Finding Meaning Through Grief

In her beautiful poem that has been shared across the globe, Kitty O’Meara’s “And the people stayed home” has struck a chord with all those affected by COVID-19. As I reflected on the impact of her words, it felt like she was connecting to our deep desire for more time. More time to spend with family and friends. More time to work out and get fit. More time to cook nutritious meals. More time to relax and read ‘that’ book. More time to meditate and practice all the mindfulness techniques that will help us feel less anxious and more present.

O’Meara’s words also resonate because she names what people are feeling “and when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”

By naming this experience as grief, O’Meara helps to normalize the emotional roller coaster that many of us are experiencing and gives us permission to speak our loss our loud. In grief literature, the sharing of our loss affirms our sense of what has been robbed from us which in and of itself can be incredibly cathartic. It also helps to know that others are experiencing a sense of loss. It is perhaps interesting for us North Americans to note that we tend to be death phobic and grief illiterate as a culture. Our dominant message tends to be ‘just get over it’ ‘move on’ ‘focus on your next goal’ or ‘put it behind you’. Other cultures have found ways to embrace death and grief in a more holistic and community-based way. They attach meaning to their losses through collective honouring rituals that create shared meaning. They accept that death is a part of life and avoid pathologizing that which is considered a normal response to grief.  I know this to be true from my own lived experience after the death of my sister and more recently as discovered in my thanatology studies on death, dying and grief. Through my loss story, I define grief as one’s natural response to losing something (a dream, a career, an identity, a relationship) or someone (the death of a person that matters to me) that we have loved. When one attaches meaning to something, grief sets in as a way of signaling our deep love for what is no longer. Charles Corr shares that grief itself can be a ‘pure expression of love’ not a disorder or a healing process … just a way of being to register and honour the experience of our loss.

For athletes, coaches, and sport administrators … the people that I write this for … my heart aches for the collective loss that you are experiencing as a result of COVID-19. In the past three weeks I have hosted ‘grief gatherings’ with small and larger groups to connect around our shared sense of loss and to companion people as we fumble our way through the pain and grief that is setting in. Depending on your own loss stories and whether you have accumulated several losses in your lifetime, this world event may have impacted you at a deeper level than others. I have had some athletes share that they are ‘completely gutted’ over this experience while others are still in denial ‘I can’t believe that my last practice might be the last one of my career.’ Coaches are feeling the pain of not being able to protect athletes in this dynamic and ever shifting environment, while administrators are facing lay-offs and worried about making payroll. With high levels of uncertainty comes high levels of anxiety and this can contribute to anticipatory grief or what David Kessler defines as anxiety of what might be, creating images and worst-case scenarios to manage through the unknown.

There are several healthy and healing practices to support you during this difficult time. I have written about some in my  blog on reconciling grief and I invite you to re-read them if you are looking for ways to reduce anxiety and to honour your loss.

As I continue to find ways to search for meaning in these unprecedented times, offering these words help me feel that I am making a difference in the lives of people and a community I care so deeply about. Let these words serve you well as you look to experience and express your grief more fully.

Tips to coping with loss:

  1. Recognize the significance of your loss. Avoid the trap of shaming yourself (or others) into silence by comparing your grief to others. While we want to hold perspective and place our grief into context, minimizing our loss experience tends to suppress our body’s natural response and need to grieve. In so doing, we compartmentalize our grief which overtime can lead to complicated grief.
  2. Honour your way of coping. We each have different coping defaults. For instance, are you an intuitive griever (our outwards expression mirrors our internal emotions and we grieve best through emoting and sharing) or an instrumental griever (our external responses doesn’t always reflect how we are feeling about our grief and we grieve best by researching, reading, and by doing something)? People cope differently and it’s important to acknowledge that their behaviours and responses live on a continuum between the two.
  3. Attend to your needs. In grief, people tend to forget about their physiological or psychological needs. Remember to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration, to set and maintain routines, to get outside while practicing physical distancing, to write your thoughts or emotions down, to build or create something, and to stay connected to family and friends. You can’t support others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

I hope these words support you during this very difficult time and please feel free to connect with me at DBL@sportlaw.ca to share your thoughts and feelings on loss.

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