Good Grief! Sorrow in 4 Healthy Steps
How to Grieve Losses from Covid—or your Life
My January began with mourning. My beloved brother-in-law died in late December at the age of 83 after experiencing several strokes. Just talking with Peter had enlivened my life for 60 years. He was a joyous man and even had a wife named Happy. His death felt doubly hard, to lose him and then not to have a service with the usual gathering of our large family where we could hug and cry and tell stories and laugh. We have all lost people we cared about during this last year. In this blog, however, I want to write about the other kinds of losses we have endured.
When I looked at what I had lost during Covid, my list, probably like yours, was long. There were the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays without family. Ten months of social isolation. The many expected family events that didn’t happen. I couldn’t even visit my son Paul when he was in the hospital with Covid. I missed dinners and gatherings with friends in their homes. No in-person church and no in-person meetings of my book groups and my writing group. To say nothing about the loss of feeling safe while a pandemic raged. And finally, the loss of peace of mind with so much sadness, death, and dying all around me.
We’ve all had small and big losses during the pandemic, which add up to enormous grief.
Our bodies have reacted in both obvious and subtle ways from our lack of social contact. Our body knows that we sapiens are wired to be social animals. The scientists tell us that during the pandemic, among those of us who are socially isolated, there has been a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of a stroke. For the lonely—that is those of us impacted by the absence of the people we love and miss— there are also health implications. The lonely’s risk of dying increased as much as it would if they were obese, or more than if they were smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more than if they were an alcoholic, according to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.
The reality is those of us sheltering at home have experienced a general decline in well-being.
With the vaccine here for some of us, but not for all, it feels different. The promise of relief is here, but then as I write this, the virus is surging more than ever before. And the end is like a mirage, over and over vanishing as new strains emerge. Our frustration grows and our spirits sink as we contemplate the months ahead and fear they will be harder than we can even imagine.
I am writing this to encourage you to be more intentional, more active in grieving your losses. Most of us know we have to mourn the people we have lost. But we may not realize we also need to grieve all the other losses we have experienced—including family events, opportunities, jobs, everyday get-togethers, peace of mind, and the lack of security that we have experienced since March. Many of us have no idea how to do this; we’re just muddling along waiting for Covid to go away. As a psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, I know that strategy is not going to work.
I offer you a model to help you grieve the ongoing stream of losses you have faced this last year. And for the new losses that will come your way in the coming months as the pandemic continues and your life goes on.
Grieving Our Losses in 4 Healthy Steps
1. Name the Loss
The first step when you experience a loss is to acknowledge it to yourself right as it happens. We recognize our loss when a person has died. But then we tend to shrug off other kinds of losses like those from our isolation and loneliness We say, “I shouldn’t fuss because so many people have it so much worse. I don’t have Covid.” Even if we recognize them, we avoid thinking about them and sweep them under the rug. So name the loss and accept the fact that it will need attention.
The second step is to take some time to reflect on the impact of your loss. Take some time to process this loss. How did it impact your life? What exactly did you lose? It often helps to write about your loss; it is a good way to get it out of your body.
The third step is to mourn the loss. You need to designate some time for this in a quiet space. Mourning is letting yourself feel your real feelings. You don’t have to weep and cry, although you may. Just feeling what you feel. This is actually something we rarely let ourselves do. You can say to yourself, “For just 10 minutes I will let myself feel my sadness about this loss.” Then you can ask yourself, “What else do I feel?” You may also feel angry, resentful, relieved, hurt, anxious, frustrated, envious, or guilty. Go ahead and feel those feelings, too. The words grieve and grievance shares the same roots, after all. You might again choose to write about the loss, or make a collage, draw a picture, or find a photo that would help you mourn. You might sing a song or meditate depending on your tradition and beliefs.
4. Translate Grief into Action
The last step in this model is to figure out how to make meaning out of the loss and then to translate your grief into an action plan for yourself. Grief can be a good teacher—teaching us what it is we love and value. We can all learn from what we lost. What it is we want more of in our own lives? What do we want to bring more of into the world?
Let me give you three examples of translating grief into action.
When Julia couldn’t be with her granddaughter on her 16th birthday, Julia’s sadness helped her realize how much she wanted to have a closer relationship with her granddaughter. She decided to call her more often just to chat. They became closer than they ever had been before.
Brad couldn’t go to his 60th reunion from college last June and he was devastated. After grieving for a while, he decided to give a gift to support scholarships at his college. He still felt sad, but better.
Beverly found herself in a real funk because she had been so isolated from all her family and friends for so long. To translate her sadness into something positive, she decided to call three people she knew who were even worse off than she. And it worked—her spirits rebounded. She decided to call them once a week.
The act of paying attention to feeling our grief and then turning that grief into action is simple and unexpectedly powerful. It will work for you.
I believe that the ability to grieve is an essential skill for all of us. It is a tool not only for this time of Covid but also for our whole lives. And perhaps, most importantly of all, I have learned that to age well, it is absolutely necessary to learn how to grieve the inevitable losses that come our way.