Making Meaning Out of Grief

UPrep Counselor Lindsay Metcalfe talks us through how to grow while grieving.

  • Counseling
  • COVID-19
  • Parent Resource
  • Student Life
Lindsey Metcalfe, UPrep Counselor

We, as a society, are experiencing grief. That experience feels new but bears a lot of similarity to “regular” grief. Collectively, we are all grieving the loss of our normal routine and sense of security. Individuals may also be dealing with the illness of a loved one, with new financial difficulties, or with mental health conditions exacerbated by these difficult circumstances. Students are trying to manage their feelings of loss around canceled sports seasons, dances, and graduation ceremonies. All of these are real losses and we need time and support to adjust to this new way of life.

With regards to the virus, I have gone through the frequently referenced Kübler-Ross stages of grief myself:

  • Denial: “This won’t be that bad. It won’t affect me much.”
  • Anger: “I’m frustrated that I’m not able to do my usual activities or go to work.”
  • Bargaining: “I can do remote learning for a few weeks as long as we can go back for the end of the year. I can do social distancing now as long as I still get to do my normal summer activities.”
  • Depression: “This is really difficult and lasting much longer than I thought. I’m exhausted by a new way of working and my family responsibilities.”
  • Acceptance: “I will get through this. It will be a challenge but I can persevere.”  
  • Meaning: “I can help others to get through this, too. I am thankful for the closeness of my family and the extra time I get to spend with them.”

Allow Yourself to Feel the Grief

It can be tempting to skip this step and attempt to move straight to the parts of grief that feel less challenging. The goal is to feel better, and we want that to happen as quickly as possible! However, without acknowledging our feelings of sadness, isolation, or resentment, we can’t start to accept the reality of our situation. Find a way to express these feelings: You could vent to a friend, cry, write in a journal, exercise intensely, or just sit listlessly on the couch for a while. This is not a moment of weakness or a sign that you’re not coping well; rather, it’s an emotionally healthy expression that you’re in a difficult situation. It’s OK to revisit this step as often as you need to while working toward acceptance. In fact, grief is often cyclical and you may find yourself moving back and forth between the stages. (Although it would be great if we could just do the stages once!)

How Do We Accept Grief and Create Meaning?

When we are grieving an event, we need to think about the emotional function of that event and how it could be replicated. For example, if the true purpose of a graduation ceremony was receiving the diploma itself, we could just drop those documents in the mail. What makes graduation a milestone is having each senior recognized and celebrated; having them see their family and friends come together to support them; and to serve as an end to one phase of life and the beginning of a new phase. The next steps will help you get to a place of acceptance and create meaning.

Take Stock

What aspects of “regular” life are you missing? It can help to sit down with a paper and pencil and make a list of activities, people, and places that you aren’t able to access right now. This will likely bring up some of the difficult emotions that you experienced at the beginning of this exercise, and that’s OK. Sit with the emotions for a bit—let them rise to a peak and start to decrease before you continue. You are building up your ability to tolerate and move through challenging moments.

Identify the Emotions

How do you feel when you think about missing those typical experiences? Take a moment to recognize your sense of loss—whether that takes the form of loneliness, frustration, or a feeling of missed opportunity. On the other hand, what positive feelings do those experiences usually provide, when you’re able to do them? How do you usually feel after spending time with your best friend? After engaging in one of your favorite hobbies? Remember what it feels like to do the things you are missing.

Simplify

Distill that positive feeling down to just one or two words: connection, accomplishment, fun, shared purpose. This is your core value or need that is satisfied by those usual pleasurable activities.

Brainstorm

Are there ways that you can experience that positive feeling, even though you aren’t able to access it in your normal way? If you identified connection as a goal, think about ways to connect with others in your current circumstances. Reach out to a friend you haven’t talked with lately. See if any of your neighbors need help. Even though it won’t be the same, this can provide some approximation of the way you want to feel. You may also feel empowered by proactively taking steps to cope with your grief—an added bonus!

Focus on New Discoveries

Are there things that have surprised you—in a positive way—during the last few weeks? Times of strife and challenge can help clarify what is truly important to us. Think about something you’ve appreciated during social distancing, whether that’s the elimination of your commute, more time with your loved ones, or even the knowledge that you can do something really difficult. If there is a way to carry that newfound appreciation with you when life returns to “normal,” you’ll have found a way to grow along with grief.



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