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Grief: Changing the Conversation - Part II

By Erica Sonnabend

Wow. What a year it’s been.

I feel like that statement is one we're all hearing now that we've marked a full year since a global pandemic came crashing into our lives, but it really is fitting.

I certainly do not say these words lightly - quite the opposite, actually. The deep emotions behind that statement and what they represent are what strikes me the most when I hear that statement. There has never been a time in most of our lives that the whole world has experienced loss from the very same root cause.

As the weeks of uncertainty turned into months, I witnessed a shift in the collective conversation in our society that gave me hope. Initially, we were talking about the world shutting down, frightening case numbers, and lack of toilet paper, but then something else happened. While we were still talking about those drastic changes in our daily lives, we also started talking about how those changes made us feel.

Our conversations became a mix of both intellectual facts and the corresponding emotions that accompany them. Words such as mindfulness, awareness, wellbeing, compassion, and connection started popping up during nightly news reports, on social media, and in zoom calls all over the world. We as humans were speaking our emotional truth like never before. That truth was filled with all sorts of feelings - fear, sadness, longing, relief, gratitude, isolation, anger, desperation, love, etc. People started discussing problems with sleeping, eating, working, feeling stuck, being disoriented, and connecting to joy as a result of the pandemic.

Guess what all of those feelings are? Yup...GRIEF. Our usually “grief avoidant” society was experiencing loss in so many unprecedented ways that many of us started talking about our losses and our feelings instead of relying on the social norm of not really expressing our challenging emotions. As someone who has discovered the many benefits of dealing with all of my emotions (those most often viewed as either positive or negative), this is such a welcome change.

By July of last year, I had many people (including news media) reaching out to my grief support practice to ask what grief actually is and how someone can tell if they are experiencing it. To answer that question, I offered the definition of grief that completely changed my perspective on loss.

"Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the change in or the end of a familiar pattern of behavior." - John W. James

Why is this definition so important?

Personally, I walked around thinking something emotionally was wrong with me after experiencing the death of my father, the end of my marriage, changes in my health, and challenges in my career. I believed that once my dad had been gone for a year, I was supposed to magically feel better, but I did not. I struggled to cling to what others told me about “being better off” when my marriage ended. And let us not forget that “everything happens for a reason” platitude. Those sentiments were offered out of love for me which I appreciate; however, I was still stuck and stuffing my feelings down.

The problem was that outside of the death losses I had experienced, I didn’t consider that the other changes in my life were also losses. Consequently, the conflicting feelings I experienced didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t understand why I continued to feel the way I did so I kept those feelings hidden. I believed that loss was about death and that feelings of grief were reserved solely for that reason.

Grief is certainly about death, but it is also about so much more. It's about any change in your life that has deep emotional value to you. Only you can determine what those loss events in your life are and how you will integrate those losses into your future life. It is important that we realize that feelings of grief are not just limited to the date (or the year after) your loss occurred. Loss and change can cause ripple effects throughout our lives in various ways. Expressing the varied emotions that come up is absolutely essential.

As we moved through this past year, many of us came to realize that the definition of grief we'd been relating to for so long was too narrow. So much that was familiar to us came to an abrupt end and the changes are too many to count. Recognizing that feelings of grief and loss are not limited to specific changes helps us to expand our conversations. The figurative stop signs we used to encounter are replaced with open hearts and listening ears which leads us down a path toward healing.

There is much work ahead for us as we continue to battle this pandemic into year two. We will need to rely on each other and keep pushing to eradicate this public health crisis that has taken far too much. The losses are many which means the need to connect to our emotional truth is greater than ever. Let’s continue to shift our conversations about every aspect of our loss experiences by speaking our truth about how we feel when a “familiar pattern of behavior” changes or ends.

Wow. What a year indeed.

Be well, friends.

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