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COVID-19

How To Process Grief In A Year Filled With Loss (And What Not To Say To Those Grieving, Too)

A candle tribute to individuals who lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic in Travis County is set up outside of the Long Center in Austin, Texas.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
A candlelight tribute was set up outside the Long Center in late October 2020 in memory of the people who have died because of COVID-19. At the time, Travis County had 450 deaths. By late December 2020, the death toll had risen to 544.

Grief is a part of life. But the coronavirus pandemic has led to more loss than usual this year. People have lost loved ones, their health, jobs, routines and their pre-pandemic sense of normalcy.

How can people process all of that loss and help others do the same?

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman says honestly acknowledging the losses helps people move through grief.

"When we allow ourselves to grieve, when we allow ourselves to feel so that we can heal," Rockman says, "the incidents of overwhelming loss or depression or anger or those different emotions that come with the stages of grief tend to become less frequent."

Trying to rush or circumvent the grieving process is counterproductive.

"If you try to push it all down," she says, "it's going to pop out or show up somewhere else."

Rockman says one way to handle grief is to channel the energy that comes with it into other projects, such as picking up a hobby, caring for a pet, spending time outdoors or journaling.

Read the transcript below or listen to the interview above to hear more from Rockman about helping yourself and others through the grieving process.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT's Jennifer Stayton: How do you define grief? Are there different kinds of grief?

Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: Individual grief is a suffering that a person feels when something or someone has been lost or taken away. Collective grief is a type of grieving that's experienced by communities or societies whenever there is a major shift in society, whether that be through customs, routines or a major loss.

And then complex grief occurs when there are multiple incidents of bereavement over a period of time that happen and it becomes not just a single incident that is being grieved.

I've always heard that there are stages of grief. When someone is grieving, they move through a particular set of stages. Is that an accurate description and depiction of grief?

[Psychiatrist Elisabeth] Kubler-Ross came up with this idea of the five stages of grief to give us a way to conceptualize our pain so that we're not just swimming in a sea of pain with no end in sight and no shore in sight.

There's anger. There's denial. There's bargaining. There's depression. And then ideally at some point there's acceptance, where you begin to show some sign of hope — some sign of wrapping your mind around this new reality without the former person or the former things that were there. Oftentimes, if you're moving through the stages of grief, you may cycle through them multiple times. It's not just one and done.

But what we do find in our work is that typically when we allow ourselves to grieve, when we allow ourselves to feel so that we can heal — so we can deal with these things so that we can heal — the incidents of overwhelming loss or depression or anger or those different emotions that come with the stages of grief tend to become less frequent. They tend to become less powerful, and the duration tends to lessen over time so that we can have that resilience factor and bounce back just a little more quickly.

And it's so important, by the way, to reach out for support not just from a good clinical therapist but also support groups so that you're not isolated and going through it alone.

What do you think is a healthy relationship for us to have with grief? It seems like for a lot of people, the thought of it or actually having it is just so intense that their inclination is to set it aside or push through the loss or not acknowledge the loss in order to avoid all the feelings that come along with grief.

If you've ever seen something like slime or putty, in particular slime like kids play with, if there's too much slime and they're trying to push it into a container that's too small, it's going to keep popping out somewhere else. And I really think that suppression of emotions and suppression of grief works in a similar way. If you try to push it all down, it's going to pop out or show up somewhere else.

Oftentimes, we see that showing up in a complete loss of interest in things that used to bring you joy. We see that oftentimes in an inability to focus or concentrate. We oftentimes will see that with addiction and different kinds of addictive behaviors and then sometimes just chronic anxiety that shows up as anger, frustration and agitation.

Think of it like baggage. If you carry too much around, you're not going to make your destination.

Are there other things that people can do to effectively handle grief in the healthiest possible way?

Energy, emotions – energy in motion. It's not that you're in denial, but start to shift your focus onto other projects. Pick up a hobby. Learn to play an instrument. Care for a pet. Start a garden. Get outdoors. Finding a way to transfer and shift that energy. And then you're also helping to create new positive neural connections to life experiences and you're helping with your overall neuroplasticity.

Journaling can be a powerful activity. Music can be a powerful way to help heal and deal with feelings and emotions. And then breath work is so important as well.

If we have a loved one or someone close to us or someone in our circle who is going through grief — who is grieving a loss or multiple losses — what are some things that we can do to help and support that person?

It is so helpful to people if you just let them know not only that you're here and you’re present but that you demonstrate that on a regular basis. Sending a simple text a few times a week to say: "Hey, I'm thinking of you. Hey, is there anything you want to talk about? Hey, how's it going? Hey, do you want to get together and do a virtual a virtual coffee or a virtual happy hour?" Sending a handwritten note can be really powerful.

One of the things I would recommend not doing is saying, "I'm here if you need me," because most people are not going to reach back.

I think a lot of people are afraid to say or do the wrong thing when someone else has had a loss.

You don't have to try and know exactly what they're feeling. Actually, avoid saying, "I know just how you feel," because you probably don't. And it's OK to say, "I can't imagine how difficult that can be." And even just asking very basic things like, "Have you eaten today? Are you resting?"

And it's even OK sometimes to say, "Gosh, I don't know exactly what to say, but I'm here and I'm not going to let you go." Because I think a lot of people get used to having that initial support for that first few weeks, maybe the first couple of months. And then after that, it's like people kind of forget that they're still working through their recovery process. Stick with them for the long haul. And it can do a lot to reduce the negative effects of grieving alone. Community becomes very, very important in the healing process and grief recovery.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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