The Healing Power of Grief
It is apparent that many of us are stressed, anxious, and perhaps even depressed from the coronavirus pandemic shut-down. This is understandable, as our worlds have been completely turned upside down. Any illusions about us "being in control" have been totally debunked. Like the old Yiddish adage goes, "Man plans, and God laughs."
I would also contend that many of us are dealing with grief concerning the shutdown as well. Suffice to say, grief is an emotion we all deal with more frequently than we realize. Typically we think of the word "grief" in relation to the loss of someone or something dear to us. Grief is a pain or discomfort, and it may act as a mental, physical, social or emotional reaction to a loss. Mental reactions from grief can include anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, and despair.
We often think of grief in terms of someone's death. However, we also grieve (or need to grieve) when things in our lives are suddenly taken from us. Some of the sudden "endings" or abrupt unexpected changes in our lives brought on by the pandemic have undoubtedly left many of us grief stricken on a collective level and on individual levels.
On a collective level, the world is most likely changed for good. The world in which we knew only a few weeks ago is gone. We hear people speculate what the "new normal" will be like. To a certain extent, there never was a "normal". We now face the reality that we will come out of this significantly changed as a society. There is no doubt that our collective consciousness will be reshaped in some ways from this period of time. As humans, we tend to be nostalgic creatures, always reminiscing about the good ole days. There will be much grief as a result.
Millions are grieving for a myriad of reasons brought on by the pandemic. These reasons include, but are not limited to: bereavement for loved who have passed away, the loss of income/employment, longing for personal freedoms like being able to go where we want to go, and missing out on face to face interactions. I get sad thinking of the elderly who died alone during this crisis. I also feel badly for the high school graduation classes of 2020. They will miss out many of their societal rites of passage like senior prom, yearbook signings, and graduation commencement. Some people are grieving because they can't participate in or watch sporting events. While the impulse may be quick to judge some of their pain as trite, it is not anyone's place to judge someone's grief or its perceived severity. A person's grief is real and painful to them no matter what we think about it.
On a personal level, I am transitioning to a new position at my school. After serving as a principal for a dozen years, I am stepping into a new role. I never imagined that my last semester as a school principal would be spent in my home. I would have liked the opportunity to have told some of our students goodbye and thanked my faculty in person. While in the back of my mind, I had pretty much assumed a month ago that the school year was over, it still hit me hard emotionally when I received the official word last week. In the grand scheme of things, I am not wanting a pity party because of this. However, I do feel a certain degree of grief from this experience.
If we dig deep enough, I think we can all find some grief this pandemic has caused us. What are some things concerning the coronavirus that you are grieving about?
If we are dealing with grief, the first step is naming it. It is important for us to realize and to teach our children that pain is a part of life, but suffering is optional. We suffer when we don't deal with the pain. We need to accept where we are with our grief and feel our feelings. Repression and/or denial of our pain will only lead to more pain and eventually suffering.
After naming what the grief is, we can start the process of healing by accepting it. Acceptance is difficult, because we open ourselves up to the vulnerability of the pain by doing this. However, it is important to lean into it. Acceptance is where the power lies. Once we do this, we can start to feel it. By feeling it, we are letting it pass through us.
We should not let others tell us that we are not grieving the right way, because there is not a "right way"or a "wrong way" to grieve. Everyone goes through the the process differently, and there is no common timeline. We should not openly question or criticize how anyone else grieves. Case in point, do you remember the pop song, "One Week" by the band Bare Naked Ladies and its lyric, "I'm the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral"?..... It's a testament to how we all grieve in our own ways.
As part of our healing, it is also helpful to know about the stages of grief. While there are many different theories on the stages of grief, the most popular is by the late Swiss-American psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She indentified the stages as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is important to note that this is not a linear progression. In other words, a grieving person does not go through the stages in order. In fact, an individual may remain in months in one of the stages and skip others entirely.
David Kessler, an author and grieving expert, worked with Kubler-Ross before her death, and her estate allowed him to add a sixth stage to the model, finding meaning. Kessler has cited Viktor Frankl and his classic book, Man's Search for Meaning, as an example of how finding meaning can help us heal our grief and make sense of our pain. Frankl, who spent years suffering in a Nazi concentration camps, believed that as humans we all can find meaning in in life, no matter how tragic the circumstances, "If there is meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering."
There is an old saying in the field of education, "There are no mistakes, only lessons learned." The same thing can be said about grieving in a similar respect. To Kessler's point, the pain we feel in grieving hurts, but it is a worthwhile experience if we can see the meaning it holds for us. For instance, the pain we feel when we lose a loved one can teach us just how much we loved that individual. There is meaning there. There is also meaning when a child grieves because a friend moved to another city with her family. In doing so, she learns that some friendships we have with certain individuals are special.
Before we can teach the children in our lives about how to process their grief, it is important for us to know how to deal with our own. There is a misnomer in our society that grief is a "bad thing." Thinking in this manner will prolong the pain. It is helpful for us to realize and to impart to our children that while grief is typically an unpleasant experience, anything that puts us on the road to healing should not be considered "bad."
Grieving is personal, and it's a highly individual experience. Some may prefer to grieve alone, while others may prefer to go through the process with a support group, a mental health professional, and/or faith communities. Over time, learning to recognize, accept, and process our grief will transform and enrich our lives.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June. His website is www.greggraber.com