We Are Grieving Our Sense of Normalcy
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Could some of what you’re feeling right now, as the discomforts of this new life unfold, be grief? Do you have a sense of loss about being unable to spend time with a loved one or your job being disrupted or are you missing close connection with other people?
Today’s column is about a lesser-known type of grief — and how to work with any of the stages of grief you might be feeling right now.
Grief is a normal human response to loss. In this moment, we have all lost something critical: our sense of normalcy. What was regular and predictable just a few weeks ago is now gone. Some people have lost their jobs; others have lost regular contact with their loved ones. We might be grieving the loss of a certain way of life or activities that we now need to put on hold.
I learned something new about grief from an interview I read with David Kessler, a grief expert. Kessler talked about anticipatory grief — the feeling we get about the future when the future is uncertain. He talked about this in terms of a loss of safety. Yes, coronavirus is dangerous and can spread before people experience symptoms. That hidden danger is very scary, but so too is our loss of certainty about the future: the sense that our jobs, our health, and our plans for next month (let alone next year) are also under siege.
How do we work with this? As I’ve discussed in earlier columns, learning how our minds work is the first step toward working with them. Understanding the stages of grief gives us a conceptual framework to then become aware of how these complex emotions show up in our minds and bodies.
According to Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the five classic stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. We can see a lot of denial right now on multiple levels. On a personal level, I’m encountering people who think the virus won’t affect them or their family. On a local level, I see people not distancing as advised. On a national level, I’ve seen government officials say this is all going to blow over swiftly.
Whether you relate more to the serenity prayer or the science of mindfulness, there is a lot to gain from adopting an attitude of acceptance.
In addition to denial, I’ve seen anger. I’ve seen so much of this in real life and on social media — mostly in the form of people with short fuses who explode into anger.
I’ve also seen bargaining. Some people respond by negotiating with themselves: “I’ll practice social distancing for a week” or “It’s okay to hang out just with close friends” or even “There has to be some tradeoff between people’s lives and the health of the economy.”
Then there’s sadness. I see this everywhere on social media, in my clinic patients, and in the online groups I lead.
And finally, there is acceptance. I highlighted the serenity prayer in yesterday’s columns, which is all about acceptance: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
My lab studies how mindfulness training can help people change really ingrained habitual behaviors like smoking, overeating, and even the habit of worrying. There is a two-part scientific definition of mindfulness that starts with being aware of what is happening in the present moment and ends with adopting an orientation toward one’s experience that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
Whether you relate more to the serenity prayer or the science of mindfulness, there is a lot to gain from adopting an attitude of acceptance. Acceptance is key to working with what is rather than craving what you want but don’t have or wanting this all to just disappear so you can have your familiar life back.
I love a saying about forgiveness that I learned years ago. I lean on it often to help me, my patients, and my students not get stuck spinning our wheels in the past: “Forgiveness is giving up hope of a better past.” Yes!
This practice helps unpack the big bad scary concept of grief into bite-sized pieces that are normal and natural human reactions to grief and uncertainty.
Instead of spinning our wheels in denial or creating more damage by fanning the flames of anger, we can see when we’re stuck in the past and practice grounding ourselves in the present moment. That’s what mindfulness is all about. As I wrote about yesterday, this helps us let go of things we can’t control and focus on putting our energy into things we do have control over, such as staying home, encouraging friends and loved ones to stay home, and spreading kindness instead of anger and anxiety on social media.
So what can you do today if you are feeling any of these stages of grief?
- Name it. Take a few moments, and as much as you can, respecting your own limits, let yourself feel whatever emotion you are feeling. Acknowledge it. If you can name it, you may notice the fear of the unknown goes away.
- Practice acceptance. Once you have named what you are feeling, ground yourself in the present moment however you can. Take a few deep breaths, say a prayer, or practice a short mindfulness exercise. See if you can open to what is. Can you allow it to be there? Can you bow to what you are feeling in a gesture of respect? Can you say to yourself: “Hello, grief. You are a normal and natural part of me. I see you. I respect you.” See how much you can simply open to what you are feeling and even name the specific physical sensation and raw emotion, like heaviness, heat, sinking, sadness, and so on. This practice helps unpack the big bad scary concept of grief into bite-sized pieces that are normal and natural human reactions.
- Build strength. Denial may be part of the grieving process, or it may be a fear response to protect you against the really unpleasant feeling of fear itself. Denial may give you a false sense of strength in the midst of feeling scared or even hopeless. To move out of this, look around to find someone you know who has been affected by coronavirus or is vulnerable. For example, I have a friend in New York City who is a confirmed case. My father-in-law’s colleague at the University of Washington died. This virus is real. The impact is real.
If, at times, you feel in denial, are there moments where you can clearly see that denial of the situation harms you or potentially puts others at risk? Whether you are in denial or not, look at your actions. Are you doing something that increases or decreases the safety of others, even if it is simply staying calm and safe yourself? Imagine how you will feel when this is all over and you look back at what you are doing right now. Will you be proud or will you feel shame? Being proud of how we acted gives us and those around us strength. Let that awareness help you move forward and guide what you do today.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and need help working with grief, there are many resources to help with this. Here are a few:
- Five stages of grief
- Coping with grief and loss
- Coping with grief
- Ways to support someone who is grieving
I’ll end with a wonderful quote from Winnie the Pooh:
“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
So today, see how often throughout the day you can take a short pause and check in with yourself. Can you name what you are feeling? Can naming it help it feel less scary? If you are feeling one of the stages of grief, no matter which one it is, can you open to it and see if you can accept it, even a little bit? Practice this in short moments many times throughout the day. You are braver than you believe. And we will be stronger as we use our individual strength to support each other and collectively move into the future.
Onward together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.