When 2020 began, our routines felt familiar, well within what we thought of as “normal.” We felt a relative sense of security. Then the pandemic struck like a storm out of the Bible, a plague beyond what we could have imagined. The world turned on a dime, and suddenly governments worldwide were mandating lockdowns, and we were all sheltering in place.
Where we live in Boston, April and May brought a surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths. An email Marnie received during the shutdown began: “I am writing with a heavy heart to tell you. . . .” It was about a friend from her meditation group who had been hospitalized and then died a few days later from the virus. That week, there were almost no non-COVID-19 stories in the news, as the US pandemic death toll surpassed 100,000.
In a column in the New York Times, David Brooks asked readers how they were holding up. In the first few days, he received 5,000 replies. “I think I . . . expected a lot of cheerful coming-together stories,” Brooks told NPR. “But what I got shocked me. It was heart-rending and gutting frankly. People are crying a lot . . . It tends to be the young who feel hopeless, who feel their plans for the future have suffered this devastating setback, a loss of purpose, a loss of hope. Then the old, especially widows and widowers, talk about the precariousness of it, the loneliness of it. They just feel vulnerable, extremely vulnerable. While a lot of people are doing pretty well, there’s just this river of woe out there that really has shocked me and humbled me.”
Now we see that aspects and qualities of grief and grieving are universal, whether you have suffered an individual loss, or are experiencing losses on a global scale. Individually and collectively, we are grieving. We’re experiencing large, difficult feelings, even if we don’t recognize them as grief: sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, or disorientation. These troubling emotions, sensations, and mind states are the ways we humans respond to loss.
We feel the loss of family members, friends, and neighbors we loved, celebrities and public figures we followed. We’re missing the person we were and the way we lived not long ago. In the midst of this invisible, highly contagious virus, we grieve the loss of a kind of innocence. As we don our masks and gloves, we fear being infected or infecting others, and wonder what impact these changes will have on our worldview and our emotional well-being.
We grieve the loss of our work and economic stability, the familiarity of seeing our kids go off to school, and the ease of chatting with friends and even strangers. We grieve for shuttered offices, factories, and gathering places. We grieve for elders in nursing homes, family members who cannot visit one another. In the midst of national protests over police brutality and systemic racism, we bear witness to the deep grief of the African American community and other communities of color who suffer a disproportionate share of deaths and infection in the pandemic.
And yet, despite all the towering amounts of grief we are holding, many of us harbor our own “great palace lies” about grief. We may believe that grief should last for only a fixed and fairly brief period of time, or that the “grieving process” should proceed in a particular sequence. In 1969, psychiatrist and renowned researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a popular book about the five stages of moving through dying and death. Decades later, Kübler-Ross and coauthor David Kessler wrote a book in which they worked with the same stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—to explain how people move through the grieving experience.
Even at the time of writing their book On Grief and Grieving, the authors acknowledged that Kübler-Ross’s ideas about stages were widely misunderstood. She did not mean to assert that there is only one prescribed timeline or a unique sequence of emotions and experiences (denial, anger, and so forth) that most people would predictably follow as they grieved.
And yet, Kübler-Ross’s ideas gained traction and have continued to penetrate popular culture with far-reaching and, for some people, painful consequences. In my bereavement groups, I often hear people worry aloud that they have missed an important stage or even plaintively ask if they are grieving “correctly.”
But the reality is that grieving has no predictable stages or particular timeline. Grief has as many different expressions as there are people who grieve. We all share some common and universal experiences, yet each of us moves through grief in our own way and in our own time. Russell Friedman, author and cofounder of the Grief Recovery Method, describes grief as “(a) normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.”
Your grief will last for as long as it lasts. Some of us experience grief as a series of waves. One day you feel distraught and immobilized. The next day you find the unexpected strength to do an errand. Perhaps you walk down the aisle of a supermarket, thinking that you are having a good day. And then, you see something that reminds you of what and whom you’ve lost. Your heart is broken open by something as ordinary as a can of tuna.
You could think of grief as a passage. You are torn from the life you knew before. You are not who you were, and you are not yet who you will become. You are, in a very real way, between identities. This experience—profoundly different for each of us—is confusing and agonizing, and it may also be a doorway for transformation.
Though this may be hard to believe or accept at first, grief can be seen as an invitation to grow and, eventually, to find meaning in suffering and in the experience of loss. A heart that is broken open offers a precious gift—a chance to become more authentic with yourself and with other people.
When you try to turn away from grief, when you hope to bypass or escape it, grief persists. Painful emotions—such as sadness, anger, or fear—linger and may even seem worse than ever. Until you stop running, begin to name or acknowledge and lean into all you’ve been through, and build a friendly relationship with grief, you’ll almost certainly continue to suffer.
Alan Wolfelt, author, educator, and grief counselor, puts it this way: “ . . . the pain that surrounds the closed heart of grief is the pain of living against yourself, the pain of denying how the loss changes you, the pain of feeling alone and isolated—unable to openly mourn, unable to love and be loved by those around you.” What would it mean to live instead with an open heart, denying none of your pain or grief, mourning in whatever ways feel appropriate and comforting, being loving and loved by those around you?
Holding grief close, as a companion, allows for opening to love, compassion, hope, and forgiveness. Author and grief therapist Francis Weller writes, “When we don’t push the pain of grief away, when we welcome and engage it, we live and love more fully.”
Grief Meditation: A Practice
Sit quietly for a few moments and settle into the meditation by noticing the subtle movement in your body as you breathe in and then out. Say slowly, to yourself, the following phrases:
May I welcome all my feelings as I grieve.
May I allow grief to soften and strengthen my heart.
May I hold my sorrow with tenderness and compassion.
A Few Contemplative Suggestions
Spend a few moments reflecting on any “rules” or expectations you carry about grief:
- What do you think grief should look like?
- How long do you think grief should last?
- What do you view as a normal or abnormal way to grieve?
Consider where you acquired your beliefs about grief:
- Which beliefs serve you?
- Which beliefs could you release or let go?
Adapted from Opening to Grief: Finding Your Way from Loss to Peace by Claire B. Willis and Marnie Crawford Samuelson. © 2020 Claire B. Willis and Marnie Crawford Samuelson. Used with permission of Dharma Spring Books.
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