A Grief Therapist on Navigating Uncertainty, Vulnerability, and Loss
A Grief Therapist on Navigating Uncertainty, Vulnerability, and Loss
One of the strange aftershocks of losing a loved one is waking up the next morning to find the world is still turning. People are out getting coffee, driving to work, making plans, and running errands.
It’s jarring because it’s the opposite of what you’re feeling inside—for you, the world has stopped. For anyone who has suffered a tragic loss, these early days of the pandemic may have brought about a surprising reaction. It almost feels like a delayed physical manifestation—what we see outside our window now is how you expect the world to look when you are grieving. Even though rationally you know it’s not possible, you expect there to be a pause—“Stop all the clocks,” as the W.H. Auden poem so beautifully captures—because how can life be the same?
Many thought leaders, healers, and psychologists have been calling what we are all feeling right now grief. For some of us, this naming can be oddly comforting, because it makes this chaotic experience feel a little less “unprecedented.” Many brilliant minds have been putting together road maps on grief for a long time. And some of the same tools for dealing with the loss of a loved one can be applied to our collective grief during this pandemic.
Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief therapist and the author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, talked to us about how we can harness some of the wisdom that already exists around grief and loss to help guide us now.
A Q&A with Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC
We have a natural tendency to fill up time when we’re uncomfortable, but it’s a detriment to the real healing that can occur if we sit with the pain and just give it space. There is a tender period when we’re grieving—whether it’s grieving a pandemic or a personal loss. We need to kind of steep in it in order to move through the transformation that grief often provides. It’s uncomfortable because it’s painful, hard, and sad. There is also uncertainty, and that brings up many feelings as well—lack of safety is chief among them. But letting these uncomfortable feelings move through us without trying to cover them up by keeping busy and productive will bring about so many inner rewards.
Definitely. It’s incredibly hard to be in this space of discomfort, so we yearn and seek to be on the other side of it. When talking about the stages of grief, it’s important to remember that acceptance comes in waves—we come to it over and over and over again, in different ways. There may be these false starts where you think, Okay, I’m good now. I did a bunch of meditation, I’m journaling, I’ve talked to professionals, and I’ve really sat with my stuff, and now I’m feeling good. And then the next day, you wake up and you’re back in the throes of your grief—and that is completely normal. The stages are fluid; we come in and out of them. And acceptance is no different.
That said, there is no right way to grieve. And because we will grieve at different paces, some people will reach meaning and purpose faster than others. But while there isn’t one way to grieve that’s better than another, in order to get to meaning and purpose, you do need to move through feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, and anxiety. There is just no way around it. None of us will come out of this unscathed. It is in our collective best interest to sift through these tumultuous feelings to find meaning for ourselves and for the world we come back to. And in that way, these are productive feelings. They will hopefully lead us to something profound.
I would start by telling them that grief is incredibly overwhelming. Our culture is not great with vulnerability. And I think that grief is one of the most vulnerable places we can be in. What I often see is people are shocked to find themselves in such a vulnerable place. Grief touches every aspect of our life and our psyche. It’s often so much bigger than people anticipate it will be. And of course, we’re not just grieving people. We are grieving the loss of a world we knew, the loss of a future we thought we had, the loss of a feeling of safety. That feeling of safety was perhaps an illusion, but we were holding onto it, nonetheless. Any of these losses alone could bring about intense pain, and we are grieving them all at once.
For people who have had great loss and are familiar with this road, this experience can bring up a lot of old grief, too. I think they should be prepared to possibly experience swells of those losses. I work with a motherless daughters group, and I know a lot of the women are feeling big old grief come up right now. Naming it for what it is will help us all hold space for it.
The experience of grief is different for everybody, and we all move through it in different ways. Two siblings can lose a parent and go in completely different directions in their grief. And that can result in a lot of friction. The same is true of grieving spouses, friends, family members, etc. A lot of that friction comes from judging how another person is grieving, which is usually born from our own insecurity about how we’re grieving. We see somebody else’s process and think either, Why are they reacting that way? or conversely, Why am I not reacting that way? It’s important to keep in mind that the people around us may not be in the same phase or stage of grief as we are.
The first step to easing that tension is to remove some of the judgment and replace it with curiosity. If we can be curious about one another’s experiences, as well as our own, we create the space for healing. If someone else’s grieving process is disruptive to your own, you may need to decide not to lean on each other and instead find your own virtual support groups and attend to your pain separately. You can still hold space for someone else’s grief without being each other’s main source of support.
David Kessler has a great quote: “The worst loss is always your loss.” I think he is spot-on. There is no good in comparing losses. No one knows what anyone else’s experience is truly like. I find people will often pass judgment out of their desire to be more in touch with their own loss. I try to always find some kind of empathy for people who are expressing judgment. You can tell they’re obviously in a lot of pain. If they were feeling whole, they wouldn’t feel the need to judge someone else’s pain.
I’ve gone back to a practice that I had let go of, which is practicing a ritual on my own. I was in a pretty good place before this happened, but then so much uncertainty and lack of safety came up, and I knew that I had to turn back to practicing a personal ritual that has gotten me through many dark moments. A lot of our ritual in American culture relies on gatherings—spiritual, religious, local community. We don’t have that right now. We can’t sit shiva; we can’t grieve together. So I created an altar. I light candles and carve out the time to tap into my spirituality.
Though we have to grieve in isolation, there may be an upside, which is that we don’t have the usual stress of having to “put on a face” while we are in pain. Our pain won’t be a conversation stopper the way it is with a more solitary loss. The suffering is everywhere, so I think we won’t have the same urge to put on our armor to face the world, because the whole world is hurting. And that is another way that we will see one another through this.
SELECTED RESOURCES FROM CLAIRE
Modern Loss, an online community for all grievers
Dougy Center, for grieving children
Compassionate Friends, for grieving parents
Motherless Daughters, for women who have lost a mom
Soaring Spirits International, for widows and widowers
Death Over Dinner, community grief and loss
The Dinner Party, community grief and loss
On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler
It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine
Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore
Permission to Mourn by Tom Zuba
Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
One More Time with Feeling
Truly Madly Deeply
P.S. I Love You
Claire Bidwell Smith is a Los Angeles–based author and therapist. Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief is her third book about grief and loss, following The Rules of Inheritance and After This.
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