At a loss

Coping with COVID -- how do you integrate it all?

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Dear Wellness Expert –
We have lost so much in this pandemic I don’t even know how to begin processing it all. Just hearing about Facebook farewells breaks my heart and makes me grieve the way things are right now even when the losses aren’t specifically mine. I just don’t know how to integrate it all, from the smallest loss like not being able to see people’s faces to the biggest ones like the threat of actually losing loved ones. The list of losses is just so endless.

How do we process it all so we can function right now and avoid coming out of this pandemic with some form of post-traumatic stress? And how do I help my children who have lost so much in their development in school, in learning, in socializing, in sports?

Signed, At a Loss

Dear At a Loss –
When I was a young clergyman 40 years ago, I attended a seminar on preparing our children for grief. The speakers -- a family doctor, a member of the clergy, and a psychiatrist -- suggested one of the wisest things a parent could do was to buy a child a pet. We think of having pets for all sorts of reasons, but the idea of providing our children with the opportunity to experience loss and grief in order to assist them with coping with it -- which will inevitably happen when you own a pet -- was a new one for me.
But it makes sense. We were once an agricultural society living with extended families. With our elders living with us and with frequent infant mortality, the farm was all about the cycles of life. We celebrated and experienced life and death together as a whole community. Children observed the pain of loss and moved through to acceptance.

We now are inclined to surround our children, and many adults, in a kind of emotional bubble wrap, which has not served us well, as life is penetrable and sooner or later grief and loss will occur for everyone. It is not rare as a chaplain/therapist for me to support people who are experiencing their first close death experience as adults with intense fear about death and loss. As parents we tend to prepare our children for car payments, college and work, and organizing a wedding, shielded from the experience of grief and loss by loving parents with good intentions. But our job as parents and our job as community health professionals is not to protect folks from all forms of injury, but to prepare them, to vaccinate them as it were. Allow them to experience it in ways which may hurt initially but does not destroy. In that vein I have 4 suggestions for managing loss, and overwhelming change.

1) Acknowledge loss; do not ignore it. Carl Jung said, “The root of mental illness is the avoidance of true suffering.” There is a balance between rolling in misery and acting as though nothing is happening. These are weird times. I have myself lost 3 friends since March. I grieved and I cried all the more because we were not allowed to gather, hug, and eat together as we normally would as a community. It made the grieving process more difficult. So, I talk about it with those close to me. When I die, people better cry buckets of tears if I mattered at all! Whatever losses you are experiencing right now, it’s important to remember that grief is healthy; it’s honoring and acknowledging what has been lost. I do that by reaching out via phone, on ZOOM, through cards. When people ask how I am, I intentionally state, “as well as I can with all that is happening. I count my blessings every day on purpose.” I say this to let others know their struggles are normal, and there are ways to get through. I when I ask how they are doing I listen and ask more questions. I do not accept ‘fine.’ In that way I then know we are getting through it together.

2) With children, talk across to them, not down to them, and in ways they can understand. Children need to have you acknowledge this is difficult but that we will get through it. In the grief process we speak of the good times and the fond memories we have of the person. Secrets and hushed whispers cause fear, not confidence in children. Talk about what was past and help them imagine a brighter future when things we miss will return helping us to appreciate them even more. Reassure them that things will get better. And while life after loss or struggle never returns to ‘normal’ as it was before, it can move forward in a more informed and stronger way creating a more appreciative new normal.

3) Focus on what you can do. We live in a state of anxiety in which so much is unknown and so much is out of our control. Knowing I can easily be overwhelmed by news about suffering, death, home losses, and families without work or food, I focus on what I can do. As for what I can do for others, it has become a habit for my family to buy grocery gift cards to feed families when we shop. While we cannot eradicate all hunger and ease all worry and suffering, we can feed a family that week and can check in on family and friends. What I can focus on for myself (now that I have what I call ‘Covid brain’ since quarantine and forget things more easily and lose track of dates and my cellphone) is try to establish a routine, make new healthy habits, do my best and forgive myself much. Bottom line: focus on what you can do, not what is out of your control. And know that you are making a difference with every kindness to yourself and others even if you don’t see it. Just keep your focus and keep at it.

4) Remember, grief and loss move in cycles. When experiencing a death or loss we often think are are ‘past it’, then it hits us again out of the blue. With grief one does not get over it; we learn to live with it and wear it like a pair of glasses, a watch or a ring.

When all of a sudden things feel like they are too much despite the amazing skills we have learned so quickly and how well we have worked together across disciplines and communities, remember that is a normal feeling in these abnormal times. But it’s a feeling and not a reality, the feeling of grief looping back for another round. And while grief can make it feel like we are back where we started in March, we are not actually in the same place. We have moved forward. We are not the same people. We are not the same country. We are not the same world. And we are not destroyed. We have grown stronger and more determined. Grief is an upward spiral advancing us forward.

To get through this epic event we have to acknowledge the struggle. Really listen and support one another. Focus on what we can control. Leave uncontrollable people to their own devices. Remember how it was before the pandemic. Imagine how it will be when it is over, and it will come to an end. And know that we will get there together. It is the cycle of life and of history. Generations before us have gone through it, and now it is our time. It was, in the end, their finest hour, and it will be ours. Thank you for all you do. You will get through this.

Greg Bridges-Music, M Div, MPC, M MHC, LCPC-C
Office of Spiritual Care, Acadia Hospital