Living With Loss, Moving Forward Through Grief
COVID-19 has a lot of us in our feelings, and that’s OK. A counselor discusses healthy ways to process your emotions, allow yourself to grieve and feel good again.
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The number of deaths from COVID-19 continues to rise and hit closer to home as Black folks die disproportionately from the disease. Many in our communities have lost a relative, a friend, a friend of a friend, a coworker, a neighbor. Whether or not you have lost anyone personally, you’ve experienced loss in the way you lived pre-COVID, including the loss of routine, maybe the loss of a job, the loss of extended family gatherings and the loss of in-person socializing with friends and coworkers.
Even the way we usually gather, comfort and lift each other up during loss is not available to us in the same way because of social distancing restrictions. In a cruel twist, funerals have been found to be super-spreaders of the disease, making the spaces where we usually seek solace potentially lethal.
This is a lot to process. It’s understandable if you’re feeling a range of emotions right now. They may be connected to grief from the many losses that you and those around you experience each day. And you are not alone. The world is grieving.
“I lost three friends — one of whom I knew for 40 years — in one weekend,” says Dawn Shedrick, 46, CEO of JenTex Training & Consulting, a Long Island, New York, firm that trains and supports social workers in the United States, Canada and the Virgin Islands. Each of those families was advised not to host a funeral service at the time because of the threat of the virus. “The challenge for me is not being able to mourn in community with our mutual friends.”
Shedrick did attend a funeral for the sister of her sister-in-law, who passed a few weeks before New York officially shut down, but mourners were directed to keep their distance. That loss of physical touch was deeply missed. “It was hard for me being a hugger,” Shedrick shares, adding that there were moments when not being able to hug actually brought her to tears.
To process her grief, she turns to journaling and prayer. “I let the tears flow as long as they need to, pray and write. As painful as it can be to write about so much loss, the practice of writing has been healing.”
Shedrick’s experiences are part of what psychologist and death education expert J. William Worden describes as the four tasks of mourning. The tasks don’t have to follow a particular order, and you may even move back and forth between them, but if you don’t move through them, you may find yourself stuck in your grief and at risk for depression.
In acknowledging the loss, allowing herself to cry when she needs to and journaling, Shedrick is moving through the tasks. I recommend this simple framework to my clients and have used it myself in hard times. Here’s how you can apply the tasks of mourning to help process your grief and feel good again.
1. Accept the reality of the loss. Sometimes you may find yourself in a state of denial (it can be almost dreamlike for some) that a person is gone. Funerals help us to accept the reality of a loss, and funeral homes are adapting to these unique times by offering virtual wakes and funerals so that loved ones can come together and collectively mourn.
2. Experience and process the pain. You do yourself a disservice by trying to be strong. Instead, notice what you’re feeling, which could include sadness, anger, guilt and fear, then name it. Write it down or share it with someone who will listen without judgment. If you need to cry, do that. Know that grief often comes in waves. You may start to feel better, and a month or a year from now you may be hit with a new wave of emotions. When that happens, notice and name, then do what helps you to work through the feelings: breathe, move, write, cry, pray, spend time out in nature, listen to music or talk to someone, including a psychotherapist, for support.
3. Adjust to a world without that person. Recognize how your life has changed, both emotionally and practically. If you’re used to picking up the phone to call or text a departed loved one with the latest news, you will have to adapt, and adapting takes time. If you’ve been widowed and your partner always handled the bills or took the kids to sports practice, you’ll need to find a way to take care of those issues without them. As a counterbalance, it might be helpful to consider what hasn’t changed in your life, and what gives you strength. Make a list of things that you can count on, like enjoying walks outdoors, that post-workout sense of accomplishment, losing yourself in a good book, and your faith.
4. Start living your new life while maintaining a connection to your loved one. Create what Worden calls an “enduring bond” in a way that makes sense to you. Memorialize them and your relationship with a photo gallery or by displaying an item they held dear. Continue rituals or do something that you both enjoyed doing together. At the same time, know that letting some things go is a part of living your new life.
These tasks of mourning — while primarily used to process the loss of a person — can be applied to other losses that many of us are experiencing today. By moving through them, in time you should feel better. With children and loss, grief will likely show up differently for them than with adults. Let their age and temperament direct how you support them. The Child Mind Institute offers good guidance.
Note: If your sadness becomes more intense over time or if you have trouble with day-to-day functioning and thoughts of worthlessness, you may need professional help to work though these signs of depression. If you are in distress or have thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or dial 911.