To Grieve or Not to Grieve: Finding Meaning in a COVID World

I had an amazing conversation with my Uncle Leon before he died. We seemed to become one mind. I thanked him for everything he taught me throughout his life. He thanked me for being a good nephew and for all the good times we shared. In our final interaction there was a feeling over the phone that we were standing right next to each other, laughing as usual – yet we were an ocean apart. As he expelled his last breath COVID-19 was spreading around the world.

I was living in London at the time, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to make plans swiftly enough to attend his funeral. My family had long been anticipating “the call,” but the pandemic made it impossible for me to grab a quick flight from the UK to the US. After everything we had shared, I wanted nothing more than to be there for the celebration of my Uncle Leon’s life. I was reduced to saying goodbye in spirit while in self-quarantine.

The Six Stages of Grief

As a trauma therapist, I’m well aware of the impact of grief on the lives of my clients. I’ve helped many cope with loss of loved ones, and over the years I’ve noticed an interesting pattern. Grief can happen not just with the death of someone we love, but also the death of something we love.

Losing a job, a lifestyle, or even just a social connection with a friend, a colleague, or a barista, has a significant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. One of the most important lessons I’m learning about the COVID-19 threat is we are all facing a future that is not only uncertain but perhaps completely unfamiliar. As we are hearing more and more, life may never be the same.

During this period of global adversity, I’ve had to shift the approach of my therapy practice online. This has meant two things. First, I’ve had to figure out how to adjust my methods and interactions to work online. Second, I’m busier than I had ever expected.

Over the course of the last three months, I’ve detected a massive surge in anger about the present, anxiety about the future, and depression about the loss of the past. The world has been swept up in the wake of the coronavirus, and the result is a collective experience of grieving. I’ve taken my clients through the six stages of grief, helping them process the intensity of their many emotions. What they’re left with is an ability to re-focus their energy, block out the noise, and get back onto the path of greater understanding and meaning.

In an effort to help broaden the reach of my practice, I’d like to share a brief overview of the six stages of grief, a quick exercise to help you find meaning, and an “in a nutshell” version of how I healed after my uncle’s death. As you read, consider reflecting on how any of the information may apply to your own experience during this unprecedented crisis.

Denial – Stage One

The first stage of grief is characterized by shock, confusion, and the overwhelming feeling of a sudden loss. This can take the form of losing a loved one, or simply losing a lifestyle or social connection, and we often find it hard to accept that loss. Denial can be punctuated by a sense of disconnection, or sudden anxiety, obsessiveness, and compulsiveness, ultimately leading to the next phase of more aggressive behaviours.

Anger – Stage Two

As we move past denial, our emotional rollercoaster of grief then phases into a period of anger. The fact that someone or something we once loved or became deeply attached to is no longer there triggers natural anger, or even rage in some cases. I’ve noticed in this phase our bodies are attempting to take some action. For example, one client described losing his job as a gut-punch, and the air seemed to leave his body. When he finally took a breath, he noticed he was pissed off and ready to smash something.

Bargaining – Stage Three

To move into the next phase of grief is to ruminate on the “what ifs” and the “why nows.” We call this “bargaining.” Typically, bargaining is a natural expression of frustration that a massive change-bomb has exploded and left you in pieces. Because critical thinking and problem-solving are socially healthier than lashing out, survivors want to look back and mentally retrace their steps. Was there anything that could’ve been done differently that might have resulted in a different outcome? If you’ve ever asked yourself these kinds of questions, you’ve likely experienced bargaining.

Depression – Stage Four

As positive psychology research has shown, excessive rumination and over-thinking foreshadow the arrival of low-energy states that can move into depression. After the bargaining stage come feelings of helplessness, collapse, exhaustion and deflation. There’s not much else to feel once we realise that very little could have been done to construct a different outcome.

Depression then takes that forsaken view of the past and projects it forward, inhibiting our ability to foresee a positive future. When it sets in, we just cannot seem to manage getting out of bed, much less become motivated and engaged with the world. The biology of depression can shut us down and shut us out from experiencing anything positive.

