What can we do to help others and ourselves when grief is unbearable, especially now when we seem to be suffering from an endless series of escalating losses?
*I wrote these words several months ago, and I read them this morning with fresh eyes as I consider the recent death of a loved one. I hope that reading this will help someone today. I know that it has helped me.
Every day we are reminded of the toll that the pandemic has taken on the world. It can be overwhelming.
Amid so much cumulative loss, we can scarcely breathe, much less grieve, and we cry out as individuals and as a nation that our grief is unbearable.
But what exactly do we mean when we say our grief is unbearable?
What the phrase “when grief is unbearable” means.
When someone says that their grief is unbearable, we understand that they are overwhelmed by their sense of loss.
A person suffering from an intolerable loss may find it difficult, if not impossible, to think about anything else or take action to change their current circumstances. When grief is unbearable, they may be emotionally and physically weary from the crushing weight of their loss.
Most of us have dealt with loss. But not all our setbacks are created equal. And not all of these situations have the same impact on us as individuals. And we will not all respond the way to the same set of experiences.
Most of us will experience the loss of a job or a romantic relationship. If we live long enough, we will experience the death of a loved one.
Sometimes the gains we make in life seem meaningless compared to the series of losses we have experienced. It is in those moments that grief, our sense of loss, becomes unbearable.
How do we Typically help others and ourselves when grief is unbearable?
Before the pandemic, someone would have sought others as they experienced death, a divorce, the loss of a job, a mental health issue, or a chronic illness.
Someone would have made a physical appearance, brought food, expressed sympathy, sat in silence, and listened as someone told their story.
Someone would have followed up regularly by phone and in-person contact. In addition, that individual probably would have worked with others to provide ongoing care and support.
Before the pandemic, we would have encountered grief and loss on an irregular basis. We might go months, and even years, without helping someone else or ourselves process a significant loss.
But the pandemic took away our opportunity to sit with someone at the time of their greatest need. (We had to look for ways to extend care without being physically present.)
So we postponed our grief. We thought it would be a few weeks. Then a matter of months.
Meanwhile, our friends and families were experiencing their own unique set of losses and setbacks. We felt that we were living a series of unfortunate incidents that had no end.
When grief is unbearable reached new levels of intensity. As individuals and a nation, we experienced a collective trauma without the opportunity to process it as a community. As a result, many individuals have not had the opportunity to grieve fully or mourn their losses.
We may recognize that we and others have unresolved grief, but we have delayed our grief so long that we do not know how to move forward.
When grief is unbearable now describes a collective sense of loss that we never anticipated.
I remember the first formal dinner I attended and the awkwardness I felt. Looking back, I wish someone had prepared me for the encounter.
There were extra forks and spoons that I had never seen. The napkins were fine linen with a higher thread count than my bedsheets at home. I didn’t know how to proceed. I sheepishly copied the behavior of the person sitting next to me. I felt like a fish out of water. I was relieved when the meal was over.
I have that same sense of uncomfortableness as I encounter friends I have not seen in a while due to the pandemic. So many of them have suffered in isolation, and I do not know where to begin the conversation.
Some of them have experienced death, divorce, and income loss that I was unaware of, and still, other losses went unnoticed by those close to them.
Fear and anxiety have left them hypervigilant, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
And I believe many of them have the same sense of uncomfortableness as they approach me.
We need a new set of guiding principles for When Grief is Unbearable.
In her famous book on manners, Emily Post indicates that consideration, respect, and honesty are the three guiding principles of etiquette. I believe we can apply these principles when grief is unbearable.
Consideration is thinking about how your actions and words will impact others.
When we encounter that person we haven’t seen for a while, the temptation to move forward as if nothing has happened will be strong.
We may fear saying the wrong thing or drudging up a wound, but it would be inconsiderate not to acknowledge our respective losses.
Respect is recognizing and acknowledging the inherent worth of an individual and acting consistently on that belief.
Taking the time to acknowledge their losses and letting them share their hearts can bring much-needed relief.
Sharing our losses with them validates that they are a trustworthy friend. We benefit from sharing our difficulties as well.
(Keep in mind that it would be disrespectful to minimize or elevate one person’s loss over another. Suffering is not a competition.)
Honesty requires openness and sincerity that we may find uncomfortable.
Can we be open and vulnerable about our losses? Can we compassionately speak the truth in love to those who are suffering, including ourselves?
We cannot expect others to follow where we have not gone ourselves.
It would be dishonest to expect others to share their grief while withholding our own.
Call to action
I invite you to begin a difficult conversation to address the grief, loss, and sadness you and many others have experienced.
You can begin by writing down an inventory of your losses this past year. (I have started my inventory, and it’s longer than I ever dreamed.)
Would you consider sharing it with someone and asking them to share what they have been through as well?