Choosing Compassion Amid Grief

JULIE HALL, Therapist, MBA, MS, LMFT

“Hold on a moment.” Our doctor had a concerned expression on his face as he moved closer to my fetal ultrasound image. My husband and I had been working with him for almost two years in an effort to become parents, and on that cold December day we entered his office expectantly and full of an unfamiliar hope. Yet in a matter of minutes, that excitement turned to fear and then dread as the doctor realized and revealed that I was miscarrying. I would need emergency surgery that very same day. I was overcome with grief and could not make sense of what had just happened. While now I am able to tell this story nine years later from a place of perspective, the grief remains with me, albeit less acute.

The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies grief as the powerful, multifaceted and natural response that we experience after loss. This loss is often tied to bereavement or experiencing the pain of the death of a loved one. Grief can also manifest in the experiences of infertility/miscarriage, a significant change in lifestyle or financial status, the ending of a relationship/marriage, a serious illness or disease, whether personal or affecting someone we love, losing our physical mobility or independence, or a trauma that violates our sense of safety and security.

Some of the more common experiences of grief include anger at those responsible, at the deceased, at ourselves, at God, at any target that seems feasible. We can also blame ourselves with an internal dialogue that says if only I had done something differently; maybe things might not be this way. Often, we see impacts on our sleep or changes in appetite. We can feel incredibly tired and lacking energy. We can have trouble concentrating or focusing on a task. Also, not uncommon is irritability or isolation. Particularly in the early space of grief we can even question life’s meaning.

The holidays can be particularly difficult because it is a time where previously we had experienced so much joy. The holidays brought about excitement and thrill. The holidays livened up each one of our senses… from the touch of a pine cone, to the smell of peppermint, to the sweet taste of hot chocolate, to the sight of a beautiful candlelit church, to the sounds of holiday classics.

For many people entrenched in grief, the experience of loss is heightened in these moments. How can togetherness be celebrated when there is none? The world loses its celebratory qualities. The sadness feels sadder and the loneliness goes deeper.

Bringing attention to the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that are bubbling up can create an opportunity to move forward with intention.

Almost a year after my surgery and miscarriage, which was around the holidays, I remember an incident where I passed a young woman who was quite pregnant on my walk to the local deli. Immediately, I felt a shortness of breath and a sense of dread. After completing my errand, I intentionally paused to give myself space to acknowledge the pain that was manifesting physically. I would describe this pause and curiosity as an expression of self-compassion. I had been doing my own therapy at the time and was encouraged to not just disconnect or distract from pain, but when appropriate, really give myself a chance to give it voice. The practice of self-compassion gives us permission to experience our pain without judgment or criticism, and in that space we can often find relief. In these self-reflective moments, we have an opportunity to talk about our grief with a confidant, write in a journal, pray or simply sit and breathe through the feelings.

My husband and I are now the most grateful parents of a precocious fun loving little girl and yet the grief experience still shows up periodically. Megan Devine, a grief expert and the author of a book called It’s Ok that You’re Not Ok, states so eloquently, “Grief lasts as long as love lasts”. Our circumstances may change and evolve, but ongoing grief, while less acute, is normative and worthy of our attention.

Amid this pandemic, we are collectively grieving the loss of lives, health, jobs, normalcy and interpersonal and community face to face interaction. If this is your story, I honor you. Be gentle and compassionate toward yourself, reach out and allow your pain to be seen by a loved one. You are not alone.

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