Grief from Loss During Uncertain Times

By: Emily Grimwood, MSW, LSW, Therapist, Hamilton Center, Inc.

            Spring is a time for celebration and new beginnings. The flowers bloom, the sun begins to shine again, and families prepare for graduations, vacations, and the completion of a school year full of hard work – a moment of validation for both children and parents. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has altered those experiences for many, and instead, this spring has been filled with very different experiences for families around the world.

            This season, families are facing the grief of unmet expectations. While many associate grief with death; grief is a necessary experience for any loss, including the loss of the spring for which we had hoped. Every person grieves loss differently. There is no “normal” way to grieve, and it is okay to accept that the world we live in right now is not “normal.” We must let go of our expectations and accept the many things that are out of our control.

            Our children have had to relearn how to participate in their education. The traditional standards of achievement and engagement in the educational process have change rapidly causing added stress for everyone involved. To support the mental health of children, it is important to validate the challenges they currently face in their learning and to remain mindful of the challenges they face in attempting to succeed in a setting they did not plan for, and likely did not want.

            Adolescents, specifically those with plans to graduate in the spring, are likely experiencing loss in a unique way. Events that teenagers have spent years planning for and looking forward to have been ripped away from them. Events like graduation and prom, senior day, or even that final goodbye with friends on separate journeys into adulthood are all lost- replaced with a seemingly cruel in-home detention. These losses are significant and these youths are valid in any anger or disappointment they may feel as a result. Let them feel these feelings. Let them communicate them. Do not try to fix it for them; the fact is, that is not something that is possible. These milestones cannot be replaced. Allow teenagers to grieve them.

            In these trying times, children and adolescents aren’t the only ones deserving of adjusted expectations; parents, you deserve it too. That structure and those rules you put so much effort into maintaining no longer apply; at least not absolutely. It is important to focus on surviving and caring for your mental health alongside that of your children’s. Taking care of yourself is a crucial part of taking care of them. You cannot support your children when you are burnt out from putting everything into them and nothing into yourself. It is less important in these times to rigidly restrict screen time or make sure your children are getting perfect grades – it just is. So, concentrate on happiness and know that you are a good parent in doing so.

            Finally, it is okay to not be okay. It is okay to have challenges with the current state of the world, to have fear, to feel unsure; it is also okay to experience joy even in these difficult times. Celebrate small victories and take whatever opportunities you can to help yourself and your family grasp onto light in the darkness amidst all of the uncertainty. Together we can survive this and continue moving forward in our lives.

Hamilton Center, Inc. is a regional behavioral health system in Central and West Central Indiana with corporate offices located in Terre Haute, IN. Services are provided to children, youth and adults, with specialized programs for expectant mothers, infants, and people who may be struggling with stress, life changes, or relationship issues as well as more serious problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and serious mental illnesses.

For information on Hamilton Center Services call (800) 742-0787.

Protector, provider, problem solver and bravery — reflections on being a man and finding balance during the public health emergency

By Paul Schneider, Ph.D.

“There’s spirits above and behind me, faces gone black, eyes burning bright. May their precious blood bind me, Lord as I stand before your fiery light.” – Bruce Springsteen, The Rising, 2002 

After 9/11, “The Boss” captured hope without negating loss. As a native of the New York Metropolitan area, my heart aches again, but this time, the damage has been more universal. 

As men, many of us have not been blessed with a huge vocabulary to describe our emotions; however, I sense that we are sharing emotional experiences during this public health emergency that will be transformative – and by being mindful of this process, perhaps we can gain a bit more control of it.

If I free associate to the word “man” from a personal perspective, here are the first themes that come to mind – protector, provider, problem solver, and bravery – but how are we all doing with those things?

Protector

As “protectors,” we are all familiar with the fight-flight reaction. The adrenaline response temporarily transforms us into physically stronger beings. Depending upon the situation, we may choose to fight or flee.  What we often leave out is the “freeze” reaction. Think of the possum and “playing possum.”  Many of us, men and women alike, have been told that our role right now is to “freeze” until given permission to do otherwise. But others have not been given the “freeze” option in their employment, leaving them the other two alternatives. They can take some risk and fight through it, or they can flee.  We want to protect ourselves and our families, but so far it remains difficult for us to accurately calculate risk.

So, how do I protect myself and my family? It is too late for me to become a molecular biologist, so I try my best to follow the guidelines, and I remain alert for any news about what the virus doesn’t like – such as bleach, sunlight and distances over six feet. I clean, but not as much as two weeks ago. Mostly, these activities help with the sense of learned helplessness.  “Learned helplessness” is a model of depression which suggests it is the result of a feeling of loss of control over what is most important to us. The solution to the problem is expressed most succinctly in the Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

Provider

Next, we have “provider,” and, honestly, one of the most “provider” type things that I am currently doing is grocery shopping. I have never seen so many men at Kroger! As a provider, I can help review our supplies and provisions, and perhaps I can occasionally make a purchase. While grocery shopping may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about being a “provider,” it does allow you to focus on providing in ways that you can control, and that is critical during this time.

Providers also earn and invest money, but for now, much of that is, unfortunately, in the column of things we can’t control. During this public health emergency, our job and financial security has less to do with our own behavior than ever before. In investing, we want to avoid emotional decisions, so many of us freeze, and that has been painful. 

Problem Solver

Then, we have “problem solver.” In my case, this is inexorably linked to probability and statistics. As I write this, my wife is sharing data on baseline infection rates in the general population. If accurate, it will turn every calculation I have done to date upside down. We don’t have the numbers we need to make informed choices. Most critically, what is the baseline probability that some random individual, including me, is actively spreading the virus? What factors or variables can help identify who is spreading the virus and how?  What percentage of transmissions occur due to surfaces or when we are not within six feet of someone? Are men more likely to contract or die from the virus?  If so why?

At some level, we all play a very low probability game of Russian roulette on a daily basis. We don’t stop driving because someone might cross the median and kill us.  What I feel, as a man, is that the longer my lifestyle is dramatically altered, the more risk I am willing to take to restore some semblance of normalcy. I imagine one of those large wheels at the casino.  On day 4 of physical distancing, my decision model will be much different than on day 44 or day 444.

Bravery

Finally, there is bravery.  My dad was a medic and an Army lieutenant in World War II. He earned a Bronze Star.  I did not learn of this until after he passed.  I have not donned a uniform since boy scouts or marching band – and in marching band, I was third trombone, so I rarely blew a note. I do not know if I am a hero or coward. I am neither until tested. So far, this crisis has not provided that test for me. We are told that by physical distancing ourselves, we are protecting others. As a man, is it easier for you to tell yourself you are protecting others than to admit you are protecting yourself?  Could “bravery” lead to unwise risk taking?

Balance

Early on in this crisis, it was all about saving lives, and rightfully so. Now, there is talk of balancing that with the quality of life. My Mom is 100 years old and in a long-term care facility. My sons are early on in their careers. Just like many of you, I am trying to balance health and safety with quality of life for myself and those who I love. I continue to feel shocked, confused and sometimes a bit surreal, but I am also feeling that the longer this goes on, the more risk I personally am willing to take so I can find a balance that is right for me.

We have lost much control over our lives in the past months. For now, not forever, we need to learn to cope. By being mindful, and searching for the words that can describe this shared experience we can be transformative.

Protector, provider, problem solver, and bravery. While those themes are still prevalent when I think of the word “man,” they look a little bit different these days, and that’s ok.