Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

Grieving in the Age of COVID-19 (Part 1 of 2)

Grief is a slippery beast. Often, in my own experience, it presents initially after a loss as a period of shock and numbness. An almost dream-like state of disconnection with reality. An observational view of this movie called life, with you as the protagonist. The mind seems to switch into a state of self-protective stand-by mode like when a cell phone sits in the sun for too long.

Incredible is this ability we have to blunt and disassociate from the intense emotions that one would expect to have during a period of loss. This early stage can sometimes have the ability to lull one into a sense of complacency that this loss is even a problem at all.

A whisper of “It’s not that bad and the sooner we get back to the ways things were before, the sooner it will go away.”

It rarely works this way though.

Denying grief is actually empowering it with a dynamic insidiousness. It strengthens its ability to sneak up on you when you don’t see it coming, quickly overwhelming you and taking hold of every thought and emotion.

Similar to the pathology of many viruses, grief can live inside of you, dormant for months or even years if not tended to; and come out in wildly destructive and seemingly unrelated ways.

When the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts in response to COVID-19 began many weeks ago now, I found myself entering into this familiar period of shock and disbelief. A kind of numbness and a denial that this pandemic would be as bad as it had become.

Once this numbness started to fade and the novelty of the state of the world began to wear off, I found myself waking up with a very familiar visceral sensation in my gut. A discomfort and uneasiness that awoke with me for many mornings after the passing of my son due to an undiagnosed neurodegenerative disorder almost four years ago. A feeling of impending doom and restlessness that permeated my entire being. This feeling would stay with me throughout the day, sapping me of energy until I relented and crawled back into bed, only to return upon the lightest stir the next morning.

One thing that I have recognized since my son passed is that grief is not personal. It is the human body and mind’s way of reconciling the trauma of loss. Whether it is the loss of my son, our beloved pug a few years later, or an acquaintance from high school that I hadn’t seen in 10+ years, grief has shown up with the same conglomerate of thoughts, emotions, and sensations but in vastly different degrees of intensity.

For me, the most noticeable feelings that tend to bubble to the top are some combination of a sense of guilt, regret, shame, sorrow, anger, confusion, and anxiety or fear. For others, including my wife, grief is experienced through a variety of other emotions. These individual recipes of each person’s grief-related emotions are often referred to as one’s “grieving style.”

So why would grief show up again during this current crisis we find ourselves in? And why would my wife also confess the recent return of her grief? Well, for a variety of reasons because grief is bred from our response to loss. Grief can arise not only from the loss and death of a loved one or friend, but also from the many other losses related to this pandemic; losses like that of a job and the ability to support oneself and family, or the loss of normalcy and freedom in our everyday lives that we may have taken for granted until now, or perhaps from the loss of planned events or special occasions we may have had to cancel or postpone, or the loss of physical connection with family and friends. Perhaps the biggest collective loss above all, a sense of control or certainty about the future and the destabilizing realization of just how illusionary this was to begin with.

Whether grieving the sudden loss of a loved one to this awful disease and grappling with the inability to physically commune with family and friends to celebrate their life and collectively mourn, or grieving the loss of the routine and lifestyle that this pandemic has quickly taken from our society, the grief left in the wake of this novel coronavirus is quickly becoming its own public health emergency.

The sooner we are able to acknowledge and tend to it as a global community, the sooner we can experience what experts refer to as “post-traumatic growth.” Psychologist Richard Tedeschi explains this theory of post-traumatic growth as, "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life.”

The choice is ours, both individually and collectively. We can allow this global crisis to further divide and isolate beyond our social distancing or we can use this opportunity to embrace the unknown that lies ahead with a sense of optimistic resiliency. The later will not come without first tending to the grief present within all of us right now.

Taming Grief

Mindfulness can serve as a powerful tool in being able to recognize and work with grief and trauma. At Calmer Choice, we define mindfulness as the ability to pay attention on purpose to the present moment with curiosity and kindness for ourselves and others. With practice, it has enabled me to notice strong emotions and grief as it approaches.

In our curriculum, we use the saying “If You Name It, You can Tame it.” I really like this saying as it relates to grief and any difficult emotion. The idea here is not to suppress, resist, or deny the grief but instead to first notice that it is here so that we can work with it, more effectively responding to these emotions instead of reacting to them haphazardly without awareness.

More often than not, I have cultivated the ability to notice these strong emotions before they are able to completely highjack my nervous system. Over time, this practice has provided me with an ability to respond more tactfully to difficult emotions with more grace and skill, instead of mindlessly reacting to every impulsive thought, chasing them further and further down the rabbit hole of catastrophe.

On the occasion that I am overwhelmed by a strong emotion, mindfulness can help to disengage a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for keeping us alive but comes with some rather unpleasant side effects when we are not really in any immediate physical danger.

Research also suggests that a regular mindfulness practice can not only make this part of the brain less reactive but even shrink it in size over time. When we are deep in the throes of grief or experiencing stress related to any other significant life trauma, the amygdala is very active and becomes hypersensitive to any possible hint of perceived danger. This chronic hypersensitivity can eventually lead to physiological changes in the body, maladaptive behaviors, and poor health and well-being.

Mindfulness practice has served as an effective vehicle in working with and tending to my grief and has allowed me to cultivate more emotional awareness, inner resilience, and self-compassion.

Over the last 10 years, it has provided me with a touchstone to return to time and again when the waves of life get choppy. At Calmer Choice, our mindfulness-based curriculum is loaded with useful tools and strategies for developing a regular mindfulness practice in one’s life, and my role as an instructor has been vital in reinforcing my own personal practice. When working with major trauma and recent grief, a trained professional or experienced teacher is ideal in guiding a beginner through the nuances of working with these often intense emotions.

In Part 2, I will outline other strategies and the rest of my “grief toolkit” for working with and tending to grief and other difficult life stressors.