Timely articles on mental health issues and spirituality
So many of us have experienced so much loss during this pandemic. Loss can take many forms, and along with loss comes grief. There are several different types of grief and loss, but for the purposes of this article we will focus on Pauline Boss’s concept of ambiguous grief. Though there are so many people who have experienced the death of a loved one during this pandemic, even more prevalent are those that have experienced losses of relationships, events, or even dreams of what should be. This is ambiguous loss meaning that there is not a concrete person or thing that we have lost, but something not able to be seen. Ambiguous grief happens as the result of a lost relationship with someone who is still living or the loss of something that is very important to us. Some examples of this might be when a loved one begins to slip away due to mental illness, a divorce, losing a friendship, infertility, losing a career, or the loss of opportunities.
Most of us have experienced some kind of ambiguous grief since the pandemic. Children and teens are missing out on life experiences that they will never be able to get back like birthday parties, school events, or even just the everyday fun of getting together with their friends. Adults are missing out on in person social connections with family and friends, impromptu social connections out in the community, and even career opportunities. I have heard several stories related with deep sadness about missing out on the Christmas celebrations that are held so dear. One client told me that she so deeply misses giving people hugs and feels a profound loss in her life at the loss of this form of social connection that is so dear to her. We can even feel grief over the loss of our “normal” way of living such as being able to go out in our communities without putting our health in jeopardy. However you are experiencing it, ambiguous grief is becoming more and more of a problem as this pandemic wears on.
When we look at the experience of grief in the Bible there is no shortage of examples. One of the most inspiring examples of grief, for me, is the story of Job. Job experiences so many losses in a short amount of time from the deaths of his children to the loss of all his material possessions. The thing I find so inspiring about Job is that he does not sugar coat his grief. He says, “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it.” (Job 3:3-4). He embraces it and voices it and allows it to wash over him completely. Though he tenaciously holds on to his faith in God in the face of intense struggle he does not hesitate to be angry at God, lash out at God, and even question God in his grief. I find that many people of faith today that encounter grief hesitate to really fully experience and feel it. This may be because it hurts, and we tend to avoid pain whenever we can. I think others avoid fully experiencing their grief because it is scary to question God, and we may fear that in questioning God we will lose his favor. Whatever the reason, avoiding grief can lead to many psychological and physical problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, or physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, and muscle tension. We have seen an influx of grief related symptoms in the mental health field since the pandemic, and all this unexperienced grief is causing so many to experience more mental health symptoms than normal.
So, what does it look like to experience our grief? That is not really a question that has one single answer. I often encounter clients who think that they are not “doing grief right”, but there is not a right or wrong way to experience it. The most important thing to remember when experiencing grief is to not hold it back or try to limit it. This could be allowing yourself time to cry or reflect or just feel whatever it is that you feel (sadness, anger, betrayal, hurt, fear, anything). Another way to experience grief might be spending time in prayer or meditation or even spending time in nature. Walking or sitting in nature can really allow for some deep reflection. For some of us the grief can be too much to hold on our own, so I encourage you to reach out to a trusted friend or family member, a pastor, or even a counselor to help you navigate this process. Grief is an important part of life and it should not be ignored or avoided, and like our friend Job, grief may be intense for a while but there is hope on the other side of it. Our lives will probably never be the same, but there is hope on the other side of this pandemic. For now, we can grieve our losses and wait for the day when we can be reunited in whatever way that is possible.
Laura Dempsey is a licensed social worker and therapist with nearly 20 years of experience counseling children and families.