How to cope with grief in a time of national mourning
Coping with grief is as difficult as it gets. Dr Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell writes about grief as the Queen's death has enveloped us all.
I write this piece for The Book of Man with a great sense that so much in the media at the moment is about death and grief and for many this is going to be triggering. If this piece becomes too much at any point, please take care of yourself. Stop reading it. Take a break. Or speak to someone who can help you with your triggers.
I am Dr Chloe, some of you know me from my work in the field. For those of you who don’t, I am a Grief expert and UK based Counselling Psychologist, helping people from all over the world, from all walks of life embrace their Mental Health in the face of distressing life events.
For me the last few days have been difficult and I have found myself streamlining my media news intake, reducing my exposure to the news and taking time away from devices and constant reminders of loss and pain. As a psychologist I am equipped to deal with the reality of grief but as a human being also going through the cost of living crisis and having suffered losses of my own, the constant news of this death and the public reaction are quite overwhelming. I see and understand that the public outpouring of grief is both a healthy response to what have been terribly tense, stressful and difficult times and also triggering and difficult for those in the grip of personal grief and loss.
I hope to give people who need it guidance, support and a framework for understanding their grief. Last week we didn’t just lose a monarch and a figurehead. We lost a woman, a human being whose life was defined by duty and the honour of being in service for the greater good. The queen sacrificed her right to freedom – to be whoever she may have wanted to be – to this ideal. She personified the old female energy of selflessness, of duty to community and country, of putting the needs of others first. Her way of life a constant in our collective consciousness and a steady figure in the fabric of our lives.
Her passing truly signifies the transition into a new era where the energies of male and female are less polarised, less either or, much more unified, balanced and harmonised. An era where bottling up our emotions no longer applies. The shift of these energies is happening within so many of us and outside of us. The new paradigm is much more about personal freedom to be our authentic selves and to trust in expressing our human vulnerability with others, so that we can deepen our connections and foster greater awareness and understanding of each other. To create from a place of personal meaning, to express and love for our own personal good, knowing that what is good for us individually is for the benefit of all around. My oxygen mask on first approach is not selfish but helpful to anyone who may need our love and care. We are transitioning into an age where we build towards a future for the greatest good of the whole, we focus on protecting those vulnerable, we nurture nature & mother earth, we acknowledge and honour the marginalised, we eradicate toxic values from a world long gone. As a psychologist I feel that my duty is about supporting this, helping those suffering by holding compassionate space and helping them heal.
But the loss of the queen also signifies the end of an era that represents our history, that has for 70 years provided a scaffold of what it means to be British. Most people I have spoken to about the queen have had mixed emotions. On the one hand understanding that she was elderly and not surprised by her death, but on the other feeling shocked at the reality of it and being reminded of their own losses and grief.
It is really important to acknowledge that loss and grief are hugely personal. No two people grieve the same loss, in the same way.
When loss hits us, it impacts the whole of us and can deplete our mental health and wellbeing profoundly. That is because, mental health is our subjective measure of happiness. We thrive when we feel we have meaningful control over our lives, we get to be the person we want to be, we have loving and positive connections with people who authentically accept us and care for us. We thrive when we feel we can cope with anything life throws our way.
When a significant loss happens we lose that capacity for happiness. And when a figurehead like Queen Elisabeth II dies, our own losses come straight to the surface, demanding processing and attention. So many people are reminded of people they have lost and are back in grief about that. The passing of the queen has released our national pressure valve and we now stand face to face with our own pain, mourning the queen and processing bottled up grief. Learning to live in a world that wont include our loved one is difficult and for some, unthinkable.
The loss of the queen has reminded us that we are continually having to adapt to a world that isn’t constant. Where pillars that seemed steady, collapse. Where what and who we turn to for steadiness and reassurance shifts. For many, the stresses of daily life are huge and the pressure of grief has been postponed in pursuit of survival. Over the last 3 years, millions lost a lot. They lost loved ones, they lost certainty about the world being predictable and safe. They lost financial security. They lost health. They lost communities and friends. They lost routines and they lost jobs. So much loss has been our unfolding story and the outpouring of grief we are seeing on a national scale is a lot to do with this – psychological permission to process what we have been repressing, compartmentalising, and bottling up for years.
If you are finding that the news of Queen Elizabeth triggering, be mindful that you are having a normal reaction to your own grief. Grief happens to all of us but how we handle it and how well we are able to process it depends on a whole lot of stuff. For example, if you have had other stressors you may not have had time or energy to process the pain of living without your loved one. Or if you have felt overwhelmed and afraid of the intensity of your emotions you may have tried to self medicate or avoid it altogether with personal distractions. But grief always comes calling.
