• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Leaning Into Grief in a Time of Collective Loss

Updated: May 23

I spent this morning taking an online class about grief and have spent the afternoon reflecting on how pervasive grief feels in this season. Last week, my best friend sent me an article that has been circling around the Internet that you may have read that defines that weird and uncomfortable emotional state we have all been in as grief. Perhaps you saw the article, in which the author, Scott Berinato from Harvard Business Review interviewed grief expert, Daivd Kessler. This article, along with the online class I took this morning and the clinical work I have engaged in over the past few weeks, have confirmed to me that our world is currently going through a collective grief process. Although uncomfortable, naming this feeling as “grief” is actually good news because once we know what something is, we can begin to wrap our minds around it, which is the first step toward coping with it. And thanks to researchers like David Kessler and the late Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, we know a thing or two about grief. I share the following facts on grief with the hope that they help you make sense of this season and land on your feet when this chaos eventually subsides.

  1. Grief is about loss, not death. Death is obviously the most intense and accessible experience we jump to when we think about grief, but death is not the only experience that can result in grief. This loss of just about anything can result in feelings of grief, whether that loss is a person, a possession, or an experience. Regardless of what is lost, the emotional experience remains the same.

  2. Don’t resist your emotional experience. Whenever an emotion arises in us, it runs an expected course in which it grows in intensity, peaks, and then naturally subsides. But if you are unaware of this natural course of emotion, the tendency is to feel the emotion rising in intensity and attempt to shut it down. This process is often accompanied by thoughts such as “this is going to last forever,” or “I can’t handle this.” Challenge those thoughts, because the truth is that no emotional experience will last forever and you can handle any and all emotional experiences. Our emotions are messengers about our internal experiences and they will persist until they are heard and the need they are making known is addressed. If you attempt to interrupt their natural course and shut them down, they will only come back with a vengeance. Instead of resisting your grief, tune into it and understand that it exists because you cared about something that has been lost, which has now created or revealed a need or insecurity. Focus less on removing the grief and more on meeting your unmet needs, and watch the grief run its course and subside.

  3. Don’t go on a guilt trip about the things you are grieving. Along with not resisting any emotional experience, you also do not feel guilty for what you are feeling. Many of us have had to give up things of varying importance during this time, and grie is the natural emotional outcome of having to do so. Whether you are grieving having to cancel wedding plans, not having a graduation, spending your birthday in quarantine, adjusting your birth plan, reorganizing your travel schedule, doing at home workouts instead of going to the gym, having your kids in school, or learning how to do your job remotely – you have full permission to grieve whatever it is you have had to let go of. It is not helpful to compare your losses to others because a loss is a loss. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling grief, as that will only add to the discomfort and prolong your suffering. Instead, lean into that grief.

  4. There is no right way to grieve. Everyone’s grief process is highly unique and there is no right formula for grieving. Allow yourself the time and space you need to grieve and let go of expectations of what the process should look like. For some people, resting and laying low will feel like it gives them the space they need to process; and for others connecting with community and staying busy might feel nourishing. Both are valid. Some people need to cry it out and others like to look for meaning in their suffering. Either path is acceptable. Just because others are grieving in a different manner than you does not mean you are doing it wrong.

  5. Grief is not linear. Some days will feel better than others and there is not necessarily a rhyme or reason to it. Just because a particular day is hard does not mean that you aren’t grieving correctly or making progress. Give yourself grace for wherever you are at in the grief process day to day.

  6. Your past traumas and losses affect the way you grieve. We are not entering this grief process as blank slates. Your worldview is informed by all of your prior experiences and whatever was playing out in your life prior to this shift does not just getting put on hold so you can devote your attention exclusively to grief. This is another reason everyone’s grief process will look different. If you have prior trauma or recent losses, the grief of this season may be exposing some old wounds. If you need help processing earlier trauma or making sense of current losses, we have a workbook that you can download immediately and get started with today!

  7. Understand that you do not move on from a loss, but you learn to live in light of it. After a loss, many people mistakenly believe the grief process will end when they can “move on” and at that point, things will return to normal. Even in this unique time of grief we are already aware that perhaps things are not going to return to the normal that we knew two months ago. The grieving process is not about “getting over” a loss and returning to how life was previously; it is about learning to live a meaningful life in light of your losses. This is done by integrating your trauma and loss into your overall life narrative rather than trying to banish it and living as though it never happened.

The process of moving through grief is not an easy one. If you need the help of a trained therapist to walk through the grief of this season, please reach out for help. Additionally, I recommend the following books for anyone going through a loss who is trying to make sense of their experience:

It’s OK That You’re not OK: Meeting Grief and loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand by Megan Devine

Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler

It’s Okay to Laugh: (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny (She also has a fantastic podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking)


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