Let Us Grieve
by Elena Greco
Typical reading time: 4 minutes
The vista in the picture above was one of my favorite places in Central Park. Sitting in the sunlight on my favorite bench and staring at this incredibly beautiful vista from this vantage point was something I looked forward to every day. This was my special moment; it reset and recharged me, no matter what the day had thrown at me.
As I arrived at my bench in the Park one day, I gasped. The beautiful, century-old crab apple tree on the left of the picture above was completely gone! Even the stump was a memory, and the beautiful vista I loved was destroyed.
I wept. Yes, I cried for a tree. I looked around to see if others were also disturbed by this glaring act of barbarism, and no one seemed fazed. In fact, no one seemed to notice! How could they not notice the loss of a tree, especially since there was now a huge gap where its branches formerly spread? I finally sat on my bench, taking in the loss. When someone sat on the bench nearby, I pointed to the site of the missing tree and asked if they had noticed. Oh, they said, they hadn’t. But surely the Conservancy had a reason for taking it down?
I couldn’t imagine any viable reason for the complete destruction of this tree. When I got home, I wrote to the Central Park Conservancy and inquired why they had committed this act. After a month of multiple emails and social media posts, I finally got a response. The tree had been damaged in a storm necessitating its removal. While dubious that this had really been necessary, I finally had the closure I needed, a reason for the loss. Now I just had to grieve.
Grieving for a tree might seem silly, but that tree had been a part of my daily visit to the Park for years, and the trees in my corner of Central Park feel like family to me. No, it wasn’t the same degree of grief that I feel when I lose a person in my life, but it was grief all the same.
I’m no stranger to grief. My life since the age of three has been a interminable series of goodbyes and losses. I should be a professional griever by now, able to grieve with the best of them. But that doesn’t make it any less painful or disruptive.
Grief: It’s something all of us experience at some point in our lives. Someone has died, an object of affection has been lost, a permanent change to a situation in our lives has occurred. Loss of any kind can result in an experience of grief. Death, job loss, retirement, miscarriage, relationship ending, life-changing illness, moving away, losing a source of support—all can result in grief.
It’s something many of us are experiencing right now. We’ve lost so much—our lifestyles, our jobs, our income, and—probably the most painful—our connections—through an unexpected months-long pandemic.
Add to these losses the uncertainty we all face—of not knowing if our former life will ever return, or when it might return, or how we’ll be when it does. And add to that the turmoil in our government that makes the certainty that democracy will continue seem shaky for the first time in our lives. All of that adds up to a constant state of vigilance, an experience of trauma, and a continuous, monumental grief.
A loss of purpose, a lack of joy, a numbness—these symptoms of grief are common now. And mixed in with the grief are, for some of us, symptoms of post-traumatic stress—insomnia, hypervigilance, substance abuse, anxiety, mood issues.
How it feels and what it does to us
The sick feeling in the stomach, the wrenching ache in the heart, the feeling of being in slow motion, the mental dullness, the loss of motivation or hunger: We’ve all felt it. Grief is physical. It hurts. (Studies show that grief affects the same areas of the brain as physical pain.) It increases inflammation and weakens the immune system, and it has the potential to raise blood pressure and damage the heart.
We feel numb, detached, depressed, sad. We feel anger or guilt or nothing at all. We cry, or we don’t. Our surroundings acquire a gauze-like quality, so that things seem remote or pale. One day seems to melt into another, our sense of time distorted. Grief is psychological. It permeates our thoughts and our perceptions.
What’s the point?
Grief is one of three primary emotions, along with anger and fear. (“Happy,” for example, isn’t an emotion; it’s a mood or a feeling-state.) Anger, fear and grief can be distinguished from other feelings in that 1) they serve an evolutionary purpose (that is, they help ensure our survival, or did at one time) and 2) they originate in or strongly affect our physiology. An emotion is active, in that it includes significant and immediate physiological changes; think of the “motion” part of “emotion.”
Humans are not meant to be alone. From an evolutionary standpoint, our chance of survival is much greater if we belong to a group, a tribe. And our chance of perpetuating the species is greater if we are connected to others or have a mate. These are possibly some of the reasons we automatically develop psychological attachments to other humans, first to the mother, then to others. Separation from others can provoke the feeling we had when we were separated from our parents as a child, an anxiety caused by losing our connection, which equates subconsciously to our survival. But our adult feeling of separation is deeper, and it can provoke a grief that is debilitating.
How we can deal with it successfully
The myriad ways of dealing with grief are both individual and universal. There’s no wrong way to grieve.
The exception might be that isolating is probably the worst thing you can do if you want to heal from grief. Just as grief is often provoked by a loss of human connection, its resolution, and our ability to bear up under it, can be sustained by human connection. It is really important to have a support system in the form of at least a couple of humans that you can lean on in times of grief.
Some of the many other ways we can heal from grief are similar to those that help us heal from trauma:
– allowing yourself to have whatever feelings you’re having–for example sadness, anger, or guilt–including allowing yourself moments of pleasure (people sometimes feel guilty for having pleasure when they’re grieving, but it is healthy for our bodies and minds)
– keeping to a routine
– trying something new or pleasurable—a new restaurant or museum, or a walk on an unfamiliar path
– paying attention to self-care, including sleeping, eating and showering
– not judging yourself; don’t blame yourself or think you’re grieving too long or not grieving enough
– making a plan for the future
– scheduling time with friends
– indulging in ritual—e.g., light a candle, read a poem you wrote for the person or thing that was lost, play special music
– expressing your grief creatively, such as painting, drawing, making music, or writing about it
Let us grieve
Although there might seem to be no benefit to experiencing grief, other than its role as a vestige of an evolutionary mechanism for survival, we can learn to navigate it so that it doesn’t disrupt our health and functioning in the long term.
The first step in healing is acknowledging our grief and feeling it. The next is accepting our grief as a universal emotion that requires that we give ourselves to it completely if we want to move through it to the other side.
Grief can increase emotional resilience and compassion if we navigate it successfully, meaning we experience it fully and don’t get stuck in it. And moving through our grief allows the possibility of our being someone who can hold the space for others who grieve.
How can you help someone who’s grieving
Just as you would with any trauma, don’t try to make someone “better” or fix them when they’re grieving. Just listening and being with them is the absolute most helpful and healing thing you could do. Please don’t tell them it will get better, or that it will pass soon, or that they should think about something else. Just accept their grief and their style of grieving and let them know you’re there for them.
You might ask if they’d like to go for a walk in nature with you if that seems appropriate. You might ask them if they’d like to meet you for coffee. You might ask them if you might bring over some take-out, or cook for them, or walk their dog for them. There’s a reason that there’s a tradition of bringing people food when a loved one dies; when we’re grieving, practicalities can be difficult to attend to. If they say no, just accept that and continue to be there for them.
There is such a tendency in our society to snap to a knee-jerk reaction to stop someone from feeling something we deem uncomfortable. Can we learn to accept human emotions as the healing and regulatory tools they are, and help each other through simple acceptance?
If we are grieving—and we almost certainly are—let us grieve.