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Yes, The Thing You Are Feeling Is Grief

Cynthia Degnan, Phd, MSW, LCSW, Steadfast Center Intake and Trauma Therapist

Amy Berry, MSW, LCSW

Trauma Therapist

When deciding on what I wanted to reflect upon in this month’s blog, I knew I deserved to write about the one thing consistently on my mind: grief. The first time I sat down to write I thought I wanted to focus on how complex and misunderstood grief is. I wanted to talk about how a person who is grieving is often pressured and pushed into “getting over it” and told to return to normal. I quickly realized I had too much to say and couldn’t find a way to put my words out there without my entire personal story being attached. Spoiler: my year ended and began with loss. I lost two people important to me within three months of one another. In the aftermath of these specific losses, I had way too many things to say and not enough focus to be clear in what I was trying to say.

I shifted my focus to writing about the fact that the March 2022 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now recognizes grief as a diagnosis in the form of Prolonged Grief Disorder. This set me to wondering about how the diagnosis adds to the stigma around grief, creates more isolation for the person navigating grief, and makes someone feel that they are not returning to normal fast enough by receiving this diagnosis.

Then Friday June 24 happened. The overturn of Roe v. Wade was officially announced, and things shifted yet again. I felt the grief surging through my body, and it is totally different than the grief I continue to feel for my own losses. This grief feels a little more broad, vague, and not as individualized. This grief doesn’t come from something that once brought us love, purpose, or connection. Instead it feels like it comes from terror, hate, and pain.

It feels like three years (and counting) of living through a pandemic. It feels like knowing over 87.6 million people have battled or are battling Covid and that over 1 million people have lost that battle. It feels like having a total of 93 school shootings during the last school year. It feels like turning on the television and seeing POC and LGBTQIA+ folks being killed by police and other organized violence daily. What is this “it” I am speaking of? It is the thing most of you are feeling too. It is what may be called “community grief” or “macro grief.”

Grief is often thought of on an individual or micro level. Community or macro grief is still felt individually; however, it does not have to be tied to something an individual has gone through or has lost themselves. It can be witnessing violence or traumatic events, as well as, feeling loss around human rights being attacked. I know I have felt an ongoing sense of defeat, injustice, guilt, sadness, and terror as I think of how the world has felt over the last several years.

What do we do with this grief? We must acknowledge it, feel it, and give ourselves permission to not be okay. We need to remember that our “best” exists on a spectrum, and it will move day to day. We deserve to live in a world that does not produce man-made trauma and grief – but that is not the world we live in. We must actively take the space to grieve, slow down, and push back on the capitalist-influenced energy in our country that demands we PUSH THROUGH and CARRY ON like nothing is happening.

The amount of violence unfolding in our country is not normal; we as humans are not wired to witness such traumatic things as fast as they are unfolding. Being able to take care of ourselves and be the most human version of ourselves is key, as opposed to trying to be the best version of ourselves (which is all too often defined by our “productivity” and “performance.”)

How do we make life a little less of a “performance” or a “production?”

Below are a few helpful ways to check in with yourself and center what you are genuinely feeling or needing in a time filled with macro grief.

  • 5-4-3-2-1 Regulating Exercise This five-step exercise can be very helpful during periods of anxiety or panic by helping to ground you in the present when your mind is bouncing around between various anxious thoughts. Before starting this exercise, pay attention to your breathing. Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state. Once you find your breath, go through the following steps to help ground yourself and verbally report the following:

  1. What are 5 things you can see? Look for small details such as a pattern on the ceiling, the way light reflects off a surface, or an object you never noticed.

  2. What are 4 things you can feel? Notice the sensation of clothing on your body, the sun on your skin, or the feeling of the chair you are sitting in. Pick up an object and examine its weight, texture, and other physical qualities.

  3. What are 3 things you can hear? Pay special attention to the sounds your mind has tuned out, such as a ticking clock, distant traffic, or trees blowing in the wind.

  4. What are 2 things you can smell? Try to notice smells in the air around you, like an air freshener or freshly mowed grass. You may also look around for something that has a scent, such as a flower or an unlit candle.

  5. What is 1 thing you can taste? Carry gum, candy, or small snacks for this step. Pop one in your mouth and focus your attention closely on the flavors.

  • Give Yourself Space Without Fighting The Feeling Set a timer for 15-20 minutes to allow yourself to feel the emotion without minimizing it, distracting yourself from it, or misunderstanding it. This practice allows for you to give yourself permission to feel the thing and sit in it; hoping to reduce the intensity of the feeling throughout the rest of the day. When the timer goes off, you switch gears and allow yourself to focus on the rest of the day.

  • Practice Using The Supports You Have This is a hard one because so many of us hate asking for help or experience guilt when asking for support. However, think of the supports you already have in your life and ways to access them when you want to. For example, that can be

  1. Taking time-off benefits like sick time, mental health days, or vacation time.

  2. Utilizing insurance benefits for therapy or seeing who in town does sliding scale fees so you can find a space to share and understand the impact of emotional health.

  3. It can be community focused, such as being mindful of social media exposure and what content you are processing every day or checking in with friends when you want to talk or share a feeling.

  • Move Your Body with Mindfulness Whether it is a walk around the park or practicing some yoga/meditation, moving our bodies is a powerful tool in feeling connected to ourselves. Here are a few starter practices that can create benefits in small, quick sets:

  1. Intentionally tense and release muscles for a repetition of 10 times

  2. Press palms together and count to 10 – repeat as needed

  3. Press down on top of head and count to 10 – repeat as needed

  4. Give yourself a big, tight hug and count to 30

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