Every client I get on the phone with right now, I ask the question, “What are you grieving today”? I receive a variation of responses. I observe anger, sadness, resistance, denial, depression, uncertainty, withdraw, moments of clarity followed by peace and confusion.
Why is it important now more than ever to recognize grief in our own lives? We are told “how” to grieve and “what” to grieve, when we are looking at “normal” life loss. For example, death, divorce, chronic illness or job loss. Our society turns around and will at least acknowledge this grief. We have been placed into a social category of acceptance, and supports tend to be more abundant in these areas.
The grief we are experiencing right now as a culture, and in our daily lives, is considered ambiguous grief. This basically means grief that is not socially accepted or recognized, because it has not been placed in the category of “normal”. At least, not yet.
When I was in graduate school studying the model of grief and loss by Kubler Ross, I was able to see how this could make “sense”, and how this model could relate to so many events and moments my clients and myself will go through in our short lives. A few weeks ago, as I found myself in some denial regarding the possibility of pandemic, I felt myself practicing resistance. I did not want everything in my life to change and certainly not at a fast rate. As things began to progress, I noticed a change in my clients and in the reflection work I do in the community.
I was in the middle of a conference call on Zoom, where there was more than 10 of us talking at the same time about these huge changes. I had the thought; this resembles grief work. Each time someone spoke, I could “hear” what stage of grief they were in.
“I am not going to work from home, I am not made to be a stay-at-home Mom”. -Anger
“I don’t think it’s really going to be that bad, I think people are getting worked up for no reason”. – Denial
“I have already been asked to work from home, I have been for over a week right now, and I feel overwhelmed and irritated at my kids and husband most days’- Depression/Anxiety
It was in that moment, that I realized I needed to start talking to my clients and others in my life about the topic of grief. I began to tell people it is OK to grieve that your daughter is not going to prom and that is hard. It is Ok to grieve that you cannot see your spouse right now, because they are sick and you are healthy. It is OK to be angry that the event you planned, the trip you had, the wedding dress you purchased, the graduation ceremony you wanted to walk across the stage on is canceled. All of these things that are in the future, that we put energy into looking forward to are now gone. Or will be rearranged to look different at some point in time.
The interesting part about grief and loss, is, that it does not lie to you. It tells us exactly where we are at in that process. If we do not listen, it will get louder, until we slow down and pay attention. Our brains are designed to project into the future, or to ruminate about the past. We are not designed to sit well with the present moment. Being present can cause us large amounts of anxiety because we are unsure how to just be in the moment. We do not know how to “be” with grief and loss. Our brains by default are trained to run as quickly as we can away from emotional and psychological discomfort.
This lends itself to the question, “how do we get through this”? “How do I accept my anger and feelings of Depression and sadness around this loss”? “How do I keep waking up every day to recognize something else is changing very quickly and without my permission”? We are talking about the default mode of the brain that wants to “control” pain and emotional discomfort.
Mindfulness is one tool that we can use and can actually strengthen during times of emotional distress and frustration. Mindfulness has many working definitions, however, for the simplicity of this blog, we are going to term mindfulness, “As paying attention on purpose, without judgement”. As a Trained teacher of self-compassion, I will humbly tell you, mindfulness is rather useless without self-compassion.
Mindfulness is the awareness of emotion and feelings, and self-compassion is what brings warmth and awareness to the struggle. We all struggle, and through my trainings and teachings, I speak often on the fact that struggling in this life is inevitable. However, we are not designed to handle struggle after struggle daily with ease and grace. We need time to process grief and sadness, and we need a working mental construct to make sense of grief and loss at the same time.
This is why it is so important for you to be able to identify for yourself that you are experiencing grief in stages. When we communicate with our brain and “make sense” of our experience, it sends a message to our body that we can begin to relax a little. Our nervous system has received a que, this is something we have known before. We have all experienced anger,, denial, sadness, bargaining and acceptance.
It does not mean that each day will not bring a new grief or loss, but if we can stop where we are at and try to be with those experiences with mindful self-compassion, we can get through them with more grace.
It might sound something like this,
“This feels like too much right now”
“All people feel overwhelmed at times”
“I feel……insert emotion about this”
We are slowing down the networks in our brain that want to jump into flight or fight. Resilience is found in the moment when something happens to us, and we feel it and choose to respond. Right now, as a culture, and in our families, we are experiencing large amounts of grief and loss. It is not healthy to pretend it is not happening, in the same sense, it is not healthy to sit in the middle and get lost in our pain.
Right now, as a culture and in our own homes it is a time to grieve. It is a time to teach our kids what grieving looks like, and to offer grace to our partners as they grieve. We are learning each day what this means for ourselves and for our families. Humanity has an innate capacity for grace and kindness and we can practice those qualities even as we grieve our own.
Melissa Dahl, MS, LPCC, CCMHC
Trained Teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion
Melisa is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Trained Teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion. Her training is recognized through UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. She has been teaching workshops, 8-week courses and seminars in Minnesota for 5 years. She is a trauma trained therapist specializing in Women and children’s mental health. She is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), Child- Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) both adults and adolescents.