So many losses. So many disappointments. So much anxiety. Every day I speak with people who feel intense loss. They poignantly express their feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, disappointment, sadness and grief.
We are living through an intensely emotional period. Alongside intense gratitude for what we have, for all of the essential workers who are endangering themselves for us and heightened appreciation of connections to our families and communities, so many of us are weighed down by deep sadness. As grief expert David Kessler observes, “along with grief at the actual loss of life we are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew.”
In the past few weeks, people have been mourning the cancellation of much anticipated graduations and milestone celebrations, postponed or severely down-sized weddings, suspended concerts, conferences, and travel plans that they were looking forward to– along with the loss of life, health, in-person social connections, seeing extended families, jobs and businesses, income, and freedom to roam. Losing what we thought of as “normalcy” has brought forth feelings of unease and sadness. Coaching clients have sought to process their individual and collective grief in the face of an uncertain future that they feel powerless to control.
We know that any type of loss can trigger grief. It is natural to mourn the end of a relationship, job loss – or any event that changes the world as we have known it. COVID19 has greatly increased the number of people coping with financial anxiety, feeling unsafe, worrying about loved ones, experiencing food instability, wrestling with mounting bills and feeling isolated. Add to this sadness over how the world is changed and fears for the future. So, we are not only dealing with the loss of what we had, but also anticipatory grief – sadness over impending loss, fear of what will happen, anger over the situation, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Much has been written about coping with disappointment and loss. Experts recommend:
- Honor your emotions.
Allow yourself to experience the feeling. Think about how children often throw tantrums, cry, scream or laugh until the feeling runs out – and then they are ready to move on. This is not to say we should wallow; rather, we must empower ourselves not to “just get over it,” because the feelings are a valid indication of the importance of the event or person to us. Genuinely experiencing emotions (no matter how painful) is one of the beauties of life. If we can be present and aware, even in the midst of negative emotions, we can live more fully.
- Get some perspective.
Recognize that disappointment and loss is part of life, it happens to everyone (you are in good company) – and accept that it has happened to you. Acknowledge that some disappointments are bigger than others, but they can help us grow. At the same time, notice the good things in life, which can help restore a sense of balance when things feel very off-kilter.
We cannot control the situation, but we have a lot of choice in our response. Frame things in a constructive way. Our interpretation of what happens can be more important than what happens – so try to separate the facts from your emotions. Do a reality check – is it really that bad? While in the moment the loss can seem like the most horrible thing that could possibly happen, we can try to look at it more objectively and strive to reduce negative self-talk. We can work through disappointment better when we learn to frame our experiences in positive and constructive ways (while staying honest). We can develop our “positive thinking muscles” so that we avoid a natural human inclination to look for potential threats and focus on bad news. Some suggest that writing a “Gratitude List” of 10-20 items each day can help reset our minds.
- Make a plan and practice selfcare.
Set small actionable, attainable goals so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment and control. Build ways to lower stress into your daily routine through meditating, walking, exercising, listening to music, kneading bread, or connecting with beloveds (if only virtually). Give yourself time. The feelings of loss are real, so give yourself time to heal.
I recently came across a Grief Ritual in the Time of COVID-19 created by Rabbi Sarah Krinsky (Ritual Well) that incorporates much of this expert wisdom on how to cope with loss. It is patterned on the Jewish mourning practice of kriyah, a mourner’s tearing of his/her garment. Rabbi Krinsky interprets tearing as:
- An external symbol of the internal pain (wearing your heart on your sleeve)
- A way to make the irrevocable and abstract nature of loss tangible and concrete
- A cathartic action, serving as an outlet for intense emotional pain
- A way to mark the transition from immediate and acute shock and pain of loss to the more prolonged process of mourning
- An opportunity to move forward, through or toward acceptance.
She offers this exercise as a way of beginning the healing process:
For this exercise you will need a sheet of paper, a writing utensil and tape.
Along the edges of the paper, write or draw representations of the things you are grieving in this moment. You may be grieving a death, or a postponed wedding or a cancelled vacation. You may be grieving loss of income or your regular routine. You may be grieving an opportunity for the future that has evaporated or an experience that has been missed. You may be grieving people, places, experiences or moments. What you are grieving can be large or small – whatever feels real to you. Fill the outsides of your paper with as few or as many losses as you’d like.
Once you are done, tear through each individual text or drawing, taking a moment to mourn each loss. Acknowledge that losses heal in different ways and on different timelines – and that there are some losses that can never be fully repaired.
Return to your paper and see which of the losses you tore that may be able to be mended. Put a piece of tape over those tears and write a method of repair. For example, on top of a tear for ‘wedding postponed” you might write “wedding rescheduled.” Some of the losses you are experiencing may not have immediately evident opportunities – maybe never or maybe simply not in ways that are apparent right now. This process acknowledges that even those losses that may be overcome in the future will never be fully the same. Tears may come, and yet we may still be able to move forward.
Rabbi Krinsky concludes:
Our tears do not mean we are broken. Our tears shape the new contours of our ever-changing, ever-evolving hearts. They become who we are. By acknowledging them, and making space for their pain, we grow into the fullest and most reflective versions of ourselves. We allow ourselves the gift of wearing our hearts on our sleeves – tears, tape and all.
While disappointment, loss and grief are all parts of life, they can help us grow. The key is developing a support network and strategies to sustain us and help us thrive.