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New Normals and Grief

As a society we are going through a major loss. We have lost our connectedness with others. We have lost our sense of familiarity, our feeling of being settled into a routine that does not require logistical thought. We have lost our security that we can be aware of the dangers lurking ahead.

Because most of what we know about grief was learned from the experiences of those who have been through the death of a loved one, many of us do not allow ourselves to feel grief unless we have had that same kind of loss. But here we are, going through all the stages of grief even though for many of us, nobody close to us has died.

“If I only knew how long this quarantine would last, I could cope.” This has become the buzz phrase among clients this past week. Clearly, people are assessing the degree to which they must commit to the changes they have had to make to get through quarantine. Most of us welcome positive change and resist negative change, and to have such a strong desire for our adaptations to have an expiration date is an indicator that we see all these changes as negative. But we must accept and move forward.

The natural reaction we have to our losses and forced adaptations is grief. Long ago, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying in which she outlined the stages of grief, which today remain relevant. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. More recent research adds a final stage: Finding Purpose and Meaning.

This collective experience of quarantining through a dangerous pandemic pushes us to inject purpose and meaning into the changes we are making: that we are protecting our loved ones and our community from seriously overwhelming a limited resource (the healthcare system). It does not, however, address the first 5 stages of grief, and it does not save space for us to process those first 5 stages.

As individuals, we end up needing to make this space for ourselves. Coping with loss and change takes time and quietness, but also caring, calmness, and connectedness. At the same time, we feel the pressure to function and create a new normal. This building of a new normal assumes the capacity to foresee which changes might need to be permanent/rigid and which ones will need to remain flexible/adaptable. Having a solid system of permanence and adaptability is the foundation of security and thus are the building blocks of our emotional life. We cannot guess at what will need to be permanent and this means we cannot begin to adjust our expectations and make plans.

So how do we cope with the grief that is upon us when we cannot determine what permanent changes we will be forced to accept?

*Giving yourself emotional space. If you process your feelings better through your relationships, make relationship time. If you process your feelings better internally, make time for yourself.

*Avoid over-dwelling. Feelings exist; it is in thinking about our feelings that we have interaction with them. We do not allow our feelings to mature and pass through if we over-dwell on them.

*Build a mental Quarantine Kit. Place your adaptations in the mental quarantine kit and consider them additional tools for coping with this time, without placing limits upon it. When quarantine is over, these will be tools which still exist and can be called upon in other situations that may arise.

*Prepare for the possibility of uncomfortable permanence. What changes are you making that you consider to be unsustainable in the long-term? What changes are you making that could be sustainable for several months or a year? Then consider what more-sustainable alternatives might exist for those unsustainable changes and start implementing those alternatives as much as possible.

*Identify an anchor. Pick something in your life/self that can be consistently applied and/or can readily weather external changes, and visit it regularly. For me, it is writing. For someone else it might be cooking, or playing a sport, or walking. In times of turmoil, an anchor will be centering and will help you have a place to return to that is unchanged.

As always, Equip Counseling is here to help. We offer therapy services via online video conference during quarantine, to create a space for you to begin processing your feelings about all that is happening within us and around us. You may reach out via phone, email, or online scheduler for assistance.

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