Change, Grief, and Beauty Among COVID-19

Change is hard.

This time is challenging.   Even for an introvert.  Even for a therapist.  For a human.

At times, the world seems to be spinning.  The ground seems to resemble quick sand.  

What will life be like in the future?  What will life be like tomorrow?

Before I continue, let me say that there are different types of grief, though all grief comes from some form of loss.  Individually, people are experiencing the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, the loss of connecting with friends.  For this piece, I’m going to focus specifically on societal grief, which incorporates individual griefs coming together as well as the loss of life as we knew it, also known as change.  However, many will find this applicable for various types of grief.

When we talk about grief, many people will most widely know the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her description of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Can you look back at your own process since the beginning of March when life started to change because of COVID-19? Where are you now?  AND, if you can’t identify with one or any of the stages, that’s okay too.  We’re humans, not machines, and the stages were created as helpful sources of information, not sticky labels.  

Okay, so we have all these uncomfortable feelings like sadness and anger.  But here’s the question:  WHY are we feeling them?

Since this article is a monologue, I’ll just have to tell you:  on the other side of grief is joy, love, happiness, and gratitude.  Grief, sadness, and anger over a loss only comes when we’ve had something, or someone, that also brought us joy and love.  

Martin Pretchel describes this best in his speech “Grief and Praise” which I highly suggest you go find on YouTube after you’re done reading this.  

In our case of the COVID-19 era ,  a lot of us are missing simple things.  Hugging our loved ones. Hugging strangers.  Going out to eat and sitting inside a restaurant. Traveling.  Not just to another country but to the city over. The crying baby sitting a seat over from us on the plane.  Not thinking about and analyzing everything we touch and who might have touched it before us.  Some of these things listed were always great.  Some of them we only realize were great now.  Ahhh, the gift of hindsight.  

The second idea I’m going to ask you to consider is a bit tougher: the possibility that grief and beauty can exist side by side. I remember in early September of last year when I got the call from my mom telling me she had cancer, less than 2 years after we found out my older sister had cancer.  I kept it together on the phone (partially because I was still in shock/denial) and then about a minute after I hung up collapsed to the floor in a pile of tears, snot, and slobber (my dog always licks my face when I cry).  For the next few minutes, I just let myself be consumed in the darkness of grief.  Then, somewhere still in a dark grey haze, I got up and moved.  The next day, I decided to carry on with my plans of running in the Wild Basin area inside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Suddenly, I was consumed in the beauty of Mother Earth, the Aspen trees just starting to turn gold, the low hanging clouds around the mountains. I smiled.  It was then that I realized that I had the capability of holding both sadness and joy, the darkness and the light, simultaneously.  It was like discovering a new super power.  (Both my mom and sister are still fighting.)

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My guess is that others too have found joy and reasons to be grateful during the past 2 months, in spite of Stay at Home and Safer at Home orders.  Some of us have been able to spend more time with our kids, found time for hobbies from not needing to commute to work, discovered what it feels like to get enough sleep, or even found ways to deeper connect with others by virtual means.  We may have cried and laughed in the same day, in the same hour, even in the same 5 minute span. That is beautiful.  That is being human.  

Now we’re entering into this phase of what people are calling the “New Normal”.  Still, no one actually knows what that looks like.  It feels really unsteady.  But guess what?  You’ve already gone through this stage.  Probably several times.  And if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through.  Every. Single. Time. 

When we look at it more closely, life is actually a series of transitions, essentially leaving behind the old and stepping into the new.  More notable transitions are from adolescence to adulthood, single to married, childless to parenthood.  While I myself am not married or have kids (besides the fur baby), I’ve gone through several transitions in the past year, some unconsciously and some consciously.  The basis for any transition is letting go of the old, or parts of ourselves that no longer serve us, and into the new, be it a time period or more developed part of ourselves.   In Rites of Passage work, there are three stages: severance (letting go), liminal (not who we once were and not yet who we will become), and the incorporation phase (bring our new selves and gifts into the world).

As you’ve probably guessed, as a society we are somewhere in the liminal stage.  The liminal stage is usually the most uncomfortable phase, and it often feels like we are wandering around in a dark forest without a headlamp.  However, we don’t have to stay lost forever.  As soon as we add intention to the liminal stage, it’s like the moon suddenly comes out from behind the clouds. We may still not know exactly where we are going, but we’ve got a light to guide us. I call this the “wanderlust phase” (hence the name of my counseling practice, Wanderlust Counseling).  

We’ve lost pieces of the life we once had and mourned (and may be still mourning) that loss.  Most of us are still somewhere in the 5 stages of grief, but getting closer to acceptance, sometimes still fluctuating back and forth between acceptance and denial (which is totally okay).  With acceptance,  we allow an opening for the new to come in.  The questions then become: “What do we want to invite in?”  “What is our intention?”  “What can we and do we want to create, especially with the gift of hindsight?” 

