We Need to Talk About Grief

This holiday season, with more people grieving than ever before, we need to support each other and connect through our shared experiences of loss.

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Two campers walking arm in arm at ManEx, a clinically-informed summer camp for grieving children who have lost a parent, sibling, or caregiver.
Two campers walking arm in arm at ManEx, a clinically-informed summer camp for grieving children who have lost a parent, sibling, or caregiver.

We’ve all lost something this year. It could be a sense of security and routine, celebrations, jobs, or worst of all, someone we love. Right now, maybe more than ever before, we need to talk about grief. 

When we experience loss, and particularly the death of someone important to us, it can shake our sense of place in the world. It can replace daily moments of joy and gratitude with guilt, anxiety, regret, and isolation. Grief is messy. It can be incredibly lonely.  And if left unshared and unaddressed, it can lead to some very negative outcomes.

Most adults who experienced the death of a parent when they were young say it took more than six years for them to move forward. Yet, for 20% of them, support from family and friends tapered off after just one week. Most felt that they were on their own after only three months, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to be supported through the rollercoaster of emotions that shows up for months and years after a death.

Grieving children are especially vulnerable to a range of negative outcomes from unsupported grief, such as increased anxiety, depression, and risk of mortality from suicide and other mental health factors. The prevalence of childhood grief is more frequent than most people realize. Nearly 70% of teachers have at least one grieving student in their classroom. By age 18,  7.2% of American children face the death of a parent or sibling. 

At every age and stage of human development, the issue of unsupported grief is increasingly urgent. COVID-19 is a bereavement multiplier that has left at least 2.1 million Americans grieving the death of a close relative and facing an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table. That’s on top of the millions who are bereaved in a typical year.  

There is no question that grief changes the trajectory of our lives. The only question is how. 

In grief, there is tremendous potential for resilience. When children talk about grief, it can foster a positive sense of self and a healthy concept of death and loss. Sharing their story with someone else can foster community and lets them know they are not alone. The same can be true for adults. 

When we talk about grief, we allow deep and meaningful human bonds to develop.  We release pain and make space for joy and gratitude. Sharing our grief allows us to thrive — but, that’s not always easy to do. Some people worry that bringing up a loss makes it harder for the person that is grieving.  But in reality, when we talk about grief, it often accelerates the process of healing. 

That’s particularly important this year, with more people grieving than ever before, and fewer getting together in person due to social distancing requirements. And so we’re calling on you to talk about grief, no matter where you are. 

Here are three tips to help you get started:

1. Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you know someone who is grieving, it tells them that you are willing to carry some of the weight of their grief. And if you’re the one who is grieving, it will tell your friends and family that you’re ready to share.

2. Give yourself a break. You don’t need to say the “perfect” thing to support someone. Just say something. If you’re grieving, be gentle with yourself and allow yourself time to sit in the muck for as long as you need.

3. Be yourself.  Every person grieves differently.  If you’re grieving, don’t try to compare your grief to anyone else’s. It’s not a contest. If you’re listening, seek to understand rather than expect someone’s grief to look a certain way. And, don’t try to be a therapist if you’re not one. Just be yourself.

Talking about grief can get easier over time. It can help you build the capacity to help yourself and to support others. In fact, 63% of the grieving children I work with said they have used their ‘grief skills’ to help others cope with the pandemic. Helping others can be part of our healing process. It gives meaning to our pain. It channels that negative energy into something positive and affirming.

So this year, I hope you’ll take a moment to talk about grief. Connecting through our shared experiences of loss can help all of us to thrive.

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