Monday, August 31, 2020

Living With COVID Grief ...

Grief is itself a medicine.

William Cowper

Hello, Everyone,

The COVID season of 2020 has been a season loss and grief - and it's not over yet. Loved ones have become ill and died. Jobs have been lost. Professional aspirations have disappeared at least temporarily. Human connections have been disrupted. Life plans have been altered. And even as society reopens, COVID-related change and loss continue.

As we cautiously begin to leave isolation behind, more losses accumulate. Those few hard-found gifts of COVID - a slower pace, more time with loved ones, reduced commute time, free parking at work, chances to pursue neglected hobbies and activities, giving and receiving more focused and intentional emotional support, opportunities for reflection, the surfacing of deeper values - threaten to drop away as life changes pace once again. 

Grief is also tied up in our imaginings about the future and the possibility of losses to come. We face the distinct possibility of a "second wave" as fall and flu season approach.  Will a loved one become ill as we open further and return to school? Will we become ill ourselves? Will we lose our jobs? This is called anticipatory grief and it adds yet another layer to our sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, guilt and envy.

With all these COVID losses compounded by contextual losses such as economic insecurity and systemic racism around the world, there's more than enough grief to go around. So, the trick is to find the right conditions in which to grieve our losses well. Because grief is so individual, "the right conditions" will differ for each of us but here are a few general practices that might help:

1.  Acknowledge that you've had, and will have, many losses during this COVID season of life.  Every change - positive or negative - brings loss, and grief is our healing response to loss. We grieve automatically, provided nothing gets in the way. Becoming aware of our losses and accepting their presence makes space for our grief, direction and focus to our mourning and provides opportunities for others to support us.
 2.  Pace your grief when you have multiple losses. It can be overwhelming to try to grieve everything at once. Take baby steps. Make space for grief, one small piece at a time. (And know that you may return to the same loss over and over again before it feels integrated.)
If grief begins to feel overwhelming to you, try self-regulation skills like breathing practices, grounding exercises or physical shaking to calm you when you're  "amped up" and anxious or enlivening practices like engaging your five senses, walking meditation, squeezing  your forearms with the opposite hands when you start to feel "shut down" or numb. 
2.  Find a sanctuary where you feel safe and comfortable expressing your grief emotions. If you're able to do it, give your grief feelings freedom to arise spontaneously. But, if you can't because it seems neither safe nor possible, try identifying a sanctuary where you can retreat intentionally to take down your guard and let your inside and outside match. This creates intentional space for your hardwired grief response to do its healing work. 
For some, this sanctuary will be in the arms of a loved one who lives inside your bubble; for others it will be found alone in the car, the shower or in bed at night; and for others still, it will be within a formal ritual or ceremony (in person or online) or out in the beauty of the natural world. What matters is that you feel safe enough to allow your grief to surface for a while.
3. Express your feelings in ways that feel natural and comfortable to you. There is no "right way" to grieve.  And you don't have to cry to prove you've grieved. The fine arts provide many possibilities for expressing grief - story-telling, journalling, writing poetry or letters, listening to or playing evocative music, drumming, dancing, singing, collage, drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery, photography, fibre arts or woodwork. Use avenues of expression that feel natural for you. You don't have to squeeze yourself into someone else's idea of "proper" grief expression.
If your body feels tight with emotion that you want to release but can't, you might try listening to music, watching movies or reading poems that have triggered your tears in the past. They will likely do the same thing again.  (Repeated cycles of Truly Madly Deeply, Shadowlands and A Rumour of Angels helped release my frozen tears through seven years of chronic sorrow and more years of bereavement grief following my husband's death.)
Physical motion can also do much to diffuse pent-up emotion. Walking or running in nature, dancing or engaging in individual sports can all help.
If you are yearning to share your grief with another human being but feel constrained by the  COVID restrictions, try reaching out to loved ones, a therapist, a spiritual advisor or a support group through appropriately secure video meetings like Zoom or Skype, phone calls, texting or social media. Handwritten letters, though seemingly old-fashioned these days, can offer a particularly personal and connected way of sharing your grief.
4.  Create rituals that support and facilitate your grief.  Grief specialist, Alan Wolfelt describes grief rituals as "symbolic activities that help us, together with our families and friends, to express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life's most important events". A ritual doesn't have to be fancy or complicated and it can be experienced individually or in a supportive group.
Examples of grief rituals might be to: 
a.  Have a physically-distanced or Zoom meal where each person brings an item that symbolizes their life before COVID and another that symbolizes life since COVID. Focus discussion on the meaning and feelings attached to each item. Listen respectfully to each person's reality.
b.  Create art in memory of life before COVID and share it and your feelings with others.
c.   Light a candle to hold space for your grief and write a letter to your old life, expressing how much you miss it.
d.   Use ceremonies with sage, incense or fragrant essential oil to cleanse or let go of the old life and open you to the new.
There are as many rituals as there are people - let your imagination go and create what will work best for you. 
However you decide to deal with the changes and loss of COVID-19, try to honour yourself and your losses by making space for the "good medicine" of your grief.