By Catherine Butler
Is there a formula for grief, I wondered? Is there some reliable counsel a chaplain can give that will work for almost anyone? Actually, my research revealed that it’s far more complicated. Grief is complex and confusing. There are so many variables surrounding grief, it is impossible to define it precisely. In its simplest form, grief is a result of loss.
Each individual experiences loss differently, plus there are different types of loss. Every loss has a meaning; that meaning is different to each person, but any loss triggers some kind of grief. The good news is that most people are resilient and come through the grief process safe and sound.
For a good read about grief, I recommend The Other Side of Sadness, What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. Author George A. Bonanno offers a different perspective on the five stages of grief. His research suggests that human beings are more resilient than once believed to be, and that when faced with grief and loss, we are made to move on.
Together and separately, we all are experiencing grief in recent months – grieving the loss of life as we knew it. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I stay home more than I used to; my family thinks I am contagious because I work in healthcare. FaceTime and Zoom meetings were fun in April, but the feeling changed over May and June. We miss face-to-face communication. I have enjoyed making empathetic connections with staff over similar feelings of disconnection from their families; it helps to talk about it.
Individually, staff is connected because we belong to the same system. Separately, each of us try to manage the weight of each loss. Collectively, we stand together in one system of grief. I carry around a quote by St. Francis de Sales to share with staff and/or patients in anticipatory grief: “The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
Even so, I sometimes feel a weight of dread thinking about how everything will turn out. I try and stay positively hopeful, but as I walk through the hospital hallways, I feel heaviness in the air. I see the stress in staff, patients, and families. And maybe some of you have convinced yourself that your headache or your fatigue is just stress. But the pandemic is more. Look deeper. You, my dear, are grieving. You will get through this. Grief is natural; it is perfectly normal to feel the way you are feeling. You are much stronger and more resilient than you realize, I tell the staffers at my workplace. Life feels out of balance and strange. You miss the old ways, but you won’t feel this way forever.
We are all experiencing a nagging internal cry over the way we used to live our lives, before the pandemic. Until we can name and claim those feelings, we may not be able to authentically pick ourselves back up and then encourage each other. It is important to collectively share our personal experiences and listen to one another talk about new routines and new realities.
I have suggested to staffers at my hospital to try the following spiritual exercise at home, which takes about fifteen minutes of quiet time. Begin by lighting a candle. Bring the Light of God into the room with you. No music, no phone. Quiet and candle only.
Imagine your losses as tangible items thrown into a closet at home. Refer to those losses as a Collection. Ask God for help in sorting through your personal Collection. Name each loss you have experienced, no matter what. Say it out loud. Even if you think it sounds silly, do it anyway. You are claiming it by saying it aloud. As you claim each loss, you might cry, laugh out loud, or react in a number of different ways. All normal; keep at it. During this part (naming/claiming) you might actually recall a similar past experience, and this is a good reminder that grief is transient; it will move on when it’s ready!
Embrace and let go. Talking about your Collection can be heavy, but it diminishes its power. It also encourages others to open up. Ask a friend: What’s in your Collection?
Keep your closet empty. When this is behind us, I hope you continue to find daily quiet time with God. Keep praying. Stay hopeful. We are innately born to keep moving.
Catherine Butler is a chaplain resident at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee, IL.