Continuing our series on navigating through this time Eva Katharina Herber shares her knowledge with the Madrid Metropolitan on how to handle grief.
Grief – a survivor’s guide to being at peace with painful emotions.
Since the start of the global coronavirus health crisis, loss is palpable everywhere. The loss of our old routines, the loss of future plans, the loss of jobs and income, the (necessary) loss of freedom during social distancing. And the loss of loved ones.
Grief occurs when we deal with loss of all kinds. There are no big nor small losses. All of them require us to adapt to a new reality. Emotions will be triggered, and things need to get done. A healthy process of grief therefore consists of two main tasks: feeling our emotions and getting our life back on track.
Yet, this is easier said than done. Depending on our personality, education and past experiences with loss and grief, most people have a natural preference to only one of these tasks. Nevertheless, for our psychological wellbeing and stability throughout times of loss balancing both action and emotion is key. Understanding your natural trend is the first starting point in finding your path to healthy grieving.
Let’s see if you can identify with these situations:
Meet Elaine, who describes herself as sensitive and empathic. She is very connected to her emotions in general. When she heard about the sudden passing of her beloved friend and neighbour of 23 years, she became acutely aware of her need to withdraw, be alone and process her complex mix of feelings. She felt deep sadness whenever walking by her late neighbour’s door. Memories flared up of all those activities she shared with her friend. “Gone, forever”. She felt her anger flare up, as it seemed so unfair. “Why her?” she kept asking herself, God and the Universe… but no one was there to answer. Elaine got drawn into a spiral of low energy, nervous agitation and exhaustion. As a couple of days in bed turned into weeks of not eating regularly, nor finding the energy to get food for her cat, she knew this was going too far. Even though Elaine was doing great in the task of feeling her emotions, she was drowning in them. That’s when she decided to reach out for help.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Wanda, who is always on the go. She prefers to stay productive, get things done, put things in perspective and distract herself from her emotions. To her, feeling equals wallowing. When the COVID crisis hit, she had just started working for a small tour operator. She was the last to come and the first to go when they had to cut costs and reduce their head count. She understood. She even felt accepting: at 32, married, no kids, she felt ready to take on the challenge of starting her job search all over again. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” she repeated to her husband, with a brave smile under sad eyes. The day after she was asked to leave, she updated her CV and prepared herself mentally to stay active. Every day for the next weeks, she kept browsing the internet, called acquaintances, made connections online…. with no result. “This will take time”, her friends reminded her. “Darling, this is an industry crisis, it has nothing to do with you, take it slow”, her dad said. But none of this made sense to Wanda. She just wanted something to do. So, she found herself cleaning her apartment for the fourth time in a week, tidying her papers, making sure she washed her hands…. until her fingers bled. Only then did the emotions hit. Looking at her bruised skin she had a breakdown. None of her actions would solve her problem, not for now. She needed to face the facts. She was unemployed in an industry that was crumbling. She had desperately tried to keep herself busy to not feel the pain of uncertainty, that had been lurking below the surface of her emotions. And she decided to get help.
When people like Elaine and Wanda turn to psychologists in times of change and grief, we reach for a well-researched and balanced toolkit of things to do (and not to do). If you want to give it a try find a time for all of them in a mix that suits you and complements your tendency:
- A time to feel…. Take a time in your day to make space for the feelings that come up. This can mean allowing emotions to emerge as they happen. Especially in the weeks following a loss, emotions often come in waves when you least expect them. Think of yourself standing on the shore, letting the waves move through you without fear. If this is hard for you, like it was for Wanda, identify a moment and space in your day in which it seems “safe to feel”. Allow yourself to cry, acknowledge your anger or recognize your anxiety. Take notice of your emotions without judging them. They are not the enemy. Useful tools for moments like this are music, a journal to express your feelings, guided meditations or the company of a pet for comfort.