When we don’t process our grief, we live with “emotional disease” and this creates illness; both physical and mental. Grief builds in our body. It feels like tension and if you take a minute to notice it you will become aware of where in your body your grief is stored. There is only one way through Grief. That is, to trust yourself to go through it. Of course, you will never be without the sadness of your loss. But you will learn to make friends with it, to understand it, to handle it and to process it when it builds. Pretending it is not there is bad for your mental health and if you keep doing that, it will start leaking out as Depression, Anxiety or some other mental health symptom.
To process grief safely we really need to be focused on understanding its message. As queen Elizabeth said. Grief is the price we pay for love. We grieve when we love. Grief is just that. Love with nowhere to go. We hate to live in a world without our loved ones. We miss them. We ache for them. We suffer in despair. We rage. We go through the waves of grief, again and again and again. It’s because we love so deeply and so truly.
Grief is never really over. It can resurface, and it will do so, unexpectedly, when we are physically or emotionally tired. It is normal to feel grief on special days, on anniversaries or to feel it more intensely during times of stress and to miss our loved one more as time expands. This is human. It is not evidence of illness or pathology. But at the same time, we should be able to accept that the loss has happened, that life has meaning and purpose and once we have processed the emerging grief we can get on with our daily routines and get on with finding happiness.
Understanding what your grief responses are really matters. When you understand grief you can take action to handle it well. I include below some simple strategies you can use to help yourself process your loss and make sense of it:
1. Notice your grief response. How is it showing up in your body? Look out for physical symptoms. If you are in survival mode, which is likely if you are coping with a difficult loss you haven’t finished processing, you are probably coping with constant bouts of cortisol and stress taxing your system. Take time to notice it. Normalise it. Speak to someone who can help you. And if you can practice good self care, in the form of meditation, mindfulness, breath work, time in nature, rest, eat well and take each day as it comes, at a pace that works for you.
2. Adjust to the loss. What this means is slow down. If you need to talk it through with a mate, give yourself permission for it. You are not a burden. Your people will feel relieved that you are letting them in, showing them what you are dealing with and will be more aware of how to support you. Ask for help. And take care to pace yourself. Don’t expect yourself to be your normal self. You are going through a time of transformation and grief. So take time for yourself. This is good and adjust your expectations. It is very normal to feel exhausted, emotional, to be going through very difficult emotions like anger, upset, despair, depression. Notice and collaborate with your internal world.
3. Accept the loss. Accept that you can have a good life in a world that doesn’t include your loved one. And accept that your grief is an ongoing thing in your life that you will become better at handling it. Embracing a mindset that anchors you in your personal meaning and purpose will really help you find the stability and energy you need to keep going and to embrace life now.
4. Invest in new relationships and give yourself permission to laugh again. This is what your loved one who want. Reframe the privilege of life and learn to receive it.
5. Practice emotional hygiene. Take time to understand your feelings. Journal them out. Involve yourself with your grief. Don’t swallow it. Allow it to travel through your body and trust that by expressing it you are not fuelling it. You are processing it. If you need a grief day take it. If you need to speak to your employer do it. Grief takes time and that’s ok.
6. Honour the legacy of your loved one by remembering them, doing something for them, make a meaningful change in your life for them, invest in something that represents them. You don’t have to distance yourself from them. You can hold them dear in your heart and practice whatever ritual helps you do that. If it’s sitting by the grave that’s meaningful for you and that’s good. If it’s talking to their picture that’s good. If it’s lighting a candle and praying for them do it.
7. Do something to help others who are going through the same thing. This really helps foster your resilience and hope in life.
8. Hold space for your grief whenever you need to. This means changing your mindset and understanding that your grief is a great unfolding story and you can be fearlessly yourself through it. Feeling the pain of grief is only human and you are stronger and wiser for it. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t track your progress. Don’t judge yourself. Hold compassion and love for yourself.
Everyone I know who has navigated a terrible loss, has come out the other side deeply energised by the wisdom and the connections the grief permitted. There is no doubt that in grief and loss we discover the depth of our capacity for love. We deepen our connection to ourself. We learn about what we are. Who we are. Who we love. What we connect to. What we want to give to our people and what is meaningful in our world. We definitely grow. The suffering isn’t suffering for nothing. It is suffering in the name of love and it is a price worth paying.
If you are struggling with grief, there are books and places that can help. Cruse Bereavement offer a free bereavement counselling. If you want to join a community of like minded people looking to understand their grief and learn about how to handle it come to my next webinar, hosted by the Guardian on 5th October at 6:30. You can sign up here: https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-masterclasses/2022
Books that are very good and may help you are: “The grief survival guide” by Jeff Brazier. “The comfort Book” by Matt Haig. “It’s ok that you’re not ok” By Megan Devine
If you want to connect with me please follow me on Instagram at @drchloe_holisticpsychology or on my website www.dr-chloe.com
Always happy to help and hold space for you.
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