Navigating this epidemic of grief

Lots of people feel overwhelmed with emotions right now. Here are 4 things you should know.

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We’re facing personal and collective grief in ways that most of us have never experienced. It’s daunting to comprehend how much has already been lost and how much more we’re likely to lose. Within a few short weeks, thousands of lives have been lost. We’re isolated from friends and family and important moments have been postponed. It seems like every day, we lose one more part of our “normal” lives. 

From small losses to giant ones, the world is grieving.  

For many of us, facing this level of grief is unfamiliar and overwhelming, and we’re unsure how to process the intensity. Our “work hard, think happy thoughts” culture is great for a lot of things, but it makes talking about grief really hard. 

Survivors of loss have something to teach us in this moment of overwhelming personal and cultural grief: they’ve all lived through the unthinkable and survived. If you’re struggling with your own emotions, or wondering how you can support grieving friends or family, these tips are for you: 

Tell Yourself the Truth

“I spent so much time telling myself I’d be okay, that my brother wouldn’t want me to be sad,” Marcos wrote. “I didn’t realize that I was actually just telling myself to shut up.” Whether it’s your own self-talk or suggestions you get from well-intentioned friends, it’s normal to try and talk yourself into feeling better. Willing yourself to cheer up – or telling yourself you have no right to grieve – is like trying to push a beach ball underwater: those feelings are always going to pop back up. 

It’s never effective to pretend you don’t feel the way you feel.  It seems counter-intuitive, but letting things feel as bad as they do can actually help. 

Recognize Your Losses

In the same way that it helps to tell yourself the truth about your feelings, naming your losses is equally important. With so many people losing family members and friends, the loss of a job, or the loss of much-anticipated event might seem irrelevant. For those who lost someone before the pandemic hit, it can feel like their personal grief has been overshadowed by collective grief. 

 “Some parents in my support group lost more than one child, or they lost their homes in addition to their child. It’s hard not to compare our losses,” Ella wrote. “They’re all impossible stories. I learned to be curious about other losses instead of comparing them. Each one of us is someone’s version of a nightmare.”  

You have the right to grieve whomever – and whatever – you’ve lost. Don’t downgrade your loss just because others might have it worse. Everyone has the right to be sad about what they’re sad about. By the same token, avoid comparing your loss to someone else’s as a way to either build up or diminish your own. All grief is valid. Curiosity and compassion are much better than competition. 

Show up for yourself, show up for each other

With the sudden loss of physical touch and proximity, our basic human need for connection is thrown into stark relief. Now that most people are having to navigate working from home, homeschooling, getting groceries – all while juggling concerns for the health and safety of those they love – it can feel like no one has emotional bandwidth to spare. 

Feelings of isolation are common inside grief.  Delia shares, “I’m the only one in my social group who’s lost a parent. I’m the only one I know in any age group who lost someone to a ‘freak’ accident. I felt really lonely. All I wanted was for someone to see me. The best support came from friends who didn’t try to fix me. They helped me feel less alone.”

It’s ok to ask a friend if they have time to listen to you. Trade off being the giver and the receiver. Remember that you don’t have to say the “perfect” thing in response to someone’s grief, and you don’t have to justify your own needs. Solidarity and support help us survive. If you aren’t sure how your friends are doing —ask. Err on the side of being present. 

 Shift your definition of “hope”

“When my son was killed,” Sarah wrote, “I lost the whole world. My sense of safety, my hope that things would work out – they were gone. I have hope now, but it’s hope that I’ll take good care of myself through something, not hope in how that thing turns out.” 

This pandemic is scary. It’s hard to hope for a positive outcome when the future is so uncertain. As best you can, keep your mind focused on the present. Take care of yourself here and now. Encourage kindness in yourself. Extend kindness to others. Nurture a sense of hope: that we find the courage to show up, for ourselves and for others, no matter what the future brings. If there’s one thing survivors of loss want you to know, it’s that inside these difficult times, that companionship makes all the difference. 

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