“We don’t know how we will grieve until we grieve.” – Chimamanda Adichie
Grief doesn’t come easy, it is one of the hardest things we process in our lives. It can feel like a thick brick wall that we can’t seem to get past. It looks different for each one of us — we all grieve and mourn in our own unique ways and on our own timelines.
This year has brought up so much for so many of us. It has been, and continues to be, a difficult year to navigate. The world around is in absolute crisis and we try to hold onto everything that helps us make sense of what hit us.
Why talk about grief now?
In 2020, we’ve all experienced loss, it may be in varied spaces and forms, but we’ve all had something stop existing in the way it did earlier. Across the globe there has been loss at a massive scale — people have lost their lives to Covid-19, people have lost their homes, their livelihoods, taken massive pay cuts, people have lost people in their lives, people they looked up to and were inspired by.
We have lost our safe spaces — emotional and social — with some of us stuck in abusive homes, lost control over our everyday lives. We have lost the feeling of certainty that gives us a sense of safe belonging in this world. The year 2020 has given us a lot to mourn and grieve about. This World Mental Health Day, it’s imperative that we address the grief that all of us have felt this year.
In 2020, even our grieving is curtailed
The grief of the ‘pandemic’ is a lot and going through it alone is even more challenging. People are being forced to grieve in isolation. There are practical realities of the global health crisis and this means even our process of grieving is curtailed.
There is a certain psychosocial importance of the rituals and rites around grieving and loss. All milestones through life have rituals and traditions built around them and are celebrated and grieved collectively. They allow us to share grief collectively, but now we have lost these shared safe spaces that help us make meaning and provide closure. The absence of the space and people to experience these milestones in life has also taken a huge toll on us. Not being able to say goodbye to a loved one or being able to perform the last rites together as a family, has changed the fabric of how we grieve.
Being isolated is destabilising
As human beings, we need emotional, social and physical connections. This need is encoded in our genetic makeup. We have a need to be physically held and hugged and kissed and caressed while we lie on the floor crying and weeping our hearts, eyes and lungs out. We have evolved into beings who exist and sustain ourselves in communities — and not having our own web of communes, our pillars of support, on which the very foundation of ‘us’ is laid upon, can be a very destabilising experience.
As Indians we live in a ‘collectivist’ society, which means that existing in groups is very central to us, culturally. And when such an element of communication and sustenance, that is deeply culturally embedded with our society, is lost it can lead to colossal consequences.
The signs to look out for
For us to acknowledge and name our grief, it is helpful to know what it can look like in a broader sense. This may differ from person to person.
Here are some signs of that you may be experiencing grief
— isolating from others and withdrawing from social activities
— having trouble carrying out regular routines
— struggling with life’s purpose and reasons to go on living
— numbness or detachment from everything in life
— having nightmares, regret, self-blame, apathy, agitation
— extreme difficulty in making small decisions
— heightened anxiousness, and frequent intense phases of sadness
— feelings of disbelief surrounding the loss
— questioning God and others around you
— inability to move forward and enjoy life or reflect back on any positive experiences.
“Loss isn’t something we get over, it’s something we process through and move forward with.”
How can we cope with grief?
We gain strength from the understanding, empathy, kindness and compassion that people around us show us and we need that to process the complex layers of loss. In the absence of these we can look at some of the other ways we can cope with our grief. While these may help, it is always best to seek professional help if you’re unable to cope.
1. Be gentle and kind to your mind, body and heart
Grieving is an exhausting journey with no set point as the goal or destination. You don’t have a timeline or an emotional state you need to abide by as a yardstick for mourning. The process is emotionally and physically grueling; it takes a toll on you. It is of utmost importance that you allow yourself to treat ‘you’ with gentle, loving kindness and compassion. Speak with yourself with the same gentleness you would with your best friend, or a child. Through the process of mourning we get in touch with deeper feelings of loss, a very primal feeling and we may be very attuned to our inner child. The inner child needs caressing, love and care.
