Coping with loss: The article I never wanted to write

Grief is experienced by each person in their own individual way. This is the reason it isn't fair to judge oneself for grieving in a particular way or to compare one's personal grieving experience to another's. 

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Avi Tenenbaum

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In better times people are provided this information privately. Never did I think I would write an article about this for the public. Yet, I received numerous requests over the last week to answer the following questions:

-"How does one handle acute grief if their loved one passes away from the virus? Even more extreme, how can I do this in quarantine all alone?"

-"What can be done to mourn with others when current regulations in their country ban gatherings with family or travel?"

-"I never got to say goodbye to my loved one or be with them in the hospital and now they passed away-How do I stop from thinking about this all day?"

-"I feel like the Grinch stole Passover-this is the one time a year I see my grandkids/parents/etc. and now it won't happen. I feel robbed-do you have any advice for that?"

-"I'm shocked-I just found out that I lost my job-how does one deal with that type of thing?"

Loss is seen everywhere right now. Our WhatsApp groups have become invaded by news of people who succumbed to the virus and died. Then there are the messages about people that are ill with requests to pray on their behalf. Death, loss, and grief have begun to weave themselves into our daily lives, even on an hourly basis.

Experts project that this is merely the beginning of the virus's impact and that we may see several weeks of a heavy toll on lives, quality of life, and the economy.

Many reading this may have loved ones who are seriously ill with the virus at this very moment and don't know in which direction things will go. People's life plans or business plans have been flushed down the tubes, investments sunk, jobs lost, dreams or financial security thrashed. 

With that said, it is important to have available user-friendly information on handling grief. You may also find this information handy for helping a close friend deal with their loss.

Throughout the article I will emphasize grieving regarding death of a loved one although most of the ideas herein equally apply to wrangling the feelings of grief after other types of loss.

What Is Grief?

Grief is the natural reaction that one experiences in the body and mind upon losing a loved one or suffering a loss. People who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 will experience grief, as well as people who have lost their life savings or job.

Grief Can Be Felt Before Actually Suffering A Loss 

Anticipatory Grief is the term used to describe the natural feelings a person has when expecting the death of a loved one that technically hasn't yet occurred, or a major loss that one anticipates will soon happen. Imagine for a moment the people whose loved ones are seriously ill with COVID-19. They are expecting bad news in the days to come and may already be experiencing grief now in this waiting-state before their loved one has actually passed away. 

 

What Does Grief Feel Like?

Grief is experienced by each person in his or her own individual way. This is the reason why it isn't fair to judge oneself for grieving in a particular way or to compare one's personal grieving experience to another's. 

People grieving often experience a sense of shock and disbelief, great sadness, confusion, thought rumination, survivor's guilt, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating on tasks, questions about life or one's faith, a loss of appetite, and more. 

Depending upon the circumstances, a bereaved person may judge themselves harshly for a variety of things which they perceive to be their fault. Alternatively, they may place this blame and anger at other people, the healthcare system, or God. 

Grief can dominate a person's mind, and take much more time to subside that one would expect. 

Nearly any and every thought and feeling are okay to feel or think while grieving, being part of the human experience of losing a loved one.

Grief can be experienced in waves that come and go, returning later for another round of misery with intermittent hours or periods of feeling okay.

Finally, feelings of grief can be triggered by various cues that a person associates with the deceased person or with the circumstances that surrounded that beloved person's death. This makes it possible for a bereaving person to feel relatively okay until being triggered or reminded of their loss by such a cue, like seeing the deceased person's photograph or seeing their spouse's empty bed as they prepare to go to sleep. 

What can a grieving person do to ease the pain?

1 Kindness and Self-Compassion 

Decide to be kind to yourself as you go on this grief-journey. Take a gentle approach, allowing your thoughts and feelings to flood through your body and mind and take you wherever you need to go. Be as patient with this process as you can and let it take as long or as short as it takes, one day at a time. 

There is no need to try to stop feeling any of these emotions or thoughts, as this is your body and mind's personal way of internalizing and adjusting to your loss. It cannot be compared to anybody else's experience or expectations and it isn't wrong or correct. 

Feeling surreal and bizarre? That's okay.

Anxious? Fine. 

Sad? Of course.

Maybe you feel relieved? Even that can be. 

Maybe you feel bad that you feel relieved? Sure. 

Perhaps you are emotionally numb and don't feel anything at all. That's okay.

These feelings and more can be part of your personal way of reacting to your loss, based on your circumstances and relationship with the deceased, among other factors.

The variety of thoughts and feelings that your mind sends to you about your loss cannot be justified much like one's preference for vanilla over chocolate cannot be justified – this is simply just because that’s who you are. 

