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Processing Loss – Six Ideas to Try Today

April 20, 2020

By Caroline Stayer-Brewington, LCSW.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, one of my favorite treats was sipping an oat milk latte in a local café and journaling. I could spend hours jotting down my thoughts and observations, people watching and taking in the moment. Since we began physical distancing measures, I’ve been grateful for the coffee my husband makes (he takes the craft seriously) and being able to write from my backyard, but it’s just not the same. I miss the ambiance of the coffee shop to a depth that surprises me.

In public spaces like cafes, I find I can more easily tap into that delightful sense of alone togetherness— a being with others, but also being apart from them simultaneously. It’s no surprise to me that I chose to become a therapist and my friends say I can be “folksy” to a fault. I love people. To be cut off from spontaneous interaction with others, from sharing physical space with my patients and my friends, and from being with my larger Durham community has been difficult. Maybe you feel the same?

All of us are grieving right now. We mourn things profound and life-shattering as well as our café moments. We grieve physical distance from loved ones, the ability to be bedside with the ill, to gather for funerals. Many lament for lost jobs, lost income, friends suffering these losses, and the failure of our government to better protect the vulnerable. We also grieve aspects of our old lives: touch and hugs, running errands, cookouts. I have friends who’ve had to postpone weddings, whose children are missing out on graduation ceremonies from college and from high school. My best friend and chosen soul sister gave birth three days into quarantine, just minutes from my house and I couldn’t go to be with her and have yet to meet my nephew in person.

Naming our loss outright and sharing it with others gives us a better opportunity to process and digest the complex emotions of grief. Connection is essential for grieving and so we need to make space for each other’s grief and validate it. Simply, that means telling each other “I see you and your pain. I’m here”. It’s not a time to trivialize or compare others’ suffering. I grieve on many levels, processing the recent death of my father is just as valid as my need to process the loss of weekly visits to the coffee shop. They impact me in different ways, to different depths, but they both are here for me to feel. When we don’t process our grief, we can become irritable, checked out, and have difficulty sleeping and focusing.
It’s often said there is no right way to grieve, and that feels particularly true in these days of limitation. An image that has come up for me often the past month is water. If we limit water, give it a boundary, it takes a new shape, maybe expanding into new territory. We may not be able to grieve in ways familiar to us right now, but I hope that instead of thwarting your grief, these limitations allow your grieve to express itself in new ways.

Consider giving these exercises a try:

Notice your tears.

When you can recognize feelings of grief, see if you can make some space for physical expression. If tears well in your eyes, try to welcome them. Allow them to build and to fall down your face. What temperature are they? How does it feel on your skin as they move down your face? Can you soften your throat and jaw a bit as you feel?

Write a poem. Make some art.

Are there metaphors or similes that help express your grief at the moment? Is it a quiet ache today in your chest or a boulder? A grey cloud? A bittersweet herb? If I could express my grief on the page, what colors and shapes would I use?

Dance.

Movement helps us feel alive and helps us metabolize emotions through the body. It’s important to recognize that we’re alive while we grieve. If your body could show your feelings through movement, how would you move today? Fast or slow? Hard or soft? Rhythmic? Chaotic? Would you dance alone or with others?

Journal.

Put it out on a page. Use a stream of consciousness. Don’t worry about sentence structure or clarity. Imagine you could pour your feelings into your journal and that your journal can hold them all with you.

Tell a loved one or a trusted friend.

Again, it’s so important that our feelings are validated. Who can I share my pain with that will sit with me and support me, rather than rushing to “fix it”. Can I let a loved one know that I need to share how I’m feeling and be met with a simple phrase “Thank you for telling me” or “I hear you”?

Hold yourself or hug a tree.

Although we may long for touch from another, we can give ourselves some support through self-touch. Try crossing your arms in front of your chest and squeezing your upper arms or put your right hand in your left armpit, crossing your left arm over your chest so that your left-hand holds your right deltoid. Find a tree and hug it. Imagine that the tree can hold you. Let as much of your body yield into the tree as you can by softening muscles in your neck, shoulders, face, and jaw.

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