Mental Health:

Good Grief

Author: Courtney Leak, The Onsite Foundation Advisory Council and Clinical Social Worker/Therapist, MSW, LCSW, LISW-CP, TedX Speaker

Raise your hand if you’ve felt a heaviness over the last month or two. A sort of fog that stays with you regardless of how productive or peaceful you are trying to be on any given day. It permeates the zoom happy hours and board game fun with family. It’s right beside you during your daily walk and when you rest your head each night, it waits for you to fall asleep. It has a name. It’s grief. I’ve struggled with the truth of the fact that I’m grieving. It feels selfish. I’m one of the fortunate ones. My bills are paid, I’m working safely from home, and my son is enjoying distance learning and more time with me. What is there to grieve? 

Grief comes from so many different life experiences; not even just the bad ones. Have you ever gotten a promotion at work and although you’ve worked hard to earn it, you miss the dynamic between you and your old co-workers? That’s grief. Or when you move to a new home and you miss the old tree in your backyard. That’s grief. If grief can be felt in good times, it should be no surprise that it’s surfacing now while the world is turned upside down. We’ve all lost something, some more than others but this is not a competition and so each loss matters. However, it’s not enough to name it. What do we do with it? 

The answer is simple to say but may take some practice. We use it. Here are some practical ways you can use your grief. 

Go on an emotional scavenger hunt 

As a therapist, I’m finding that my clients have had more time to feel in the last couple of months. Social distancing and stay at home orders have made it harder to avoid our feelings. That doesn’t mean people aren’t finding ways to do it but it’s not as successful. I encourage you to get curious about your feelings. When something pops up, sit with it for a while. Don’t judge or define it, just feel it. One of my favorite poems is “The Guest House” by Rumi where he encourages us to invite all our feelings in like old friends because each one is here to teach us something. Now, this is not wallowing. This is exploration. When a feeling arrives, validate it, and then explore what that feeling may be tied to; an experience, a trauma, a belief system. Spend some time connecting the dots and see if you can find the buried treasure within yourself that your feelings were trying to lead you to. 

Create ceremony

It’s true that funerals are for the living. When we have a loss, we need to make sense of it. Ceremony helps us to honor where we are and what we’ve lost. Every type of grief doesn’t require a funeral, but it is helpful to develop some level of ceremony when you are grieving. One ceremony that I love is release letters. I set aside some time, light a candle or two, break out my paper and pen (handwritten is better) and I express myself. I write letters to people who have hurt me and people I’ve hurt. I write letters to parts of me I have buried in an effort to uncover them and I write letters to remove things that have been given to me by others that are no longer serving me. Once I’m finished writing I usually burn the letters in my fire pit in order to seal the release. Letter writing might not work for you but finding something that gives grief it’s proper place in your life, helps reduce the possibility that your grief is going to overwhelm and possibly take the wheel. It is human nature to want to avoid hard things, but I have found that the only way to proactively move through life, is by looking at the hard things with intention. 

Don’t forget the sprinkles

Five years ago, my son was in a short film where he meets a woman who is in a dark place in life and he encourages her to reconnect with the child inside her. In one scene, the woman is eating ice cream with my son and some other kids. My son is devouring his vanilla ice cream covered in gummy bears and sprinkles. He looks over at the woman’s plain bowl and innocently ask, “Why don’t you have any sprinkles?” The woman looks down at her bowl, suddenly wondering the same thing. 

Right now, we’ve lost some of the flavor of life. Sitting in your house, binge watching anything and scrolling on Instagram is pretty vanilla. It’s super easy to focus on how vanilla it is, but I want to encourage you to shift your focus to the sprinkles. What are the ways you can make this situation more colorful? My son and I had both decided we’re going to learn something new during quarantine. He has been spending a lot of time learning how to build LEGO sets and develop stop motion movies. I’m re-teaching myself how to hula hoop and reading mystery novels. How can you add some sprinkles to your life right now? 

The truth is, life is forever different. We will not go back to exactly how it was before. That’s the grief. But when there is grief there can also be growth. So, I encourage you to spend some time connecting with your grief and letting it be an opportunity to teach you ways to live life more fully and authentically. 


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