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Grief in December 2020

Grief is deepest in December, this year more than ever.

Q: I’m a therapist, writing with a question about grief. December always seems like a grief-heavy month in my practice, with clients feeling sad about people they’ve lost who aren’t with them at the holidays. But this December I’m noticing more grief than any I can remember, and I imagine this is happening in the practices of most therapists. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, especially your thoughts about what our clients need from us.

A: Thank you for this meaningful question. It’s a big question, too, and I can offer only a small response. But I hope that something of what follows is useful to you, your clients, and to others who are reading.

First, your experience is consistent with mine. People do grieve differently during the holiday season. People don’t typically have traditions they celebrate with their loved ones every July 22, or November 10. But Christmas and Hanukkah, even for people who are not particularly religious, are times we’re accustomed to being with the people who are important to us. So their absence is often more visceral and vivid in December.

Piotr Kurczynski/Pexels
Source: Piotr Kurczynski/Pexels

And then there’s December 2020, 10 months into the pandemic (or as I am now sometimes calling it, the pandammit), when you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s not lost someone or something important. By the time you read this, 300,000 people in the US will have died of COVID-19. That’s 300,000 empty chairs at the table this year. And the people who are physically gathered at those tables will be doing so, most of them, without having had the help of funerals, memorial services, and other rituals that would ordinarily help them grieve.

Or they won’t be gathered at all. It’s not just that our clients won’t be with loved ones who have died. Because of the pandemic, many also won’t be with loved ones who are living.

There are other losses, too, that people are grieving: losses of jobs, of entire businesses, of places to live; losses for young people, and their families, of freshman years, senior years, graduations, and life-launchings; losses, or postponements, of weddings, reunions, vacations, and pilgrimages. Collectively, the load of grief this December is heavier than any of us has ever experienced. Our nervous systems, our spirits, are processing more than they’ve ever had to, and they’re doing it without the aid of the usual coping strategies--getting together with friends, gathering with a spiritual community, going to the gym, going dancing—that help us maintain some passable level of resilience.

So, yes, I’m with you. I think the grief is heavier this year, too.

Now to the heart of your question. What can we do to help? What can therapists do for our clients who are grieving? And for that matter, what can any of us--not “therapist us,” but “human us”—offer our friends and family this hard December?

My thoughts here could fill a book, but I’ll limit myself and name three things I think we can offer to others. Each reflects my trust that the way of grief varies from person to person, that each person knows innately what will help them along the way, and that therapists, friends, and others who care serve the cause of healing best when we support what is uniquely innate rather than imposing or prescribing a one-size-fits-all template.

1. Validate their grief and help them give it the time it needs. Perhaps the two most important things we offer people who are grieving are assurance that it makes sense that they’re grieving and encouragement not to interrupt it prematurely.

Grief is part of the human experience, and it is normal to grieve. In the poem “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver says that “Every year everything I have ever learned leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss.” From dust we came, to dust we will return, and so did and will everyone and everything we love.

If you live and love abundantly, you will grieve. It’s part of the deal. Francis Weller writes, in The Wild Edge of Sorrow: “Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the very beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close” (p. xvi). He also says: “Grief is akin to praise; it is how the soul recounts the depth to which someone has touched our lives” (p.25).

Grief is normal. Grief is healthy. Grief is a mark of love. But grief can be messy. Grief breaks one of the unspoken rules we live by, that we and those around us will be in control of ourselves and our emotions. Or if we do lose control, and out spills sorrow, anger, worry, or despair, we’ll pull ourselves together quickly. Most of us aren’t accustomed to feeling and being so messy, and we don’t particularly like it. Nor, often, do the people around us. Hence grief and the messiness of grief often get muffled, short-circuited, or exiled.

So holding space for our clients’ grief, encouraging even a little more space for it, extending that space for as long as the grief itself requires—rather than for as long as their own, or someone else’s, perhaps even our “get yourself together” parts would prefer—this is good medicine. Some of the best words we ever say to someone who is grieving are these: “Let it happen,” “Stay with it,” “This is how we heal,” and “Your heart knows exactly what to do.”