Self-Compassion

Try to practice self-compassion daily as you paddle through the waters of your grief. Compassion means to have concern for another person's suffering. The concept of self-compassion is to develop a compassionate stance toward yourself. 

Practically, if your best friend was in this situation how would you support them? What kind of messages would you tell them? Which words would you use to comfort or reassure them? The idea of self-compassion is to relate to yourself in this same manner, as you would relate to a close beloved friend who is grieving. 

What message do you need to hear right now? Tell that message to yourself. 

What advice would you give to a person going through what you are experiencing now? Allow yourself to follow that advice.

2 Take Care of Your Basic Physical Needs

The grieving process is intense and can feel like running a marathon. Sleep and eat as best as you can. Take care of other basic needs that will replenish and maintain your energy. I bet you'd give that advice to a close bereaved friend. Here’s an opportunity to exercise self-compassion and put it into action.

It can also be helpful to keep a schedule as best as possible. This has many benefits such as maintaining your daily routine for the future once the sharp intensity of your grief has subsided, and to prevent the development of undesirable habits like going to sleep late and getting up late. 

During normal circumstances a mourner is generally surrounded by friends & family immersed in thinking and talking about their loss. This should still be a principal part of your day for the first few days as it is important to make the time and space to process what you are going through at this time.

3 Be Social

Many of the rituals people do to mourn are currently not available or are severely limited. Restrictions have been placed on large gatherings, significantly affecting the amount of people who might attend a funeral. Due to widespread preventative measures like social distancing it is also not possible to receive visitors for consolation as one regularly does in a 'shiva-house' setting. 

While conventional methods of mourning may not be currently available, people have found creative alternative ways to make it happen.

Consider creating a way for people to reach you by phone or internet to console and support you. Use your phone to be in touch with close friends and family. Make sure people know the hours and ways in which you'd like to interact with them.

If you prefer, have a technologically savvy friend arrange to see a funeral on "Zoom". Invite your family and friends to participate from afar and to eulogize your loved one. It sounds crazy, but this has been done all over the world these last few weeks and has assisted people who are close to one another to mourn together.  

I always say that one of the most powerful tools for easing trauma and grief is by connecting with others. Use your phone to call significant figures in your life for comfort, to find meaning, or just to chat. 

4 Rituals at Home

External Rituals and mourning rites are done to express one's feelings of grief or love for the deceased. Invite yourself to explore ways of doing this at home over the next few days. 

Perhaps you would find solace in setting up pictures of the deceased on a table in your home. Maybe you'd like to make a list of their outstanding traits and accomplishments and share this with close friends. 

While it isn't currently possible to receive visitors, this does not have to stop a person from finding creative ways to express their feelings and engaging in meaningful activities that facilitate mourning. Take a moment to stop and think if there's a way that you'd like to mourn at home and explore if this is helpful and meaningful to you.

5 Seeking Answers

In the initial stages of losing a loved one you may have a lot of questions such as "why did God do this?" or "why couldn't I at least have a chance to say goodbye?".

Pay close attention – is this your way of expressing your feelings of anger? Are you looking for validation of these feelings or are you intellectually seeking literal answers to these questions? 

People you speak to on the phone may misunderstand your intent behind these questions and offer you intellectual answers, and you will find yourself angrier than before. If you are asking these questions in order to receive validation from friends, you might want to let them know. It's okay to feel like this and perfectly acceptable to seek support from your friends in this way. 

If you are looking for literal answers to these questions in order to make meaning out of your situation this is alright as well. There is nothing wrong with seeking meaning and understanding if this is what you intuitively feel you need to navigate your grief. You are the captain of this ship and should honor your feelings, letting them guide you on this journey. You may find it helpful to contact a trusted and compassionate Rabbi or spiritual guide familiar with these topics. 

6 Unhelpful Stories and Thoughts 

We said before that it is natural to feel or think anything while grieving. While that is true, this doesn't mean that all thoughts are helpful to believe as fact. There's a difference between your subconscious mind sending you certain thoughts while grieving and you holding onto these thoughts tightly and believing them.

Notice the stories that you keep repeating over on the phone or to yourself. Is this narrative helpful to you? Does it assist you in expressing grief or does it make you distracted or feel even worse? 

On the one hand we do not want to suppress our feelings or thoughts. At the same time, we wouldn't want to find ourselves repeating unhelpful stories that make us feel worse. Let's find the balance between these two ideas by noticing and honoring all thoughts, while not necessarily believing them as facts.

Our subconscious minds are constantly sending us thoughts that we don't even choose to think, all year long. Minds do this naturally, constantly sending thoughts to us that the mind perceives are helpful. 

