By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW
Have I talked about grief? In 16 months of writing this column, I know I’ve brought it up, probably over and over again (I tend not to go back and read my old articles). But I don’t think it’s possible to acknowledge it too many times, or in too many ways. And it keeps changing, doesn’t it? Grief is a normal part of life, but geez… over the past year and a half it seems there is no end to it. It definitely doesn’t feel normal. We have grieved for patients, and family members, and spending time with loved ones, and going out to dinner or concerts, and seeing each other’s faces, and hugging people, and just general normalcy. And now it seems we’re facing grief over the loss of skilled, admired colleagues who were burned out by this pandemic and so many things arising from it that they’ve chosen to move on.
How does any one person cope with so many layers of loss and grief? And how does an entire community, and even an entire country cope with it? I can’t even wrap my head around how far it extends beyond that, so I’m going to stop there. But we certainly know it’s the same everywhere else. We are all such different people with different experiences and perspectives, that there is no one way to manage these feelings. The important thing I guess is that we do – that we find some way to process the grief we’re feeling so that it doesn’t consume us. Because I’m here to tell you that it will otherwise. I know I’ve mentioned before the multiple losses I’ve suffered in my life… it feels sometimes like it’s disproportionate for someone my age. But I’m certainly not the only one with such an experience. And any of us who has lived through loss over and over again can attest to how easy it can be to get lost in it.
Some of us use our experience of loss to direct our career choices. Once we’ve dealt with our own grief (a critical step), that experience can go a long way to equipping us to help others through it. And it makes us better at doing so. You’ll find a lot of people in my line of work – palliative care – have just that kind of story. Some people use grief experiences to guide changes in other parts of their lives, whether it be relationships, choice of where to live, deciding to travel or do adventurous things they might have been afraid to try before, etc. Sometimes a big loss, like someone really close to you, can change you fundamentally as a person. Maybe you’ve felt that. I think a combination of losses – one after another after another, like we’ve felt over the past year and a half – can do the same thing. In my last article I mused about the ways in which this pandemic has changed many of us. Grief is one of the things that can bring that on. And we’re just surrounded by it lately.
Don’t be afraid of your grief. Don’t run away from it, or try to pretend it isn’t there, or tell yourself it isn’t that bad. None of those approaches works; it just delays recovery and/or makes the load heavier. I have always found, through the series of losses in my life, that sharing the grief eases the burden of it. When I am with people who feel what I feel and have lost what I have lost, it makes me feel better. We need each other at this crucial time. And watching others cope with that grief, and come out of it, helps convince you that you can do the same. And I promise you can.