Living in a World of Grief

In the midst of the pandemic, we're finding a new language of loss, one that holds space for all the ways we grieve.

Adobe Stock/ Siam

In the days following the death of my mother almost 14 years ago, I was desperate for words to describe the chasm that had opened beneath me. So when a friend who’d recently lost her own mother insisted I read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, I got the book immediately and opened to the first words of the first chapter: “No one ever told me that grief feels so like fear.”

If you’re familiar with the five stages of grief as famously characterised by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, you’ll know that among the well-known DABDA (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) framework, there is no F for fear. 

“No one ever told me that grief feels so like fear.”

C.S. Lewis

It’s an omission that grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith has thought a lot about. The author of the recent Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, Bidwell Smith had lost both of her parents to cancer by her 25th birthday. The way this grief manifested in her didn’t seem to align with what we expect grief to look like: “I felt enormous anxiety,” she says, in part because “our culture isn’t so great at talking about grief” and in part because she didn’t recognize anxiety as grief. Even the doctors she saw in ERs in her late teens and 20s didn’t connect her symptoms with her losses. “If they had stopped to ask me anything about my life,” she says, “I think we could have gotten fairly quickly to the fact that it was a panic attack.” 

It took a few more years, a few more panic attacks, and enrollment in a psychology program at college before she herself made the connection. A class focused on trauma helped her understand that her anxiety was rooted in loss, that her fear was grief. It was not full PTSD, she says, but she noticed some markers of trauma. Once she began to put the pieces together, everything she’d been experiencing began to make sense. 

Kate Bowler was already a Duke Divinity School historian when, at 35 and as a new mom, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, driving her into a deeper exploration of grief. Her resulting memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, as well as her most recent book No Cure for Being Human and her podcast Everything Happens, allow Bowler to continue to examine our discombobulation when bad things happen. She has settled on the word “finitude” to describe what so many of us are experiencing in our COVID world. “It’s the perpetuity of it,” she says, “when we can’t feel like our lives are marked by unlimited choices.” Grief embodies finitude. It reminds us that we are, as Bowler says, “stuck in our bodies and our life and in a world whose global health…” She trails off, and then says, “We don’t get to choose.”

Accepting the Messiness of Grief

Bidwell Smith, whose work helps people process their pain around loss, has noticed just how often grief masquerades as anxiety and fear. She’s noticed too how many people experiencing this anxiety seek her out because they think they’re grieving wrong, that their anxiety isn’t grief at all, or that their grief isn’t following the prescribed trajectory DABDA seems to represent.

“Recognizing the grief that is there helps people move through it in a way that yields more healing than steeping in anger or anxiety.” – Claire Bidwell Smith

What she has learned as she helps others is that the stages don’t work as neatly as we expect. “Elisabeth Kübler-Ross herself wrote…that they weren’t meant to necessarily be these strict, linear guideposts,” says Bidwell Smith. And yet, she understands why so many of us use her five stages as a grief checklist. “It sounds really appealing to think, okay, I just have these five stages I need to get through…when I get to the other side, I’m going to feel so much better than I do now.

Alongside Bidwell Smith’s desire to encourage us all to turn toward the messiness and lawlessness of grief, Kate Bowler notes that social expectations also underlie our impatience to have grief over and done with. “Our culture loves to pretend that nothing is lost and nothing is wasted and…nothing’s a setback, it’s just a setup,” says Bowler. “Grief is such an important place to stay, to help us face the reality of our lives. And I don’t mean the terrible reality, just the reality.”

Bidwell Smith sees her role as disavowing her clients, and the rest of us, of such rigid expectations, so we can begin to recognize grief in emotions where we might not expect it, such as anger or irritability or anxiety. “I give people permission to grieve and educate them on all the different ways we can grieve,” she says. “Recognizing the grief that is there helps people move through it in a way that yields more healing than steeping in anger or anxiety.”

It’s not just death that leaves us grieving. Bidwell Smith has had clients dealing with health issues, or divorce, or moving. They need permission to grieve too, she says. Bowler has noticed that lots of us disqualify ourselves from grief because we don’t feel like our losses are big enough, or tragic enough, or, as a friend said to her, “problem-y enough.” “We’re all worried that our things don’t count, but it all counts,” Bowler says.

COVID and Collective Loss

This past year has brought us all nearer to grief. Whether we’ve experienced the loss of someone close to us or have read the mounting numbers of COVID deaths with horror or have mourned the absence of so many moments we’d taken for granted, not one of us has avoided grief even if we have yet to acknowledge it. Over a year into the pandemic, Bowler describes it as a “long-form grief.”

“So much of what we’re trying to get at with understanding grief is just by asking ourselves those questions in the Serenity Prayer: ‘What are the things that I can change? Can I have the wisdom to know the difference?’” says Bowler. “Because if there are things that we can’t change, that’s when grief begins.”

This pandemic has offered us a master class in understanding the ways we’re affected by loss and has handed us the opportunity to speak openly about grief.

COVID has offered us a master class in understanding the ways we’re affected by loss and has handed us the opportunity to speak openly about grief, to express the anxiety it’s often wrapped in, and to broaden our recognition of trauma. But only if we’re willing to have that reckoning. As we navigate our way out of the pandemic, Bidwell Smith cautions us against re- sisting grief, against moving too quickly to reclaim our previous normal. “We need to be able to talk about it, we need to share our stories of loss, and we need to have someone bear witness to what we’re experiencing,” she says. And while she senses a positive shift in our cultural willingness to examine what we’ve all been through, she believes there’s more work to be done— for example, by introducing death ed classes, she says, “like sex ed.” She’d like medical professionals and those working in education to be better versed in the language of loss and end of life to better deal with what comes up for those grieving, “emotionally, physically, and logistically,” she says.

What to Expect When We Weren’t Expecting This

Even with the benefit of preparing ourselves better, grieving will re-main a process for which individuals, families, and communities need to allow real time and care. It’s not a to-do list item; it asks more from us. Bowler relates how her psychologist shared with her a story of hiking

the Appalachian Trail. The newbies arrived at the beginning of this long, arduous hike loaded down with supplies. “They want to carry everything because it’s such a long journey and, naturally, they’re scared,” she explains. Only when they realize what they’re carrying, and for how long, do they accept that they need to put some of their load down. Bowler’s point—and that of her psychologist—is clear: What, we must ask ourselves in grief, can I put down?

It shouldn’t surprise any of us who’ve survived this pandemic to note that grief cloaks itself in anxiety, that grief can feel like fear. Or, as writer Joan Didion put it, “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.” What both of our grief experts want us to know is that we can move through that grief and emerge somewhere on the other side, accepting our finitude and finding peace with it. It won’t be neat and it won’t be easy. But it also won’t be wrong.

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