Seeing Beyond into the Horizon
By Karen Neri
Hot summer days have come. Soon enough it will be fall. Schools have reopened – albeit remotely for many districts – for concerned parents and young kids. Law school graduates have made decisions about diploma privilege, while others plan for, or have proceeded to take, the bar exam. Law schools have resumed classes for another year, as many staff, professors, or administrators balance the adequate delivery of curriculum with the safety and health of students and school personnel. All the while social concerns about health, civil protests, and economic or employment uncertainties abound, and now, we are a witness to the distressing wildfires in our neighboring state.
It can be difficult to capture in words the immensity and weight of these current experiences toward which we are all doing our best to adjust and adapt. The level of uncertainty, changes, and challenges, despite any incremental triumphs in coping, managing, or overcoming, still bring a level of discomfort for many of us. This discomfort can cast a shadow similar to an overcast sky on a once bright day. For some of us, it evolves into dark, gray, stormy clouds that linger, making it nearly impossible to see beyond. As of late, the word that repeatedly comes to my mind is grief − grief from our living losses.
Grief is a common emotional response or reaction to a loss, or to a change of a familiar setting, behavior, or interaction. It can bring about mixed feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, relief, shame, or gratefulness. We can likely see grief show up for parents or students as schools start through distance learning, or with limited and socially distant in-person classes; for loved ones limited by new or exacerbated physical and mental health concerns; and for colleagues challenged by unemployment, underemployment, or an uncertain financial future. We can also find grief in witnessing the continued loss of human connection, our collective economic insecurity, and the continued harm experienced by marginalized communities from existing inequities. If we turn our attention internally, we may become aware of our grief within our isolation and disconnection from each other or from our own deeply felt personal losses. Maybe for some of us, this grief is not acknowledged by others, recognized in our respective social circles, or mourned publicly, in which case it becomes disenfranchised grief.
To honor our grief means to feel the losses or changes in our lives, which can be very painful. Yet being present with our pain in this way while in the comfort and support of caring people is perhaps what our grieving requires. Recently, I came across an NPR article and podcast titled Grief for Beginners: 5 Things To Know About Processing Loss, that reflected an interview with a grief expert, Dr. Terri Daniel. I summarize below the five things this interview noted about processing loss that I hope many of you find helpful during this time:
Be With Your Grief: As reflected in the interview, “Tending to grief requires us to be with it, in all its misery and messiness.” Take time to explore, to be with, and to nurture your grief. By doing so, we can avoid more suffering and allow ourselves to complete the tasks and process of grieving. According to psychologist William Worden, this includes accepting the loss, processing the loss, adjusting to one’s life with the loss, and reinvesting in the reality of this new life. In the case of a deceased loved one, the tasks of grieving may involve adjusting to one’s life without the person, and finding ways to maintain an enduring bond with this person in moving forward with life.
Grief Is a Lifelong Journey: Grief is a process and can span a lifetime. While the intensity and frequency of the pain may lessen, the pain of that loss can remain, and can catch us off guard when we least expect it. Over time, as we befriend our grief, we can find ourselves settling in with it, and acknowledging when it is paying a visit. It may actually start to feel like an old “comfortable friend.”
Grief Needs Expression: Grief is not meant to be tightly held in, nor does it need to be kept solely to oneself. Grief needs an outlet. Communicating our grief verbally or nonverbally through writing, painting, or dancing can make a huge difference. We can share our grief with trusted and supportive people in our lives. Having the experience of being heard and understood has a significant way of making us feel better.
Pingponging Between Loss and Restoration: Healthy grieving means moving back and forth between our experiences of pain from the loss or change and the activities that soothe or give us contentment, relief, and peace (restoration). This can look like allowing ourselves to stay in bed to shed tears or to be angry, and in another moment, to get up for the day, go for a walk, or work.
Meaning-Making: Meaning-making refers to allowing grief to change us and finding a way to create a new meaning in our lives even with the presence of grief. The meaning does not come from the loss but through what we decide to do in having experienced that loss or change. As shared in the interview, “In early grief, the change to your life is unwelcome. But grief is supposed to change you. And for many of us, the healing period brings new passions and sometimes an entirely new direction in life. . . The term that we use in counseling is 'meaning-making,' . . .You make meaning out of your life."
In addition to the above, each ethnic, racial, or cultural group addresses grief, loss, and death differently. For example, some grief practices may mean connecting with spiritual or religious leaders, sharing of sacred music, meals, prayers, cultural pipes, memorials, and a gathering of family and friends. When grief surfaces, reconnecting with or incorporating the traditions of our own cultures or communities can help us to process our encountered losses or changes. By adopting grief practices that work for us and allow us to make sense of our experiences, we can begin to shift the overcast or stormy clouds of discomfort, and eventually find ourselves seeing beyond into the horizon.