Grief in the Absence of Normal

A psychotherapist helps explain that familiar feeling the world is experiencing en masse today—and how to bounce back with more meaning in our lives.

By Asha Tarry, CLC, LMSW

When we hear the word grief we often think about the process of expressing deep sorrow in the wake of death. But what we may overlook is that grief is about the loss of any significant kind, including identity. In a time like this, when many of us seek familiarity with the unknown, what we may discover instead is how attached we have been to things that gave us a veiled self-concept.

As unfortunate as it is to lose employment, people we care about, and access to places that provide us with the things we need, it can be jarring to our psyche to consider that what we thought we knew about who we are was in reality a very limited understanding of ourselves.

These past two months have changed how we see the world, too. For so long we thought we could treat Mother Earth unkindly, and hope that she would continue to forgive us. We thought we could eat whatever we wanted and that our poor diets and inadequate health habits wouldn’t catch up to us. We assumed that the jobs we went to, whether we enjoyed them or not, would give us a sense of purpose, or at least security—but then we discovered that wasn’t true, either. Here we are. All of us. Sad and uncertain. Anxious and weary. Sick and recovering. Still, we don’t have the answers for where we go from here and that, to a lot of us, has been the worst stomach-churning reality of all.

Grief does something shocking to our nervous system. It invades us in ways that catches us off-guard. It seeps into crevices beneath the skin that we didn’t know we could experience. It freezes time, and reminds us at the same time how quickly and slowly time can seem to move. It’s a conundrum.

When I counsel clients in my private practice who’ve lost a parent or a lover or a pet to death, it’s as if I’m walking beside them, shadowing their loneliness and confusion. There’s an inarticulation with grief. Sometimes the initial shock of unexpectedness leaves us dampened. Then there’s the void of how to live without—without what used to be. Most people don’t notice until it happens to them. Just like now. This pandemic is happening to all of us at once. For the first time in most of our lifetimes we are forced to stop and begin again. Some might say, with what? Or how? That part is the mystery of life and at the same time, grief.

Ralph Ryback, MD, wrote about the complexities of grief in Psychology Today (in the February 27, 2017 issue, “The Ways We Grieve”). He said, “Grief is more than just sadness. Grief can manifest itself in the form of immense emotional and physical suffering, and we may experience anything from anger to denial, to guilt, to sadness and despair.” Adjacent to these feelings is the increased risk for acute illness, which may at first manifest as mental unrest, intense fear, persistent worry and physical pain. We see it everywhere. Anxiety is the fastest-growing mental illness in America, with 40 million diagnosed cases, according to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). And there’s more to be expected.

Still, in all of this, there is a way to create meaning in our lives while simultaneously weathering the storm. As I’ve talked with people after the initial wave of the coronavirus, I’ve heard a cadence in people’s voices I haven’t heard in a long time. Often, what I’m noticing is how grateful people are to begin attuning to themselves, and how in awe they are of the support they need, and how aware they are of others during this crisis. A lot of people are just beginning to hear things about their partners or friends for the first time.

In the past, we robbed ourselves of our most intimate connections with others. But my hope for each of us today is that we may begin again. Begin to forgive ourselves and accept that the present moment is all that matters. Sometimes, we don’t know what we need until it’s gone—or at least until we’re confronted with how we once treated it. I wonder how we will begin to measure our values against our immaterial desires after this is over. Will we find our voices in this? Will we negotiate with our employers for a different work schedule than before so we can spend more time at home or with our loved ones? Will we pick up the phone and invite people to have a conversation and actually listen to what’s happening with them? That’s certainly one way to get out of our head and into the moment.

Grief expert David Kessler talks about finding meaning in life after loss in his book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. I’m paraphrasing this, but basically the message from the author is that we can live beyond accepting the things we cannot change. We can’t completely change the world back to the way it was. However, we can develop meaning from what we’ve learned we can do and can have, especially if we embrace creative ways to live and find purpose with what exists. It’s all in the way we think about how life is at this very time. It’s mindfulness. It’s serendipity. And it’s our innate capacity to adapt and evolve that gets us through times like these.

Asha Tarry is a prosperity life coach and psychotherapist.