Acceptance – Stage Five

Acceptance is the stage where we begin to come to terms with the reality of our loss. Acceptance is unique to every individual, and there’s not a “term limit” or time frame for when it will finally happen. In David Kessler’s book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, he argues that, “there’s nothing easy about this stage… acceptance doesn’t mean we are okay with the loss or that the grieving process is now officially over.” One thing that acceptance teaches us is hope and optimism about the future are two important resources that can help us move through grief and discover how to accept our loss.

Meaning – Stage Six

Kessler uniquely identifies the sixth stage as an important indicator that we are looking for purpose and a way forward into the future, but he reiterates that finding meaning doesn’t necessarily make the pain of loss go away. However, I’m finding that meaning gives us the agency and authority to change our perspective on what we’ve lost and begin to notice what we may have gained.

Take the example of breaking up with someone you really care about. Initially the impact of the loss can be painful. However, those who are able to understand the meaning of the breakup can set themselves on the road to growth and be that much smarter about preparing for the future.

Finding meaning helps us survive. In many cases there’s an opportunity to connect with something greater, something more intentional and more meaningful that can provide a compass for how we can act differently in the future.

From a neuroscience perspective, meaning opens up the wider lens where we can see a higher vision for ourselves, our families and our companies. Meaning is where we experience a reset from the past and begin to forge a new path toward the future.

A Quick Review

Which of the 6 stages of grief did you connect with most? Why?

Does any of this relate to you moving ahead in the COVID-19 adversity you’re facing?

A Quick Exercise in Finding Meaning

Feel free to find a calm space where you can relax. Give yourself about 10 minutes to complete this exercise. The key is to be creative and accepting of whatever you encounter.

Taking a few deep breaths, imagine you’re stepping into a hot air balloon that will be safely guided in the air. You float high enough that you’re removed from any negative feelings attached to your current challenges. From this new perspective of looking downward on your circumstances, they appear much smaller than before. Are there any new feelings or insights you’ve gained from this vantage point?

To end, safely land your hot air balloon on the ground. Consider that you’ve returned from your journey. Feel free to write down a few reflections, focusing on any new ideas or sensations that resulted from your new perspective. Practicing this exercise regularly over the next two weeks can put you on the path to finding meaning in adverse circumstances.

How Finding Meaning Healed My Grief

In the end, my Uncle Leon’s death gave me a huge gift when I explored the sixth stage of grief.

I fell ill right after his funeral. At first I thought I had contracted the COVID-19, virus which scared my mother enough that she offered to fly to London to feed me chicken soup. Turns out, my doctor said I was completely healthy, just utterly exhausted.

It took weeks for me to grasp the fact that I was actually grieving, which, as a trauma therapist, I was a little embarrassed to have not immediately self-diagnosed. It took other close colleagues to suggest that I may be grieving for me to finally recognize I was travelling through the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It wasn’t until I read David Kessler’s book that I understood there is a sixth stage: Meaning. During my ups and downs with my health, I began to intuitively re-engage with my spiritual practices, a mix of prayer, meditation, fitness and quiet. I discovered what was really meaningful in my life and found my Higher Good doing the exercise in the video.

The storm of grief had passed. I was going to be okay. The process reminded me of an old expression from my Uncle Leon.

“This Too Shall Pass”

Remembering and respecting the wisdom of this phrase can help us move through our grieving process. My journey through grief has taught me that finding meaning is perhaps the single most important lesson for us to learn, especially when life takes a turn for the worse.

When we know there is meaning at the end of a seemingly dark tunnel, we can find the resolve to take another step, live another day, and give ourselves the permission and courage to keep going. Maintaining hope and believing in a Higher Good empowers us to discover new pathways toward a place where things work out better than we could have imagined.

Now, more than ever, we could all use a little reassurance from Uncle Leon.

This too shall pass.

Joshua Isaac SmithJoshua Isaac Smith is Co-Founder of the HappiMinds Foundation and Impostor Breakthrough, and is a clinical trauma therapist based in London.

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