The world is in mourning. We have lost friends, family, jobs, finances and our sense of normality to COVID-19. We are coming face to face with the pervasive effects of systematic racism in our society, and its terrible human toll. 2020 has not been “our year”...or perhaps it has, but just not in the way we expected it?
In this week’s blog and podcast, I spoke to grief expert and therapist Claire Bidwell Smith about how grief is a process that helps us face and deal with loss, how this will look different for everyone, how unresolved grief can cause anxiety and affect our mental health, how to help our children deal with grief and loss, and how grief is a normal part of life and integral to the healing process. Claire had to learn how to deal with grief at a young age: she lost both her parents to cancer, and her own struggles and understanding of human mortality motivated her to help others learn how to deal with grief and loss.
In her new book, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, Claire describes how we experience grief in many ways. There is no escaping it: we grieve lost jobs, houses, places, people, moments, pets and times. This is especially true right now, when things are so different: the whole world seems to be grieving at once, although it is not often seen or recognized as grief.
Grief can be defined as the feelings that come with loss, such as depression, sadness, anger, guilt and so on. Because it is often associated with a rollercoaster of emotions and undetermined periods of time, it can be hard to pin down, and even harder to talk about. The process of grieving is very fluid: we don’t move through these emotional stages in a linear fashion—there is no one way to experience grief, as it is a very personal and unique process.
This does not mean we should not talk about it more, or give the people in our lives the space to come to terms with their own grief and loss. This is true whether you are an adult or a child: we should not be dismissive of someone’s grieving process, and we should let them know we are there to listen and support them through this difficult time. We need to validate each other’s experiences, and help each other in the form of support: we are here, we are listening and we will be here, even if we don’t have any clear answers for you. We should not expect people to move on quickly, as this can make them feel even worse, like there is something wrong with them and that they should feel guilty for feeling sad.
This is especially true when dealing with the loss of a loved one. Often, people are very supportive and the beginning, when the person who just lost their loved one feels quite numb, but then they move on after a few months (around 3-9 months), when the hardest part of the grieving process often starts. We need to remember there is no set timeline for grief. Sometimes, grief can go on for years when we lose a loved one, and some losses affect the rest of our lives.
We also need to recognize that we do not grieve in a vacuum. Grief often comes with a fair share of anxiety, that is fear of the real or imagined, yet many mental health professionals fail to recognize or address this. Coming face to face with our own mortality and dealing with the uncertainty of the world can be an incredibly stressful experience (for more on this see my recent blog and podcast, episode #122). Disregarding this, or trying to suppress our feelings, will not only make us more anxious, as Claire discusses in Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, but can also affect the grieving process, keeping us stuck in a very dark place.
This anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways, including physically. For instance, many people experience heart palpitations after losing a loved one, but this does not mean they are ill! Rather, these physical and emotional signals are a sign that there is something you need to deal with in your life, that you need to allow yourself to grieve. You need to give yourself permission to feel, and to express what you are feeling.
It is also important to take the time to face and deal with your anxiety. Mindfulness and meditation are great ways to do this, helping you calm your mind and learn more about how your thinking works. This is one of the reasons I created my SWITCH app, which is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind, deal with the roots of your stress and anxiety, and overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental health through the mental process of reconceptualization (it is now on sale less 50% for a 3-month subscription).
Likewise, it is important to have daily practices in place that mitigate your anxiety, especially with the current COVID-19 crisis. For example, when you wake up in the morning, take the time to ground yourself before you immediately look at your phone, social media or the news. It is also a good idea to limit the amount of time you spend online and reading the news, and take mental health breaks throughout the day. One thing I always recommend is “thinker moments”, where you just take a few minutes to disconnect and let your mind wander and daydream. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal, which increases your clarity of mind and reduces your anxiety (to learn more about thinker moments and how to make them a part of your daily routine, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed). Remember to take this strange time in our history to turn inward and be spiritually productive: get to know your inner self and learn how to embrace your thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Of course, if you or someone you know has lost a loved one recently, this grieving process can be especially hard, and turning inward may seem almost impossible. Many of us are isolated and cannot mourn in the ways we are used to, which is incredibly challenging and can affect how we deal with our grief, making it easy to feel guilty that we are not doing enough to remember the person we have lost. However, there are some things we can do to help the people in our lives start processing their loss at home:
- Let them know you are there and listening.
- Help them think of ways to memorialize the person they have lost, like lighting a candle every night by a picture of their loved one.
- Help them share their story: write about it, sharing it on social media, write an email about this person and send it out to friends and family and so on. As humans, we are inherent story tellers, and telling the story of the loved ones we have lost can be incredibly therapeutic, helping us honor their memory.
Indeed, we need to understand that grief is often associated with guilt, especially if someone remarries after losing their spouse. This is normal, and is something we need to face and process, not suppress. We need to recognize that when we move forward in life, we do not have to leave our loved ones behind. Our happiness now does not erase the love we had for the person we lost: both can be true at the same time.
For more information on the grief, anxiety and mental health listen to my podcast with Claire (episode #167), and check out her website, blog and books. If you enjoy listening to my podcast please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family, and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
2:13 How losing her parents to cancer motivated Claire to help others deal with grief
7:00 What is grief, and is it a progression?
9:30 Why even kids experience grief, and how to help your children deal with grief
13:15 What advice should you give to a loved one who is grieving, and how do you deal with grieving in isolation?
16:10 Grief and anxiety: how are they related?
20:15, 44:31 How anxiety is inextricably linked to grief, and how to deal with both
40:00 How do you deal with the guilt that often comes with remarriage?
47:00 How do we deal with the COVID-19 transition period?
48:33 What is Claire struggling with right now, and how is she dealing with the COVID-19 crisis?
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