Grieving 2020: What Did You Lose This Year?
By Dr. Kathryn Soule, PhD, LPC
2020 has been a stressful year for most of us. Since March, the pandemic has changed all our lives in one way or another. Not surprisingly, there has been a big toll on our collective mental health. The Census Bureau reported that this year more than a third of Americans are reporting symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety (35%). Mental Health America of Dallas reported a 71% increase in anxiety screenings. Distress calls to the federal hotline for the Mental Health Services Administration were up 1000% compared to last year. One big contributing factor to all of this anxiety, depression, and general malaise is grief.
Those Feelings Could Be Grief
Any time we experience a big change, we experience grief for the loss of the way things were. Grief is the mix of feelings that happens whenever we lose something important to us. Grief may include shock, sadness, fear, guilt, anger, panic, relief, feeling disconnected, “stuck,” or having difficulty focusing. We most often associate grief with losing a loved one, but the same feelings can happen if you lose anything important to you, for example a friend, a partner, a pregnancy, a job, a home, or plans you had for the future. Even if a change is a “good change” such as moving, starting a new job, or having a baby, it’s normal to experience grief for the things you have to leave behind and the life you had before.
Grief and 2020
The pandemic has unfortunately brought with it a lot of loss. Some people have been through the worst loss that there is, losing a loved one. Not being able to be physically close to those who are ill or those who might comfort us has made it all the more difficult. Others lost their jobs, livelihoods, or sense of financial security. Losing a job can affect your sense of safety if you’re concerned about how to survive, as well as your sense of identity, self-worth, and feeling of belonging in society.
“Ambiguous loss” is the term used to describe the losses that feel harder to define. Most everyone at some point this year lost their daily routines, structure, and basic predictability of their lives. Many may have lost a sense of safety and stability. We’ve lost connection in many cases, family and social events, seeing friends and co-workers, celebrations like parades and festivals, milestones like graduations, weddings, and birthday parties, and hobbies like traveling, dancing, sports and live music. There may also be a sense of isolation brought on by increased difficulty of gathering with family and friends.
In talking to people about what they’ve lost this year, here’s some of the things I’ve heard:
Sitting and working in my favorite coffee shop
Chatting with my co-workers in person
My husband being able to go to my medical appointments with me
My daughter’s wedding was canceled
Seeing my son walk across the stage for his graduation
Going to the hospital when my first grandchild was born
Feeling safe at my job
Knowing when I’d be able to work again
Closing the business it took me years to build
Having anyone visit me in the hospital
Being able to visit my parents
Seeing my whole family for Thanksgiving
Having any time alone or to myself
Getting hugs or touches from anyone
What to do with Grief
Clients often come to me wanting to know how to make their “negative” feelings go away. We do all sorts of things to try to “get rid of” feelings, including drinking, shopping, shoving them aside, and telling ourselves things like, “It’s stupid to feel this way,” “Other people have it worse,” and “I should just look on the bright side.” Unfortunately, none of this actually works to make you feel better in the long run. Instead, it often adds an extra layer of stress, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” on top of the original feeling. So now you feel sad and anxious, plus anxious about being sad and anxious.
Respect that your feelings have a purpose Our feelings are there for a reason. All mammals are born with a similar limbic system in the brain that produces the basic emotions of happy, sad, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Each has a purpose. Fear and anger are produced by the fight or flight response, which is there to help your body protect itself against danger. Disgust helps you avoid things that are unhealthy for you. Sadness is the feeling of losing something important to you. It wouldn’t be sad if it wasn’t important. Letting yourself feel the loss and sadness helps you to move through the loss and readjust to the way things are now. Feelings are part of being human, and experiencing our feelings is part of living a rich, human life.
Acknowledge the loss and the feelings that go with it Think about what it is you’ve lost this year, and allow yourself to notice what feelings go with it. We experience emotions as body sensations. You may notice sadness as a feeling in the pit of your stomach or tightening in your throat. You may notice fear as a tightness in your chest. You can’t receive comfort until you let yourself acknowledge what’s there.
Let the feeling go through your body with self-compassion Let yourself feel what’s there so it can move through your body and release. People often ask me, why on earth would I want to do that? Isn’t it better to get rid of it? Unfortunately, pushing it aside or covering it with things like food, shopping, alcohol, TV, or constantly working doesn’t make any of it go away. It’s still there in your body. If you don’t let yourself feel your feelings, they come out some other way. It could be panic attacks, irritability, or a general sense of anxiety or malaise that doesn’t feel connected to anything in particular. Give yourself grace and compassion and let your feelings move through you. Remind yourself that whatever you’re feeling is ok, it won’t last forever, and that you can let it pass through you like a wave.
I realize this is much easier said than done, and many us of haven’t learned the skill of letting ourselves feel our emotions. Listen to my guided meditation here: “Calming Difficult Feelings,” and I’ll walk you through it.
Feeling stuck? EMDR with Grief
If you feel stuck somewhere, EMDR therapy can help you get unstuck. EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a powerful, cutting-edge therapy that gets to the root of the problem rather than treating the symptoms. EMDR allows your brain to process through any stuck feelings of anger, guilt, shame, fear, or anxiety that don’t seem to go away even after you’ve tried dealing with the loss. EMDR helps your brain line up what you logically know to be true with how you actually feel. For example, if you feel like “it’s all my fault,” but logically you know, “I did the best I could,” EMDR helps you to actually be able to feel like that’s the case. Or if logically you know, “I’m safe right now,” but you still feel anxious a lot of the time, EMDR can help your brain and body actually feel safe again.
About Dr. Soule:
Dr. Kathryn Soule, PhD, LPC is a licensed counselor specializing in anxiety. She uses mindfulness tools to help clients alleviate anxiety and live more meaningfully in the present, along with cutting-edge EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) to rewire the brain and get to the root of the problem.
Learn more about EMDR and Dr. Soule visit SouleThereapy.com