2020 has been a year full of losses, which has left many people experiencing pain and loss. As our life circumstances have changed, perhaps there have been changes to our jobs, our relationships, or our living situations. Maybe you are realizing that some relationships and identities no longer align with you. And that’s totally OK.
As a psychotherapist, I have seen not only the effects of grief on my clients, but also the pain experienced along the many paths to and from it. And of course, I have experienced loss this year as a result of COVID-19, both personal and professional. By sharing my clinical skills along with some life experiences, I hope to provide some comfort in understanding not only how grief looks and feels, but also on how to navigate it. Because knowing how to grieve is an essential life skill that we can always develop.
When we think of grief, we typically think of the passing of a loved one. However, grief can be triggered by lots of events, and it is important to accurately identify the emotional experience you are going through. For example, grief can be caused by the loss of an identity, or but it can also be triggered by the ending of a romantic relationship that a person expected to last forever. Given the course of the year, some people may be grieving a cancelled wedding or graduation ceremony that they’ve spent countless months, or possibly years, planning for.
These are just a few of the many ways you or someone you know may be experiencing grief during these times.
I recently experienced my own bout of grief when earlier this year I had to say goodbye to my beautiful office in Chelsea, Manhattan due to the shutdown in New York City. As a psychotherapist, not having an office is a foreign concept for me to grasp. My office was where I felt the most in my element—so many stories were shared, so many intimate relationships were developed in that space. Over the past few months, I have had to confront my own emotions and find new ways to create closure for myself.
One of the biggest misconceptions about grief is that it occurs in isolation.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it is common for a person to experience grief and other emotions at the same time.
Here are two examples:
· You can be grateful for being healthy and grieve the loss of having normal daily activities.
· You can be sad about not being able to hug your family and feel relieved that you get to plan the rest of the year based on your emotional bandwidth.
We naturally tend to rank our truths and emotional experiences because the human brain is not wired to do multiple things well at the same time.
However, I am here to remind you that you can experience multiple truths at the same time.
To grieve is both to fully experience the emotions that result from losing something near and dear to your heart, and to honor and cherish the memories you created.
This is one of those uncomfortable truths that a lot of us have a hard time facing and accepting.
Here, I’ll prove it.
Let me ask you this: do you distract yourself by working long hours, or constantly scrolling social media?
If you answered ‘yes,’ you have some idea of how it feels to try to escape distressing emotions.
However, hiding behind distractions is not going to make your pain go away. Instead what will happen is that pain will find sneaky ways to get your attention. What does that mean? Simply put, your emotions live in your body, and the body is very good at sending signals when it is experiencing distress.
And none of us are exempt from this experience.
Personally, I tend to feel overwhelmed whenever my inbox is flooded with emails. One of the first signs of distress is when I feel my eyeballs getting bigger and bigger, like they are about to pop out of their sockets. This is a clear sign that I need to pause and gather myself before making any concrete decisions. In other situations, when I experience sadness and grief, my eyes get watery and my heart literally starts aching in my chest. This is a sign that whatever it is I am grieving matters a lot to me.
These two signs are my body’s way of sending valuable information to me. It’s saying, “Hey, pay attention to me. I am hurting and I need your help to process all of these complicated and strong emotions.”
Your emotions will come and go like waves on a shore, but with awareness and quality treatment, you can get to a place where you can experience your emotions without drowning in them.
With COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions in place all over the world, we are all being forced to confront the things that have been tucked away on the emotional shelf. For example, lockdown has caused some people to realize that they were emotionally neglected by their parents while growing up; that they never had any real emotional closeness and now, as an adult, they crave and desire it more than ever.
That is a painful realization to sit with.
An important part of the work I do with my clients involves helping them process the negative impacts of the bad stuff that has happened in their lives. The goal is to do this while simultaneously acknowledging the good stuff that did not and most likely will not happen.
You see, when we are disconnected from ourselves (our emotions, thoughts, etc.), we end up giving away things like trust, time, and emotional energy to causes and people that don’t deserve them. It isn’t until we realize this truth that we are able to begin grieving and starting the journey towards healing.
Perhaps you have heard of the “Five Stages of Grief.” But the truth is, grief is not a linear process and does not have a specific timeline.
Some people throw themselves into work and life responsibilities while experiencing grief. There are others who who may react by becoming easily triggered and cry. Then there are those who are constantly irritable and become angry when things do not go their way. The truth is everyone responds to grief differently.
Therefore beating yourself up for reacting a specific way is not going to get you any closer to healing and having closure.
But while you might need to keep it together to get through the day or the week, it is my hope that, at some point, you will learn to honor and respect your body’s wisdom. When you have the time and space, lean into your emotions. As I tell my clients, the best way to feel better is to become better at feeling your emotions, and learning how to live with them.
I hate to burst your bubble, but loss cannot be avoided in life. You will experience setbacks, large and small, until the day you die. You will grieve for the rest of your life, for different reasons, and at different stages of your life. I know this because many of my clients’ stories remind me of my own personal grief, times of loss, and emotional pain. So, even when I personally am not grieving, my past pain is triggered by the losses of those around me. But instead of shutting down those emotions, I choose to honor my pain and grief as I continue to evolve on my healing journey.
You might need some time to distance yourself from it all and find yourself resorting to scrolling on your phone or piling on work tasks. And since there is a time and place to distract yourself from the pain, avoiding it only works until it does not. There’s no sugarcoating it—grieving is painful, but it is also an essential part of living a whole life.
There is a part of you that will always know just how much you have lost. And after a while, that part will no longer able or willing to stay in a place of complacency or avoidance. Once you reach that point, ask yourself this: “Am I ready to heal and grow? What steps do I need to start healing?”
I hope these personal experiences and clinical context can provide some comfort and validation, as well as some insight into understanding the grief process.
Zi Wang is a licensed psychotherapist based in New York City. She specializes in confidence building and self-esteem issues, women’s issues, and social justice issues, working with both individuals and couples. By combining her personal experience as a competitive athlete with her training in sport and performance psychology, Zi helps her clients implement positive psychology skills, whether she’s working with athletes, performers, or the general public. She helps clients set realistic goals to aid them in reaching their full potential in their personal and professional lives. Zi holds masters degrees from Columbia University and University of Denver, in counseling psychology and sport psychology, respectively.