I'm a grief counselor. I created this blog to shed light on our losses, and I get paid to train mental health practitioners and survivors about grief. A few weeks ago, I even wrote an article about the laziness of grief and another about the non-death losses that we experience.
Yet, I neglected to recognize the symptoms of grief in myself until this week.
I began feeling fatigued and exhausted...with everything. Each email, meeting, or conversation took more effort and energy than usual. I also found myself easily irritated and quick to point out the negative in a situation. If I even glimpsed at social media, my symptoms were immediately exacerbated...probably because every story or post was even more disappointing than the last.
The comforting irony is that almost everyone I talked to this week described feeling the same.
And, then I realized (better late than never, right?!?)...
I am mourning.
And, I'm pretty sure many of you are as well.
Between the pandemic, natural disasters (including fires, flooding, and hurricanes), repeated instances of racial injustice, the upcoming election and resulting political divisiveness (even in our own families), and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week, many among us are exhausted.
We have experienced significant loss, and we are struggling.
We are mourning.
I've written a lot about grief and mourning, but I haven't yet provided practical strategies for how we might care for ourselves during the grief process.
Suffice it to say, I started the week writing this article for you...but I quickly realized I needed what was penned for myself.
The process of authentically mourning differs from person to person. But, there is one common theme- we cannot go through the journey unprepared or alone.
Packing Our Bags
When we embark on an extended trip, we pack a bag (or three!).
Some of us give careful thought to include everything we might need along the way, especially if we’re traveling to a place we’ve never before been (shout out to my husband's Excel packing spreadsheets!!!).
Others among us throw everything within our reach into a bag and hope for the best!
Regardless of strategy, we prepare in some way for the excursion ahead.
The same should be true for our journey through grief.
Since we will be traversing the most unfamiliar and unchartered terrain we have ever before walked, we should prepare and plan for what may be ahead of us. We must pack our figurative bags with things (and people) that will support and strengthen us along the way.
Hiking the Trail
A few years ago, my friend planned a weeklong hike of the Appalachian Trail. While physically fit, she had never before hiked an increased elevation of mountainous terrain while carrying a 30-pound backpack.
She sought counsel and insight from people who had hiked the trail before her to determine what supplies would be necessary and which would only serve to weigh her down. She packed ample food and water to ensure proper nutrition, and she extensively trained, so she was physically capable of sustaining herself along the way.
She also acknowledged at the start of her journey that it would not be an easy one. While she prepared as much as she could, the experience would inevitably require her to lean on others and practice compassion toward herself when the unanticipated and inevitable challenges arose.
Most importantly, she gathered a group of friends to accompany her on the trail, so she would not experience isolation or face the darkness of night without someone alongside her to provide support.
The Journey through Grief
My friend’s preparation before hiking the Appalachian Trail has much to teach us about our journey through grief.
If I’d told you my friend was planning to walk through the woods alone, taking one granola bar and a bottle of water for an entire week, you would have quickly bet against her chances of success (and probably questioned her mental stability).
Whatever journey into the wilderness we are embarking upon during this season...whether an experience of significant loss, a difficult life circumstance, or an attempt to navigate the uncertain climate of 2020...it’s important to physically, emotionally, and spiritually fortify ourselves for what might lie ahead.
Grief Survival Kit
In some ways, we need to pack a “Grief Survival Kit” for our journey. Here are some of the things we may want to include.
It’s helpful to provide ourselves the permission, time, and space needed to process our unpleasant emotions of grief.
While it’s necessary to feel our discomfort in order to eventually heal our grief, we may need to take breaks when the pain becomes too overwhelming. We will also benefit from extending ourselves patience and compassion when the path takes us through unexpected or rough terrain.
Our experiences of grief can raise many questions, especially those related to our faith or worldview. So, it’s essential to nurture our spiritual well-being by taking the time to pray, meditate, or seek a faith leader’s wisdom and guidance.
The grief process can also disrupt our natural sleep rhythms causing us to lose sleep altogether or sleep too much. Yet, adequate rest is essential to our healing. For this reason, we might want to limit substances that are known to alter our sleep cycles like alcohol or caffeine.
We may even find ourselves feeling lazy or unproductive on our journey because grief slows us down (on purpose!). It’s important that we set our own pace, and not succumb to messages that pressure us to “keep busy” when our bodies, minds, and spirits are in need of rest.
Finally, we should never go trekking into the darkness of our grief (or any challenging circumstance) alone.
We are creatures who yearn for connection, and the night always seems darkest when we face it by ourselves. It’s essential to seek support from people who are not afraid to listen to our hearts or help us carry the burdens of our grief.
We might talk to a grief counselor who can provide a safe space for us to process our feelings of loss. Others may attend grief support groups online or in-person to find solace among those walking a parallel path. Many among us will identify one or two trusted friends with whom we can be (brutally) honest about our grief- people who will provide us support without judgment.
Light Amidst the Darkness
“Truly it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest to all of us.” - Meister Eckhart
Prior to the pandemic, I traveled quite a bit. When I stay in a new hotel and initially extinguish the light to go to sleep, it becomes impossible to see anything. This feeling can be disconcerting because the layout and furniture in my temporary overnight home are unfamiliar. Yet, if I wait long enough in the complete darkness, my eyes begin to adjust, and a very faint light eventually peeks into the room illuminating just enough to reorient me to my surroundings.
This happens in our grief as well.
My dear readers, there will be many times in the darkness of our journey when we do not see the light to which Eckhart refers is so close to us. This is why we should always take a trusted friend or source of support with us.
They can provide reassurance in the darkest moments of our grief…when our eyes haven’t yet adjusted and we can’t see any light. They will sit with us and fan the flame until we are able to see it burning again for (and within) ourselves.
Those alongside can help us journey forward, one step at a time, to the other side of our grief…..
.........where reconciliation and healing are waiting for us in the light.
Even now, even amid the chaos, uncertainty, and confusion of 2020, there is light among us.
This is reconciliation. It is grief's lesson of hope and meaning for us all.