We all know that this year is unlike any previous year. Few people could have predicted the hunkering down in our homes that we have been required to do for the last two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a different experience and going forward into the uncharted waters of a global pandemic, life as we have known will not return any time soon, if ever. The insightful reporting of health and economic experts tells us that unpredictable is the new norm and an appropriate description for the future.
Recently there have been various newspaper and online articles that have identified our reactions to the pandemic aptly – we are experiencing grief and loss. Grief is a normal reaction to any type of loss, whether it be a loss of a person through death, separation, or a relationship ending, or loss of property, lifestyle, social patterns or routines.
Grief is a language that is expressed through emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviors. Unlike familiar spoken or written language, the expression of grief, for many, is a foreign language; one never taught or learned throughout life. It implies a hidden message, a secret we would rather not know – something in life has changed drastically. We often perceive that change as not a change for the good, but an uprooting of that which we have known and expected, into a map-less and unpredictable journey into the future.
As human beings, we find comfort in the predictable, definable, known realities of life. When life’s course no longer fits into these categories, our primitive instincts go into protective mode; emotions become heightened, our physical sensations become more intense, and our cognitive abilities become diminished. All are normal reactions when faced with loss.
The good news is our bodies and minds know how to grieve; the more difficult news is grief takes time, attention and care. The good news is grief has a beginning, a middle and an end; the more difficult news is this process takes time, attention and care. The good news is the grief process is predictable and recognizable; the more difficult news is grief is work and the work takes time, attention and care.
If grief is predictable and definable, then what does it look like? In my work counseling individuals who are grieving, there are three aspects of grief that I stress repeatedly – grief is a process rather than something in need of fixing; the grief process is normal for all human beings; and grief takes much longer than we would think. Within these few realities, I’d like to offer to you, all of us who are grieving many losses in the last few months, a framework to help guide our experience of loss of the known into a new “normal.”
Therese Rando, a psychotherapist and well-known expert in grief, loss and death, compiled the works of many experts such as herself who have researched the process of grieving, and she presents the six tasks of grief and mourning. These tasks are not things we have to “do” as much as things we ought to experience when we are grieving. They are not followed in sequence but flow in and out of each other over the course of a lifetime, or in a few moments of one day. In some sense, we will always grieve, given the changeable nature of life, but the pain of loss does not have to weigh us down forever.
Rando calls the tasks the 6 “Rs”:
- Recognize: First, we must recognize what has happened; who, what, when and where did we lose? The details help us identify what has happened and give it a form that makes it understandable.
- React: We have to react to what has happened, moving from disbelief to slowly noticing the emotions, sensations and thoughts that are arising as the reality of loss takes hold.
- Recollect: We must then recollect; remember what we used to have and allow ourselves to cycle through the short- and long-term memories created by an experience with another, ourselves and the world.
- Relinquish: Fourth, and possibly the most difficult for many people, relinquishing and letting go of that which we had once assumed would be part of our future and creating new assumptions, one of which is uncertainty.
- Readjust: We must readjust to the changes that life has presented to us; learning how to navigate new waters that are sure to be choppy and challenging, but exciting as well.
- Reinvest: Lastly, we find that we have the energy to reinvest in a life much different from the one we have known. Confidence is the hallmark of this task. Although it may be shaky at times, it is strong enough to keep living with a sense of hope and purpose.
These six tasks are fluid; they flow in, out and through each other. At different times in life, we may find that a certain task simply emerges out of necessity. We may be at a family function and feel emotions associated with a loved one’s loss that hadn’t been present for years suddenly emerge because we remember that person and wish they were with us. At other times we may realize that we still have sitting inside of us the emotional pain created from a loss of a job, relationship or tradition that happened years ago and we still have some work to do on relinquishing that experience.
The experience of loss changes us; our lives, routines, assumptions, and the way we view ourselves, others, and the world. At this time of global pandemic, we can only guess what it will look like on the other side of this huge mountain of uncertainty and change. Grief, more than any other experience in life, can be an invitation to ask the bigger questions and seek the resources we may need to help find the answers.
The central question of this pandemic experience, is what does this mean to you personally, to us as a local community, to us as a nation, and to us as a global community living on this earth today? Answering this question takes time and attention and care.
If you are experiencing intense feelings of grief, anxiety, stress or other challenges during these difficult times, we are here to help.
Ann E. LaRocque, LCMHC is a licensed mental health counselor for Catholic Charities New Hampshire and is based in the Upper Valley. Ann works mainly with adults age 18 and older, and with children who are having difficulty with grief and loss due to the death of a parent, family member or close loved one.