Maverick Life

Dealing with loss and grief during a pandemic

By Malibongwe Tyilo 30 July 2020

Image Unsplash

In addition to mourning the losses of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought more losses, including the loss of familiar grieving rituals. We asked clinical psychologist and Maverick Life contributor Stefan Blom for guidance on how to deal with loss and grieving, especially during the pandemic.

“The nature of loss is that it never happens in a singular format. It almost always happens in a collective, so that basically means that an experience of loss will open your experience of other losses,” says clinical psychologist, author and Maverick Life contributor Stefan Blom.

Over the past few months, since the beginning of lockdown, Blom has worked with clients dealing with various forms of loss. Personally, he also had to deal with the passing of his father at the beginning of June 2020, and found himself having to apply the lessons he shares with others on loss to his own life.

“I think that when you lose somebody, other losses that come with the  pandemic feel like lesser losses; in my experience anyway. But then you are also busy thinking about past experiences where you’ve lost yourself, or you’ve lost things and people, so the experience of loss often comes as a collection of past and present experiences,” explains Blom.

When it comes to losing loved ones, one of the challenges presented by the lockdown is that in some cases we’re not able to engage in familiar grieving rituals. The night vigils, the memorials, the funerals; these are all limited by the necessity to physical distance as well as the law, meaning we also don’t always have the people we might need in close proximity. And other parts of our lives, which we might have thought to be predictable, are also no longer certain.

Dealing with the shock that comes with loss

“For many of us, the initial natural response to loss is shock. And shock for me means the initial experience of something that is happening to you that is not fully in your control, or not in your control at all, and it makes you panic. I visualise it as being hit by something and vibrating, or being picked up and shaken by someone. So your mind, your body, your soul is basically vibrating with shock, as a result you struggle to focus, you feel distracted for a while,” says Blom.

“After the initial experience of shock, we still remain distracted, but we also become reflective, as we alternate between confronting and avoiding our experience. And I think that is a very natural coping mechanism; it is a way of allowing yourself to bite into this very big experience in smaller bites, and not in one big bite because that would probably be too overwhelming for the body and the mind.”

After the shock

Blom stresses the importance of making sure that we do actually confront our pain: “You cannot just run; you have to also connect with the experience. When you run away from it, that creates a tension that often sits like a string in your body, like a guitar string that becomes very tense. Connecting with your pain is also a way of asking yourself where you really are at with this experience. It is painful but grounding.”

That is not to say that one should get lost in the pain. As much as complete avoidance is not ideal, neither is complete immersion in one’s experience of pain. Says Blom: “Allow yourself to feel what you feel. But you cannot spend all your time there. What I am trying to say is that your grief needs to happen as a parallel process. You can go to work and operate on a very efficient level with your loss experience. We can function with parallel processes, where one process can be about loss while processing other experiences and functioning on different levels. Our primary loss experience cannot overtake all our life processes.”

“I have realised that despite how one feels, at the end of the day, people can live with fairly big painful experiences and still get on with life. When your worst fear comes true, what you do the next day is to just get through the day.”

Even as some of us might be struggling with the physical separation from people who might help us process and confront loss, Blom emphasises both acceptance of the current ways in which we can connect, as well as various rituals which might work for us to perform on our own, and the importance of feeling safe with the people that surround us.

“While loss requires the company of safe people, you also need to feel safe in yourself in spite of the people around you to really grieve, otherwise you are managing the unsafety, or the dynamics of a relationship rather than actually just experiencing your emotions. You need to connect with the right people for you to be able to confront your loss. People that are willing to listen to you and not judge you for what you’re feeling, and not try to make you turn it into anything else than what it is, which is just a very painful experience and a very mixed bag of emotions,” he adds.

Rituals of grief

A few ways in which friends limited by physcial distancing are finding ways to connect and grieve together for loved ones is through Zoom memorials as well as WhatsApps groups, which Blom has also noticed in his practice: “At their own pace, people are choosing to connect with the loss of loved ones in many different ways; accessing memories through photographs and through speaking to people that were close to the person they are mourning. It is also important to keep in mind that there are many ways to process grief other than talking about one’s emotions.

“We connect with ourselves when we’re going for a walk, we connect with ourselves through making a nice meal; I think those are all valid ways of grieving and dealing with your emotions. While talking may offer instant relief, I think doing is equally as powerful. A lot of people that I speak to that have lost somebody would be busy doing stuff that the other person would have done, as an acknowledgment of them; but also at the same time they’re busy working on their own emotions. It is not always about an outward expression of emotions,” says Blom.

2020: The year of loss

While the death of loved ones is arguably the most painful loss that many of us have experienced in 2020 due to Covid-19, Blom notes that there are many other types of losses that also require processing and grieving, be it the personal or even those seemingly separated from ourselves, and yet constantly around us.

“I do think 2020 is a year of loss. I think we are swimming in this sea of multiple experiences of loss. I mean, you could just be going to the shop and on the way walking there, you can see the loss of things all around you. It can be very hard to behold your own experience of loss when you are surrounded by so much loss. I find that this state of affairs is particularly difficult for people who are very compassionate and empathetic, because they get consumed by not only their own loss experience, but also by the losses of the world,” says Blom.

He advises his clients to work towards drawing boundaries around experiences of loss, to reduce moments during the day that are consumed by thinking about, or actively experiencing the emotions that come with loss.

“Loss is such a powerful experience that it does need those boundaries. I advise my clients to work towards a space and a time to sit with their grief as well as the grief of other losses around them, but not to spend all their time there. One still has to live, and living is also about enjoyment and relaxation.

“As I spoke to clients about three to five weeks into the lockdown, I realised that a lot were experiencing a multitude of losses, like the loss of social life, the loss of sanity, the loss of mental stability; many didn’t even think that they were grieving and experiencing loss because grief is also a delayed thing. The immediate response is problem-solving, fixing and making plans. It hits you much later, and I think we are there now. We are taking stock; we’re looking at what is broken,” explains Blom.

“Slowly, more people are starting to say to themselves ‘I should be gentle with myself. Why am I not gentle with myself?’ Let’s be honest, it’s very tough to be gentle when it’s hard around you. I would encourage people to rather focus on other processes that bring gentleness forward. Like resting a lot, for example. One of the symptoms of shock is also restlessness. We pace, we struggle to sit still and we have mood swings. It’s important to slow down and not put pressure on your experiences. Allow yourself to be where you are at instead of where you think you should be,” says Blom. DM/ML

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