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Grief: Types of grief, symptoms to look out for, and strategies to manage and heal

6 Strategies to approach our grief

You have heard it before, and I will say it again: we are facing unprecedented and scary times.  COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives — from work, to school, to parenting, to home responsibilities, and more. Everything we have come to recognize as “normal” has suddenly turned upside down, and here we are, months into this new normal, unsure when it will end. 

What we are experiencing is immense grief. Three types of grief we experience as human beings are – real, imaginary, and anticipated.  As I continue to ‘see’ patients virtually, I realize more and more that many of us are experiencing all three types of grief. 

Real grief.  It is all real, but this term refers to what we have already lost.  People have quite literally lost loved ones to this disease.  People are losing security related to housing, food, childcare, and income. These types of losses are not small or insignificant.  The stresses of becoming insecure in basic needs or losing a loved one is life changing. 

Imaginary grief. Imaginary grief is the loss of the fantasy or assumption of what our lives would be like.  This term encompasses so much.  If our basic needs are met, it is natural to create a rhythm and trust that rhythm.  Our children have school they assumed would be complete, sports seasons assumed to be competed in, and friends to be made.  If you are in adult years, you might have had a job goal or a fitness goal that you were assuming would be achieved.  You might be single and had the desire to meet people this year and now that is on hold (at least in person).  We are grieving routines that helped us feel grounded and be our best selves. There is safety in fantasizing and assuming what our immediate future might look like and we have no had to put these visions on a delay.  The term imaginary grief implies that it is in our head, but this is very real.

Lastly, we have anticipated grief.  Anticipated grief is looking ahead and preparing for an impending loss.  We are grieving so many events, potential accomplishments, and togetherness.  The list of these losses goes on and on.  There are birthdays, graduations, concerts, sports games.  There are high school students looking to accomplish incredible milestones in their sports and potentially get recruited to their dream colleges.  People have postponed weddings, cancelled baby showers and delayed fundraisers.  People are also grieving hopes of births going as planned and postpartum help being minimal or obsolete. People are grieving and mourning all the loss with an unknown timeline of when things will return to normal.

What to look for:

Grief, like many forms of suffering, might appear as a different emotion.  Often, people appear angry, sad or anxious, while grieving.  Anger might appear as being very snappy.  It could also include yelling or worse, becoming physical with others.  Sadness looks different in everyone.  It might include low moods, isolation, poor hygiene and general lack of motivation to care for self.  Anxiety often presents as irritability, panic, and shutting down when overwhelmed. 

Behaviorally, these emotions are playing out in households everywhere.  Adults might take things out on partners or children, while teens might stay in their bedrooms.  Children will be having increased neediness and tantrums. 

Strategies:

  1. Label the feelings.  If your partner is snappy give them space and then mention they seem angry and that possibly this anger is due to the losses, they are experiencing.  If a child is having a tantrum, mention to them that this is a sad and scary time and you understand. 
  2. Validate ALL THE FEELINGS.  There is no wrong way to feel during this time.  We need to allow people and ourselves to feel it all.  Cry, yell, punch a pillow, lay on the couch, anything that allows the feelings to move through you.  This is does not have to happen at the expense of others. 
  3. Give each other space.  Currently we are with our families or roommates nonstop if we live with people.  Feelings are allowed and sometimes we need to explain that space is necessary.  Allow your teen to talk to their friends, make sure you separate yourself with a book or a TV show, and institute quiet time for your child.
  4. Plan for next time the feeling shows up and is acted out towards others or yourself.  Develop a code word for a feeling.  For example, if you are feeling angry, make a code word that explains you need space.  You roommate, partner or kids can know your code word.  Explain that next time you feel the anger rising you will be taking some space.  Instead of yelling, write down the code word and step out.  
  5. Be proactive in your self-care.  We cannot emotionally survive this if we do not have some self-care.  The trick about self-care is that it cannot be saved for when we are burnt out.  We need to build it in.  Have a workout you do 3-4 times a week, enjoy your daily coffee with a book, bake your favorite cookies.  Anything that allows you to replenish.
  6. Lastly, and more specifically, talk out loud about your losses.  Let people be sad about their missed events and change of plans.  Allow yourself to be upset.  Journal and cry about the hopes you had. 

These are all strategies that you can help in others, but also use for yourself.  We need to label our emotions and validate ourselves.  We can take space from things that are negatively impacting us, like news or social media.  We can plan self-care and talk out loud about our grief.  These strategies are applicable to us all. 

These strategies promote understanding and healing.  The hope is that if we grieve while experiencing the current situation, we can come out of this time with some resolve.  This resolve can help us avoid or minimize the chances complicated and traumatic grief, which becomes more imbedded and complex for our brains to work through. 

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Robyn Isman is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, specializing in anxiety and self-compassion who works primarily with kids, teens and their families. Her work focuses on empathy and developing concrete strategies for clients to use in their day to day lives, pandemic or not!
Website: robynisman.com
Instagram:  @reflections_of_a_therapist

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