Grief and grieving play out in a myriad of ways. But whether grief manifests in withdrawal, or an outpouring of emotion it is essentially a natural response to loss. Grief goes beyond mere sadness. It often evokes feelings of confusion, denial, guilt, anger, and other complex emotions that can enshroud us in anguish. Culturally we have built steadfast traditions around the process of loss. And all of them include a show of support by physically being with the bereft. Wakes, funerals, vigils, eating and drinking, hugging, all involve comfort through physical contact. These systems of support unite people and remind us that our connection during difficult times is also what makes us most human, that we are each vulnerable and enduring.
Grief During Covid
Over the past year, the pandemic has disproportionately added more grief to our lives. Whether it be amount of jobs, or relationships, opportunities, or simply the order of our days, we have all been touched by loss in one way or another. While we are accompanied by grief more than ever, the most difficult thing about the social distancing guidelines are the ways it has disabled our systems of support. With death and divorce on the rise, unemployment and insecure housing, the ways we used to show up for each other are no longer available. Gathering to bury our dead, sit with the mourning, are limited if available. Finding yourself newly single, or without a job and also being without the ways we used to cope with the comfort of the people we love. The last year under COVID has been for many the most isolating grief experience. It has also forced us to understand grief better and find creative solutions to traditional shows of support.
The Grief Process
Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed 5 stages of dealing with grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying introduced the 5 phases of grieving. Generally she lays out 5 stages that we can experience with grief and loss. The first is denial. Initial reckoning with loss can be so confusing and overwhelming that denial is a self protective measure. Repeating the phrase “this isn’t happening” is the brain’s way of processing information that is impossible to grasp all at once. The second is anger, which manifests in blame either at the person or thing lost or sometimes self directed. The third is bargaining. Commonly saying things like, “If only I had done something differently. The fourth stage is depression. And the final stage being acceptance, where we have reached the ability to successfully cope. People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them. Since the books publication psychologists have come to find that grief is highly varied depending on the individual. On the one hand, loss is a universal experience shared by so many, and on the other it is completely unique to the griever. In this way grief is a tricky and complicated terrain to treat and makes it easy for the griever to feel acutely alone.
There too are many forms of grief. One can mourn the loss of a home, a pet or a role they used to play in their lives. Whatever the situation, all feelings of loss are valid. Unlike depression, grief wanes over time. However, it is still perfectly common to have feelings of grief last a long time. Since grief takes many different forms and there are as many types of grievers as there are individuals, grief isn’t a predictable process. Rather than cycling through grief stages, there is in fact no prescribed method to grieve.
Supporting The Griever
While the grief process is dependent on many factors, the support systems we have in place are more universal. Some of the most common ways to show support, physically being there and touching is against CDC guidelines, which urge mourners to limit funeral attendance, stay 6 feet apart and wear face coverings. Physical comfort, such as hugging, kissing, hand holding in times of loss is a social tradition also deemed high risk. But while these behaviors seem common to us, it turns out that touch has many physical and emotional benefits.
To explore this further, one study observed brain scans which revealed that affective touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region associated with learning and decision-making as well as with emotional and social behaviors. In other studies, touch has been proven to provide health benefits as well. In the case of babies and small children, those that were touch deprived failed to physically thrive. Touch also has proven boosts to the immune system and lowering the production of stress that leads to better performance and intelligence.
Not being touched can make us feel both physically and emotionally isolated. And in periods of loss feelings of isolation are heightened as we mourn the company of what we have lost. Therefore touch isn’t just a socially learned display of support or affection, but an intuitive means by which we can heal others in pain. Given the current circumstance, containing the spread of the coronavirus has limited and in some instances excluded physical contact from the grieving process. Even if you can’t be proximate, there are a few positive actions one can take to help someone through their grief. Acknowledge the loss. Share memories. Listen to the griver. Even without being physically present, we can still be mentally present and emotionally available. Actively listening and asking questions are simple but helpful ways to validate a persons feelings and confirm the depth and confusion of those feelings. In more extreme cases, grief counseling with a professional is also an option.
What is Grief Counseling?
When we experience a sudden and irrevocable loss, we go through some version of mourning. As we know, this process looks differently for everyone. The circumstances of the loss and the person’s relationship to the lost thing or someone especially influence how we emotionally reckon with grief. Grief counseling acknowledges this variance and works with an individual on their unique emotional experience. In his book, Lessons of Loss: A Guide to Coping, Robert Neimeyer says that “grief counseling becomes necessary when a person is so disabled by their grief and so overwhelmed by their loss that their normal coping processes are disabled or shut down”. And because support from others is so paramount to difficult grief periods, having that human connection securely helps guide the process safely along.
In her book Wintering, English writer Katherine May equates the Winter season to a painful life period. Like Winter she reasons, we can find ourselves in desolate and isolated periods without any idea how to reemerge. “I think a lot of the pain of wintering lies in our flinching away from it, our constant trying to avoid it and trying to delay it, to defer it. And that might not actually be wanted change, but it is coming for us anyway. And if we can come to terms with it and find a way to live with it, we will endure it a lot better.” Grief like Winter is a challenge, but it has its cycle. We can not hurry our happiness the same way we cannot hurry Spring. Even so, there are ways to show up for each other, we can find lightness and connection even in the most difficult of seasons.