- A time to take care… Self-care is key when it comes to preventing emotions from taking over too much. Start with the basics: taking a shower, brushing your hair, cooking some light, nourishing food to feed your body and soul without causing guilt, a good night’s sleep. Don’t worry if you wake up early, as this is normal in the first stages of grief. You will regulate back into a normal sleep rhythm as you adapt to the new situation. Light exercise is a great way to maintain a routine, and in case you are in social distancing mode, YouTube is a great source for fitness or yoga-at-home workouts. Distracting yourself with movies, chores or work is fine, as long as it does not take over completely.
- A time to withdraw… Sadness causes us to lose energy and withdraw from our normal routines of social interaction. Often, it also makes others reach out to us. Decide for yourself where you need to draw the line between letting other take care of you and giving yourself permission to just be alone. Integrating what happens is a reflective process that often occurs when we respect our need for chosen solitude. Don’t isolate, but give yourself room to just be, without the need to pretend everything is fine. It’s not, and your true friends will understand and be there for you when you are ready.
- A time to connect… Connection is the birthplace of resilience and other people matter, especially in moments of grief and loss. It is not only the words we share, it is feeling their presence and understanding, hearing their thoughts and knowing we are not alone. Even if it is just to talk about something else, make sure you get in touch with people who know how to be there for you. In times of social distancing, phone conversations, videocalls and writing emails are just as helpful as the real-time hug you are craving so much right now.
- A time to remember… Even though it feels counterintuitive for most people, remembering what or who we have lost is key to accepting the new reality. This can consist of reminiscing in old times, feeling nostalgia, looking at old pictures or videos, re-reading conversations or talking about our favourite memories. Even though this might make us cry, it is healing and soothing. If you are mourning the loss of a loved one, pack a box with some precious items and pictures that help you remember what you most treasure. Remind yourself, that nobody can take away how you honour and remember the good times you had.
- A time to laugh… Emotional complexity is one of the elements that is most often forgotten about during the recovery from loss. If you shift within a day from laughter to sadness, from longing to a sense of being held, from being silly to weighing existential questions, this is not a sign you are “going crazy” (as many of my clients have called it). It shows you have emotional flexibility. Research has found that emotional complexity is a protective factor against depression after traumatic events. Let your emotions flow freely, without feeling guilty or weird about any of them. By doing so, they are less likely to get stuck. Make a conscious choice to feed yourself a healthy diet of positive emotions, by allowing yourself to do things you enjoy, find interesting, inspiring, relaxing or beautiful.
- A time to plan ahead… That life goes on, might sound brutal, but it’s true. Even after traumatic losses, most people come to the realisation that their life must go on. Maybe not in the exact same way, as sometimes loss leads to new ways of looking at ourselves and the world, but in a way that helps us get back onto our feet to keep on walking. If you are afraid of moving on, as it seems like being oblivious, rituals can help. Write a letter to the loved one you lost to tell them about your plans and how you would have love to share the future with them. Create a ritual, that reminds you of him or her. We can even keep asking our deceased for advice in case this is something that we used to do. When we stop to listen, we know what they would have said. Because even though they are not with us any more, we carry them in our heart.
- A time to make sense… Once the more acute phase emotions of a recent loss is calming down, comes the moment to make sense of what happened. We should not force this process, nor think we should be able to make sense three days into our grief. Finding meaning takes time. You will know when you are ready to perceive your loss as part of the bigger picture of your life. We can all learn from our losses, readjust our priorities, find strength through hardship and discover that we are more adaptive than we thought we were. Dealing with the pain of loss reminds us that we are vulnerable human beings. This shared reality can make us feel more connected to the world around us. And as the lotus flower grows in the deepest mud, a deep sense of love and appreciation for life can emerge out of the darkness of your loss.
About The Author
Eva Katharina Herber is a Clinical Psychologist and Expert in Positive Psychology at Sinews Multilingual Therapy Institute in Madrid. She helps her clients through times of loss by acknowledging the process of grief, accepting what not longer is, practising mindfulness self-compassion and finding meaning and hope throughout the experience.
If you need a space to process a loss and a nudge in the right direction, contact her at www.sinews-online.com
Photo Credits: Mike Labrum, Yuris Almuhay, Ralph Skirr