You can relate to these types of thoughts like leaves that fall off a tree into a flowing river, with the water then carrying them downstream. Notice each thought that is sent to you from your mind, much like the leaves that fall off this tree into the river's stream. Notice the thoughts come into your head and flow away to wherever they go, just like the leaves that get carried downstream.

By stopping for a moment to notice the process of having these types of thoughts as they come it, this helps us hold onto them a little less tightly, and not believe them as strongly. 

A lot can be said on this parable and technique, and I invite you to learn more about the concept of "Cognitive Diffusion" on the internet. Many methods exist to help a person get untangled from thick cobwebs of the mind, and help a person learn a more flexible way to relate to thoughts when doing so would be adaptive. 

7 Throw Down Your Anchor

Sometimes a person grieving can feel overwhelmed with torrenting thoughts and tidal waves of negative emotions. These emotional tsunamis can feel like they'll knock us right off our feet and wreck our psychological stability. 

When this happens, we can stop everything we're doing and notice ourselves breathing. Since we are always breathing in and out, we can use it as an anchor at any time, just like a ship throws down its anchor so it isn't blown away off course during a storm.

After noticing a few sets of in and out breaths, consider noticing your body. 

Are you sitting? Notice the feeling of your weight resting on the chair. 

Are you standing? Notice the feeling of your feet on the ground. 

If you're walking somewhere, notice the movement of your legs going up and down as you walk. 

If you're lying down in bed when the emotional tidal waves come, simply notice the feeling of your back touching your bed, or the weight of your body resting on the mattress. 

Finally, if you're in the middle of a task like reading or washing your hands, notice the feeling of the water on your hands or the white spaces in between the black ink on the pages of your book. If you'd like, pause to notice the sounds around you, like the wall clock ticking or noise of your fan blowing.

When we stop during an emotional tidal wave and notice things in the present moment it helps ground us so that we don't get swept away. 

When you're ready, come back to whatever you were in the middle of doing, whether it was lying down or cleaning the house. 

To summarize what to do when coming across an emotional tsunami: stop, notice, come back.

I highly recommend that people experiencing powerful emotions learn some basic mindfulness skills like five minute sitting meditation or walking meditation. These simple easy to do techniques can be a game changer in dealing with extremely powerful emotions. 

8 What You Think Might Help

As you mourn at home or grieve the loss of a job and worry about your future, ask yourself: What do you think would be helpful to you to do right now (or to stop doing)? 

Years ago, I was taught that regular people should be regarded as experts on their struggle and empowered to look inside themselves for the answers. Over-reliance on professionals makes us forget our own inner wisdom.

What do you suspect would be useful to do right now to feel better?

What do you think might be a meaningful way for you to mourn right now at home?

I empower you to be like a scientist. Come up with a theory as to what you think might help you now. Go ahead and test your theory by trying whatever it was you came up with. Then, evaluate if your theory was helpful or not. Tweak your technique as necessary until you are satisfied with the results.

A Final word

There is truly a lot to say on the topic of grief. This paper is meant to offer just a few basic methods of dealing with the initial phase of grief, also called "Acute Grief", during these challenging times. 

The process of grief can last months or years and generally decreases in intensity over time. For a small number of people their grief experience does not decrease in intensity and may even increase. This is known as "Complicated Grief". 

You are welcome at any time to contact a mental health professional for help working through your grief. It is especially important to contact a mental health professional if you experience suicidal thoughts, prolonged depression, or feel stuck.

It's worth noting that most people do this work on their own with the support of family and friends without any need for professional therapy - this isn't meant to highlight that therapy isn't useful, rather to demonstrate how resilient people are.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) once said to a young widow "some well-meaning friends will try to comfort you by saying that over time your pain will be forgotten. The truth is that it is impossible to forget and a mistake to tell you to forget." It is similarly said that while life ends, relationships don't.

It is Jewish custom to tell the mourner "may God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem". Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky (1913-1979) asks why we say that God should comfort the mourner when it is a commandment in the Torah for people to comfort one another?

This, he explains, is because no human being can truly understand the breadth and depth of a mourner's suffering and personal loss, and their efforts to comfort the bereaved will never truly match the loss that the mourner experiences - that can only be achieved by God himself. 

Take care.

The above article is meant to be a straightforward approach for those dealing with grief in the shadow of COVID-19 and reflects the author's opinion only. Consult with your healthcare provider for more information on dealing with grief.

Avi Tenenbaum is an expert in Disaster Behavioral Health and Psychological First Aid. His experience includes providing aid for families coping in the wake of large-scale disasters and war including the Second Lebanon War, Hurricane Harvey, The Pittsburg Tree-of-Life massacre, the Haifa 2016 Fires, Operation Cast-Lead, and more. He is currently on the front lines battling the effects of Covid-19 on the soul. avitenenbaum9@gmail.com 



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