Adapted from an original article by Scott Berinato
During this pandemic, many of us have been feeling anxious and worried for ourselves, our children and the future. In schools, it has been difficult to plan, to support and to get into a routine or pattern that feels ‘normal’ – because it isn’t ‘normal’ (whatever that was). The multiplicity of feelings we have might be more easily managed if we label them as feelings of grief or loss. The world has changed. We know this is temporary, but it sometimes doesn’t feel like that. We have lost our usual benchmarks and the loss of connection with family and friends means that our usual supports are not always there. This is hitting us and we’re grieving.
You might have noticed that over the last few months you have gone through the classic five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance). You also might have been aware of anticipatory grief and anxiety – that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Our primitive brain senses that lack of safety.
Understanding the stages of grief might be helpful, but remember, the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. There’s denial: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.
Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s what gives us the physical pain and the racing mind we might be experiencing – imagining the worst. Our goal is not to try to make this go away. Your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness, but it can be done very simply. You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain.
You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control.
Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. If you continue to feel overwhelmed with grief, keep trying. There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. Stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes feeling sad. Our work is to feel our sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because our bodies are producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.
Sometimes we try not to feel what we’re feeling because we have a fear of being overpowered by them. If I feel sad and let that in, it’ll never go away. The truth is a feeling will move through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.
Bernadette Cairns, Principal Educational Psychologist