What is grief?
There is a common understanding of grief: a deep sorrow that comes with the death of a friend or other loved one. And while this is one way in which grief can show up in our lives, grief isn’t necessarily only a process we go through after death.
In fact, grief is really just the process of adjusting to a new normal after a major change or loss.
What does that mean?
What that means, is that grief comes at all sorts of points in our lives. There are many types of loss that aren’t death that we should allow ourselves to grieve fully. These types of change or loss can be:
- A breakup or divorce
- Moving away from a home you love
- Losing a job
- Ending a friendship
- Losing out on opportunities or experiences
- Planning for a major life change (moving, going to school, taking a new job), only for it to not work out in the end
All of these things are major changes and losses. While it may seem silly to grieve the loss of a job, grief is our natural emotional response to loss and not letting ourselves grieve the things that seem “less” than death or illness actually does us a disservice. Ignoring the grief that comes with all sorts of changes and loss doesn’t actually help us to move on from them–in fact just the opposite.
What happens when we don’t let ourselves grieve?
When we don’t allow ourselves to grieve and mourn loss and change, it actually takes us longer to “get over” those things. Halting the process of grief doesn’t mean we skip over it, it just means we keep ourselves stuck in a place where we need to grieve, but are ignoring that emotional need.
Disrupting our natural response to loss doesn’t erase the loss, and it doesn’t make the loss easier to deal with. And it can actually have major negative effects on our overall health and well being including:
- Increased irritability
- Persistent feeling of numbness
- Increased likelihood of turning to self-harming behaviors
- Physical illness
Why this matters now:
Right now as a culture we are experiencing a collective grief on multiple levels.
There is the obvious grief that comes with so many friends, neighbors, family members, and community members getting sick or passing, but that isn’t the only way COVID-19 has created loss and change in our lives.
Schools are closed which means high school students don’t get to attend their prom, or their graduation. Community events are being cancelled. The ways in which we connect with one another in the summer (concerts, local festivals and arts events) are being cancelled. Local businesses we love are suffering, changing the landscape of our community.
And while they may seem like small problems in comparison to the widespread illness across the world–we are still allowed to grieve them. And in fact we should grieve them.
They are important sacrifices to make in the current state of the world, and they are big losses that have an emotional impact on us. Try holding those thoughts in your head at the same time.
If you are feeling sad because you cannot attend your graduation, or you had to postpone your wedding, or you won’t be able to visit friends from other places indefinitely, that is 100% valid.
When we ignore the emotional impact these losses have on us and our mental health and well being, we don’t help anyone.
But when we sit with those losses and let ourselves feel them, the negative impact they have on us in the long run is lessened. Instead of carrying them with us always, we give ourselves space to feel and to heal. Without acknowledgment there is no space to feel, to heal, or to move on.
So how can we let ourselves grieve these losses?
Stop ignoring your feelings because “others have it worse”:
Of course others have it worse. Others will probably have it worse, somewhere in the world. But ignoring your own feelings doesn’t actually help any of these people.
Imagine a friend was telling you about losing a job they loved. Would you tell them to suck it up because others have it worse? Probably not. You would give them the space to be upset about losing something they loved. Give yourself that same space.
Give yourself intentional time to sit with your feelings:
Maybe you do this through journaling. Maybe you do this by talking it out with a friend. Maybe you do it by putting on sad music, and singing along loudly–recognizing your own feelings of grief and sorrow in the music without ignoring it or minimizing it.
No matter how you decide to sit with your feelings, really be intentional about it. Don’t gloss over what you’re feeling. Give space (through a journal or a conversation with a friend) to say exactly how you’re feeling. Getting it out, expressing it in some way, helps to lessen the burden of it.
-Lindsay N. Sanner, LSCSW, RPT