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  • Writer's picturepamradtkerussell

How are You Feeling? Identifying Grief in the Time of Covid

“How are you feeling?,” my therapist asked when I started talk therapy about three years ago. I looked at her mutely, confused and bewildered. I honestly had no idea how I was feeling. I had spent decades— probably most of my life— pushing down and numbing my emotions. They were all a jumble in the center of my chest, in the pit of my stomach. I knew, vaguely, that I was resentful, disappointed and anxious.

Those around me saw me as angry, sad, depressed.

I’ve worked hard since then to uncover, express and deal with my feelings through meditation, journaling, talking and movement.

I’ve accepted most of the things I cannot change, I am a lot less anxious and disappointed in myself and others. I’ve let go of my anger and am no longer depressed. While I get bouts of sadness, in general, I’m happier than I’ve ever been because, among other things, I’ve learned to feel my emotions.

Yet….there has been a lingering feeling that has been following me. Something that I could not shake. An emotion that I, at times, chalked up to being alone, rejected, unloved. I knew, subjectively, those things were not true, they were stories I was making up to explain away this feeling that weighed heavy on my heart.

And then, last month, I bought Brene’ Brown’s “Atlas of the Heart.” It’s a compendium of 87 different emotions and a description of how we experience them. I read it and had a lot of “ah ha” moments. One of my favorites entries is on empathy: “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.” This is something my children have taught me. I sometimes don’t understand what they are saying or experiencing, but that doesn’t make it less true.

I read through the book, interested in it as a piece of information. But then, I realized, it might be able to help me name my lingering unknown feeling. I started by looking up sadness: “Feeling sad is a normal response to loss or defeat, or even the perception of loss or defeat.” No, this was not sadness.

The very next entry was grief. Grief, Brown summarizes, is “Often thought of as a process that includes many emotions,” including sadness. There are, she says, three foundational elements of grief: Loss, longing and feeling lost.

This resonated.

I was grieving my marriage and the loss not only of my nuclear family but of what, for 27 years, I thought my future was going to be. I was facing a blank slate and I was feeling lost and wanting more. Brown defines this longing as “not a conscious wanting; it’s an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, for meaning.”

Yes, I was feeling loss, lost and longing. I had previously rejected the idea that I was “grieving” after my husband and I separated. The separation and divorce was what I wanted, right? I should be ecstatic, not in mourning.

But Brown, in this book, showed me I can be grieving and not necessarily mourning. And that I can both be ecstatic and still grieving.

Still, the loss of my marriage didn’t feel like the whole story. It wasn’t the cause of all of my grief. Then, last week, as my daughters got word of another week of virtual school because of Covid I realized I am also grieving the loss of normal life that the pandemic has taken away. The grief over this loss is just as pervasive as the loss of my marriage.

Brown quotes Robert A. Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis who wrote: “A central process in grieving is the attempt to reaffirm or reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss.”

We’re all, to various degrees, being challenged by the loss of our “normal” world because of Covid. Refusing to acknowledge that we’re grieving the loss doesn’t make it any easier.

In fact, naming that nagging, pervasive emotion as grief, has made it easier for me to manage. I know grief will take the time it needs to take, and that, in some respects, it may never completely go away. But I also know that it is normal, and that I’m normal, and it’s OK to feel the losses of my marriage and of this pandemic.

How am I feeling? I’m feeling grief, but I’m also feeling grateful that I can finally feel, and name, my emotions.

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