Updated: May 22
I just finished watching the new Disney movie, Soul, starring Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx. If you haven't watched it, I highly encourage that you do. It has prompted me to write a bit about my thoughts on grief throughout this pandemic. Disclaimer: this post does not reveal the storyline of the movie but does reflect on the premise.
This pandemic has been full of grief. This grief was different in that we were experiencing it together as collective grief while also grieving our own individual losses.
Grief is special. We grieve tragic events, the loss of loved ones, breakups, job changes, moves to new cities, changes in environment, and general change (big or small). During this pandemic we have all grieved change in one way or another. Teenagers grieve the loss of routine and normalcy that school and after-school activities provide. Young adults grieve the freedom to make spontaneous plans without caution, go shopping, or go out to bars. Parents may grieve taking their kids on outings or going in to the office and the feeling of bliss of returning home at the end of the day. We all grieve closeness, physical touch, and a sense of freedom and normalcy. No matter what the specifics are, any change to your own sense of "normalcy" and loss of opportunity creates grief. This pandemic has had plenty of it.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross established the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance (https://www.ekrfoundation.org/5-stages-of-grief/5-stages-grief/). Her well-known book On Death and Dying was published in 1969 and discusses her observations and reflections from dialogue with dying people.
Further discussion continues in regard to these five stages. The stages are not necessarily linear. We cycle through them in our own unique way, experience some stages simultaneously, and may even bounce around. The cycles never truly end but may get less intense as time passes or as circumstances change. One of the hardest truths about grief is that it never really goes away.
Pause 1 of 2: I encourage you to take a moment and think of one thing you may have grieved this year. Maybe it was something as big as your wedding day that had to be rescheduled. Maybe it's the simple act of meeting friends for drinks after work. Maybe it's the change in your holiday traditions. Name it. Next, think about the stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Did you pass through any of these? Are you currently in them now? Did you skip some altogether?
Acceptance is not always reached. We don't all experience every stage and sometimes we stay in certain stages longer than others. This grief is your own unique experience and it is valid. Just as much as a teenager's grief of missing out on social opportunities is just as valid as the individual who has lost a loved one to COVID. One person's grief or loss is not comparable to another's. I encourage you to catch yourself if you are allowing your inner self talk tell you that your loss isn't as bad as others and therefore not important. That is simply not true. Your loss is yours. It deserves attention and tenderness just like anyone else's. No matter the size or level of complexity.
Co-Author of the book On Grief and Grieving alongside Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Michael Kessler wrote his own book called Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief where he discusses the concept of finding meaning in grief.
Brené Brown has a wonderful interview with Kessler discussing this concept of Meaning as a sixth stage on her podcast: Unlocking Us: David Kessler and Brené Brown on Grief and Finding Meaning.
Pause 2 of 2: From the moment of grief you chose in the previous pause, I want you to take a moment and think about the meaning you may find in that grievance. Maybe the loss of your planned wedding day helped you to look at the things that are really important to you about that special day that you may have overlooked before. Maybe the inability to meet friends for drinks after work caused you to focus most on the friendships that matter and connect in creative and safe ways. Maybe shifting your holiday plans this year helped you to realize how much you truly love the large family gatherings you usually joke about dreading. Whatever it may be, the meaning is important to grasp. It's there if you look for it.
All of the resources mentioned in this post are wonderful if you want to explore this further, but the real motivation to writing this came from the movie, Soul. The movie reminded me of the concept of purpose and how that interacts and differs from simply living.
Finding meaning in life is what keeps me going as a therapist. I work with clients from all different stages of life and experiences. I have the honor and privilege to share intimate and vulnerable space with unique individuals in my work and hear about the things that matter most to them. Sometimes the simplest things have the biggest lasting effect on others. I am moved to tears often during or after sessions reflecting on the growth or the pain my clients endure. These are the moments that help me to feel alive.
Watching Soul also helped me to pause and notice the things that force me into my body the most:
I find joy in a cool breeze on a warm day with blue skies and green surroundings. I feel most tuned in with my body while I'm moving it and notice how intuitively my muscles and joints are serving me. I notice the warmth and tingling in my chest and shoulders when my dogs jump all over me or fall asleep on top of me to show their affection. I am able to breathe deeper when I have groceries, gas and have cleaned my home. I light up during video chats or phone calls with my niece and nephew and notice the shift in my body and the size of my smile when I hear their sweet voices. I find myself getting lost looking up at the stars, enjoying the quiet of night and exploring the universe from the small space I fill on earth in Austin, TX. I look forward to my dark room, smell of lavender from my diffuser, and a cozy book after a busy day. I feel alive after a warm shower wrapped in a cozy blanket. I enjoy moments where I have nowhere to be and can take my time exploring a new trail or hike and intimately observe my surroundings. I treasure the friendships that I've grasped tighter to through this pandemic and the moments of true connection I've shared.
I urge you to tune in. I urge you to look for the meaning. I challenge you to connect with others and ask for their meaning too. We tend to talk more about ourselves then needed and we don't ask enough questions. Stay curious and ask those close to you what lights them up.
Reminder: No matter what 2021 brings or how many more things we will need to grieve this year, there is never a lack of meaning and life even in the darkest moments.