2. Know that grief is a normal and organic part of life
The magnitude of pain that you go through is enough in itself to navigate through. What makes it harder is an external reinforcement or an internal belief that you can and should just “get over it.” Loss isn’t something we get over, it’s something we process through and move forward with. You will feel an array of emotions, from intense sadness to small pockets of joy while ruminating over memories, guilt, fear, loneliness, feelings of being misunderstood, numbness, of mistrust, anger, disbelief and sometimes even relief. Each affect that presents itself speaks of a part of you and is okay. It’s okay to have all these feelings.
3. Make meaning of your grief and loss
Slowly through the course of mourning, we understand our loss, make sense of it and may even be able to draw on some wisdom from it. We are able to attach meaning to our loss and find ways in which we can healthily incorporate it in our lives as we move forward. It is helpful to stay deeply connected with something that resonates with your grief, like a film or book that helps you live through your grief.
4. Take care and be aware of yourself
Try and eat your meals and hydrate through the day. Understand how you’re coping with it, are you noticing yourself move towards not the safe or healthy ways of coping? Are you using substances to deal with your feelings and thoughts? It’s important that you’re aware of how your body is responding to your loss. You may experience disturbances in your sleep pattern, hormonal imbalance, aches and pains that come out of nowhere, muscle spasms/twitches and all this combined with high stress levels can lead to decreased immunity.
5. Know that you’re not alone
Grieving can be a very isolating experience. You may feel that people around you have moved on or “gotten over it” while you are unable to cope with daily life. You may feel disconnected with everyone, and that’s okay. It is important to allow yourself to understand that mourning and grieving look very different for different people. You may feel alone in how you’re grieving, but remember you’re not alone in your grief. Talk to someone you trust, you can speak to a close friend, family, find an online grief support group or a therapist to speak with.
6. Know that this wouldn’t last forever
The way you feel and your thoughts may be very intense right now. But it wouldn’t be like this forever. We try and avoid our painful and difficult emotions and experiences, because we have the constant fear that we’ll not move past it if we allow ourselves to ride the wave. I would recommend you to ride the wave of your grief. Laugh, cry, weep, howl, jump, run, stay in bed, create art, write, sing, dance, garden, watch a show or a movie that makes you cry a lot, do all the things that help you be able to feel your grief in a safe space and manner. Understand that your powerful feelings are coming up, allow yourself to find support and take care of yourself through this.
“Therapy sanctions the acknowledging, hearing and naming the pain, only then do you process the pain otherwise we tend to turn it inwards and that may spiral into varied further concerns.”
7. Seek help
Speaking with a therapist or a counsellor will be supportive in your mourning. It’s helpful to have someone who can provide you with a safe space to discover and learn non-destructive ways to have a catharsis. Though grief doesn’t come along with a timeline or an instructional mandate on a ‘how-to-do’ list, it is central to the process to comprehend when it’s healthy and when it begins to be unhealthy/ dangerous, complicated or pathological. It’s okay for you to not want to reach out for help, as you will have emotional support from friends, family, peers, and colleagues through the organic expression period of your loss. Getting help is not determined by any particular factors. But if you do think that you’re having thoughts about which you’re not being able to be honest about — because they are dangerous/ unhealthy or are around self-harm or involve heavy use and dependence on psychoactive substances (alcohol/ drugs) — then it’s imperative to know that you will need additional mental health support. For that you may get therapy and or reach out to grief support groups. Therapy sanctions the acknowledging, hearing and naming of the pain, only then do you process the pain otherwise we tend to turn it inwards and that may spiral into varied further concerns.
Allow yourself to open up spaces of hurt and mourn and also allow yourself to pick yourself up when you find the resilient part of you calling at you, being tugged at and called to fill in its shoes. It’s deserving of doing so and it’s okay. Just remember to ask yourself if your grief has space for you to breathe. And take it one step and one breath at a time from thereon.
— Shaina Vasundhara Bhatia is a Psychotherapist and Counselling Psychologist.
HuffPost India is publishing a series of stories around mental health in October. You can read our other articles on the topic here.