2. Help them connect with resources that will support them and help them heal. Some losses are like tornados that blow our lives to bits. When it’s done with us, we don’t know where anything is anymore, even, sometimes, the very ground beneath us. But we need the ground. We need a wall to lean against. We need a shoulder to lean into.

As therapists, we should not presume to tell people where the ground us, or which wall or shoulder would be a good one to lean on. But we can, and should, help people reconnect with their own natural and chosen resources that will help them reassemble themselves and a world around them.

By and large, we do this by asking questions that help them notice the support that didn’t get blown away. “What’s been getting you through this so far?” “What else do you need to get through this?” “Who understands, even a little, what you’re going through?” “You may never have gone through a time this horrible. But when you’ve gone through hard times before, what brought you strength then?” These questions help people look around and within for someone or something that might help them take their next breath.

When we know our client’s spiritual world and the spiritual language they speak, we can ask about spiritual resources. “Is there any part of your faith you find yourself leaning into now? Or any part you want to lean into more?” “What does God understand about what you’re going through that maybe no one else does?” “What’s your prayer for yourself right now?”

I asked a Christian client this week if there was something from his faith that he’d been finding helpful. This man’s mother and brother both died during the fall, and he himself is living with a worsening medical condition. He told me he’s been listening to Handel’s Messiah, and the words that keep playing in his head are, “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Handel took these words from the Book of Isaiah, and Christians connect them with the suffering of Jesus. This man told me they are helping him feel that God is with him.

3. Watch for moments and movements of transformation, and give these encouragement. I believe people always know the way to better, always know which way the light is, and always, eventually, on the schedule that is uniquely theirs, make some movement in that direction. Our job is to know the many forms transformation and healing can take, to keep watch for them, to offer support and encouragement if we think that might help, and sometimes simply to stay out of the way and avoid messing it up.

Healing happens in myriad ways, large and small, and we add to its momentum simply by giving it a bit of attention. A man tells you that, this week, for the first time since his wife died six months ago, he opened the drapes in his living room. “What was it like to open those drapes?” A woman whose son died by suicide four years ago tells you that she and a neighbor she’s been feuding with, also for four years, had a friendly conversation at the mailboxes this week. “Really? Will you tell me more about that?” A man whose father died of COVID tells you he went to the animal shelter and adopted a dog. “Can you show me a picture?” A woman who doesn’t easily cry finally does. It’s just a few tears, but she’s not fighting them away. “Yes, that’s it. Just let that happen.”

Sometimes people tell me that the person they’ve lost becomes, in a strange sense, more precious after death than they were before. Their voice, their eyes, their smell, the tree they planted, the walk they took together, the stories they told, the way they told a story—all of it somehow alive and full and cherished in their hearts now more than when that person was with them physically. The transformation here is a deepening of the capacity to pay attention, to savor, to love, and it illustrates well the paradoxical truth that the more we lose, the more we gain.

I will mention one other transformation that sometimes happens in grief: an expansion of spiritual awareness. Grief hurts. Horribly, unspeakably, grievously. It can feel like our own flesh has been ripped away. But at the terrible tender edge of our wound, in addition to pain, there is also a deeper-than-words knowing that we were, we are, more connected than we had previously recognized. This deeper knowing is more intuitive than conceptual, more apprehension than comprehension, but what it imparts is an awareness that the boundary between me and not-me, between me and everything else, is not so thick, not so substantial, not even, in a sense, real. This deeper knowing represents a wider opening to the realm of the transpersonal, the spiritual, the sense of connection to a larger something, a Larger Self.

As therapists and friends of the grieving, we are not in charge of how such spiritual deepening unfolds. “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” to quote the King James. But we can watch for it, show interest in it, and be reverent in its presence.

I quoted earlier from Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods,” and I’ll let the last words of that poem provide the last words of this column: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me through my website, russellsilerjones.com.

References

Weller, Francis (2015).The Wild Edge of Sorrow. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

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