Loss is incurable, but grief is metamorphic. The end of another human life is a fluid experience for those left behind. For most of us, grief legitimizes the range of human emotion and, at least temporarily, erases the idea of being too sensitive.
There are many ways in which this paradigm is unequal, particularly for individuals who frequently confront death. It seems that when a challenge moves into the chronic category, ongoing genuine support becomes enigmatic. I say this speaking from 30 years of mental illness.
I’ve personally grown to see grief as an acute mental illness—an isolated breakdown of our minds, bodies, and realities—that mostly evades societal stigma. People generally know how to provide support: They send cards or flowers and often go out of their way to anticipate how to make the bereaved’s day-to-day a little easier. When grief tears percolate in public, the suffering are handed tissues without a big to-do. Generally, people respond to someone’s mental breakdown by avoiding the topic at all costs. I also gather that acknowledging grief is somewhat taboo for physicians.
I’ve researched and written about physician grief as an outsider, but took so much more from seeing it firsthand during my 2020 round of intensive behavioral health care. This time, health care workers were indeed a large portion of the demographic. I want to be clear that I’m not a physician, health care employee, consultant, or therapist. I’m not even a journalist in this capacity. I’m reaching out to a health care audience with my non-expert opinions simply because I believe you deserve support.
Coping skills ad nauseam
In mental health treatment, we talk about coping skills nonstop. We talk about self-care. And in the beginning, it’s tempting to scream, “Do you honestly think I’m here because I need more bubble baths?” In psychiatric settings, patients do yell things like that all the time—as well as respond to mindfulness exercises by punching their fist through the nearest wall. There’s a common understanding that everyone has very good reasons to be upset.
But the sooner we open our minds to managing life in new ways, the better.
In other news, the right skillsets are most certainly not one-size-fits-all, but a precisely individualized and constantly shifting target. My current mix includes the following:
Mindfulness. It’s not just meditation. As I understand it, anything that arranges your focus toward the present moment counts as mindfulness. For example, when my mental spiraling was most out of control, I found solace in coloring (after dropping the misconception that it was childish and dumb). I discovered that filling in intricate designs with whatever colors pleased me simply precluded the act of ruminating. I can replicate the same mutual exclusivity while playing Scattergories with my family or maneuvering around a loaded barbell. Most of the time, relief sneaks up within a couple of minutes.
Creative expression. Writing is my second-favorite medicine (after laughter). In the months after my mother died, I didn’t accept any freelance writing assignments. For the first time since my maternity leave 14 years ago, I had the freedom and time to write whatever I wanted, whenever I felt like it, for any reason at all.
I spent a lot of time in my back yard noticing quintessential signs of spring through a different lens. When I just couldn’t reconcile anything in the modern world, I studied unbloomed buds of plants I couldn’t name, and photographed their changing forms day by day. Nature, though not always kind, was reliable when uncertainty reigned. I began jotting down rough poems for the first time since college. I scrawled scraps of essay ideas across every square inch of many notebooks and used envelopes.
I was writing for the sake of writing, and a reinvigorated creative spirit re-connected me with an art I’d spent too much time disciplining and not enough nurturing. If writing isn’t your preference, try doodling or redecorating one corner of a room. Make no judgments about your results. Just observe how you feel.
Sunlight. During my long, heartbroken days early in the pandemic, I spent as much time as possible indoors, relocating a patio chair to face the sun directly from the time it rose until it slid under the horizon. I’d wear dark-colored clothing to absorb as much warmth as possible. I felt empty and cold, and this personal incubator helped me heal and gain strength.
Opening up. Not surprisingly, given my history of social anxiety, I seem to reveal my truest self through the written word. My behind-a-laptop personality is much more opinionated and vulnerable than the one that hibernates in physical proximity to people. I’ve been truth-telling as a writer for years and years, publicly for most of them. I’ve made my share of social media mistakes, but on the whole connected with others (including past acquaintances I’d never expected to know better) in profoundly meaningful ways.
Whether it’s through a blog or support group (in-person or virtual), I encourage you to share your story with rougher edges than you’d normally expose. The more honesty you reveal, the less it burdens your soul—and is almost guaranteed to benefit someone else.
Debra A. Shute is a journalist.
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