and thankfully she died fairly quickly and peacefully. The most challenging part of this loss has been the inability of my family to be together to both mourn and celebrate the life of this woman we all cherished. Aunt Sue was the matriarch of our family. She modeled kindness, compassion, and patience more than any other person I have ever known. I am choosing to share this very personal experience with you because the fact is, we are all grieving.
Several weeks ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Dr. David Kessler called “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief”. Dr. Kessler is a grief expert who is best known for working with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on further developing the 5 stages of grief to encompass a variety of loss, and not just the loss one experiences through death and dying.
If you are unfamiliar with the 5 stages of grief, they are:
- Denial– Pretending the loss doesn’t exist or isn’t as serious as it is being made to appear
- Anger– Can manifest as general irritability, mood swings, anger at leaders, politicians, or a higher power, or even be misdirected toward friends, siblings, teachers, or parents
- Bargaining– Sometimes this bargaining can be with a higher power, and sometimes the bargaining is more tangible, “Please let me see my friend- I promise we’ll stand 6 feet apart!”
- Sadness– When the weight of the loss hits, and we’re finally able to name and express the sadness. For some, this sadness can couple with hopelessness and can lead toward depression. Symptoms of depression can look like disrupted sleep patterns, disrupted eating patterns, changes in hygiene, and body aches, just to name a few. It is absolutely normal and healthy to be experiencing sadness at this time. If you or your loved one are starting to notice signs of depression, it may be time to ask for help.
- Acceptance– Coming to terms or making peace with the loss.
It is important to understand that grief is not a linear process. We do not start at one stage and then progress through to the final stage. Instead, grief is cyclical. It is entirely possible that one will reach acceptance, and then one of life’s milestones occurs like a wedding or graduation, and suddenly we are angry or sad again.
As I said before, we are all grieving. Some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones. Some of us are grieving weddings that had to be cancelled. Some of us are grieving proms and graduations that were cancelled. We are all grieving the sense of freedom and security we were enjoying just a few months ago, and we are grieving the loss of certainty of what “normal” life will look like once this passes. And because we are all grieving, it is highly likely that past grief and trauma have also been triggered, and you may find yourself re-visiting a stage that you thought you adequately processed.
So what can we do? I am linking below two articles that I found quite helpful on grief. One is the aforementioned article by Dr. Kessler. The other is an article from Greater Good Magazine called “How to Help Teens Handle the Loss of Proms and Graduations”. And here are some of my tips:
- Acknowledge, and Do Not Minimize, Your Feelings: I was listening to a podcast the other night about grief, and the podcaster said something like, “The most significant grief a person will experience is their own”. This means the loss of graduation to a student in grade 12 is just as painful to her as the loss of my aunt is to me. Her pain should not be minimized or “put into perspective”, but instead she should be validated in feeling the anger and sadness that goes with that loss.
- Find a Way to Ritualize the Loss: Many cultures and religions have beautiful ways of ritualizing death, that unfortunately because of social distancing, are not being practiced as they normally would. But this does not mean that we cannot find other ways to ritualize our loss. Again, I was listening to another podcast last night that was talking about the Great Earthquake and Tsunami that rocked Japan in 2011. There was a man who lost his wife in the tsunami, and the way he chose to ritualize his grief was to buy a British style phone booth and install it in his backyard. He would then use the phone to “call” his late wife and have conversations with her. Word of this practice got out, and suddenly people were coming from far and wide to use his phone to “call” their deceased loved ones. What are some ways you can ritualize the loss you are experiencing? Perhaps you can write a song, paint a picture, or gather your friends together in a Zoom service or celebration.
- Self-Care: Yes, I know, I am always talking to you about self-care. I want to acknowledge that self-care may look different right now. For some of you, self-care may still be face masks and yoga. For others, self-care may be reading or learning a new language. And for some, self-care may just be brushing your teeth and taking a shower every day. We are not living in normal times, and to continue to hold the same expectations for ourselves and for others that we did pre-Covid is ludicrous. For us to get through this- and we will get through this- we need to practice radical compassion for ourselves and for others.
- Gratitude: Whenever possible, try to still find those moments of gratitude. This may take some reframing of language. For example, if you think “Ugh, I am stuck inside!”, acknowledge how that feels, and then try to say to yourself, “I am safe inside”. I have found myself doing this many times over the past week. Anytime I felt anger or sadness about my aunt, I would feel it, and then remind myself of the deep gratitude I feel for all the time I was able to have with her.
- Finding Meaning: Dr. Kessler added a 6 stage of “finding meaning” to the experience of grief. It may be hard to reckon with that now, since there is still so much uncertainty, and I still encourage you to try. A few weeks ago in my post titled “What If”, I talked about all the good I hope will come from this experience. What meaning might your loss hold for you?