And I have to wonder, is it just a coincidence that this all occurring in the year 2020?

These are questions that I suggest we all consider individually, but as a society, we can consider them together too.  In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the terms “The Coronation” and “The Great Realisation” where the writers contemplate things like waste, pollution, consumption (of goods and animals),  technology, communication and what is truly meaningful.  What do we want for our Earth?  What do we want for future generations?  How do we want to live our lives going forward?

I know most of us reading this don’t have nationwide political influence.  But many of us may have influence in our communities, or workplaces, our families, and in our own choices.  And so, when you are ready, I ask you to consider the main question in the last stage of transition, incorporation:  What gifts do you have to bring to the world? Because we come together with our gifts, we open up to the possibility of something more, maybe something better.  .

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

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A Call for Connection and Community

*I originally started writing this post as an article for my local paper several weeks back…and then, well, I fell off track.  I finally finished getting my thoughts together and decided to post it here instead.

The other day, my partner and I were having a discussion on the mental health impacts of social distancing among people in the community.  Actually, as a mental health professional, I lean towards the term “physical distancing” simply to highlight the fact that humans need social connection, even if it’s in alternate forms than what we’re used to.  

That’s not to say we can’t all benefit from some solitude, especially in nature (I’m a nature-based therapist after all!). I’m guessing a lot of people in the Estes Park community have spent days to weeks by themself in nature as a way to renew their spirits.  Still, we come back to people, community, the deep belly laughs we can only share in the presence of other kindred spirits.  While Henry David Thoreau may have “went to the woods to live deliberately” he hardly did so without the companionship of friends and visitors.

What happens in the absence of connection?  Depression, anxiety, addiction…

One of my favorite mental health quotes is found in the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johan Hari where he said “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”  

You see, humans are wired for intimate human relationships.  

As infants, we learn soothing techniques from our parents.  When a baby cries, the parent goes to comfort the baby. This often includes holding the baby close to the skin.  In this moment, the hormone oxytocin (to name one) is released, which reduces stress levels and allows the infrant to feel safe.  As we age and form more bonds through relationships, we still have chemical responses.  Oxytocin, dopamine, (natural) opioids are released, combining to give us feelings of security and love. 

Personally, as someone who has a naturally sensitive nervous system, I need these bonds to help me feel connected and to help regulate my emotions.  For example, if I’m in tears, whether from receiving bad news or from watching a sad movie, my dog inevitably comes over and starts licking my face.  Not only does this help me take the edge off my sadness, but it usually makes me laugh until I’m one blubbering, giggily, sniffling mess. Still, as much as I love my dog, I need human companionship too.  When I come home anxious from what I perceived to be a stressful trip to the grocery store, or from spending too much time on social media, spending a few minutes talking to my partner or relaxing in his embrace can bring my heart rate back down.  In other words, he helps regulate my nervous system.  (The catch is that this works best when the “listener” stays relatively calm.  If both people are feeling dysregulated, it may be best to take a break.)  

When touch isn’t an option, simply expressing our worries can be therapeutic in any relationship.  Expressing our fears and worries to others, even when hearing the same fears and worries back, can help us feel like we are not alone.  

Humans also have these neat things called “mirror neurons”.  Have you ever watched one of your favorite athletes win a big match or race?  Did you watch as they cried happy tears as they tried to talk to a reporter minutes after the victory?  Did you start crying too?  Well, that’s because mirror neurons are at play.  Watching someone else’s facial emotions may illicit similar feelings in yourself.  So even if we can’t be with our friends or loved ones physically, seeing their face via Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc. may be enough to restore a feeling of connectedness.  Additionally, even hearing the voice of a friend can bring forth positive emotions.  

Psychoeducation behind us, I’ll come back to our main point: we need connection and community now more than ever.   

So what is connection?

In technical terms, it simply means being joined or linked together.  In terms of human relationship and what we need to thrive, I’m going to add the words love, empathy, sacred, and shared humanity.  Then the definition for human connection becomes: A sacred unity that revolves around love, empathy, and a shared humanity.  (Again, I’m an animal and nature lover, so truly I rather use “shared living experience” but I don’t want to lose anyone or go on too much of a tangent.)

Community has a few different pieces to its definition, but in the case of Estes Park, the basic definition would include a body of people living within a defined area.  But aren’t we more than that?  We may have different interests and beliefs, but through our shared connection we can conjure up something much stronger.  Truly, for me being part of a community means being something bigger than myself.  On the hard days, knowing that is what helps me pull through.  

Most of us have already found ways to connect using technological means: Skype, Facetime, text, phone calls, taking virtual classes, etc.  I’m personally a big fan of old-fashioned letter writing too (taking proper precautions of course).  Still, that’s not all we can do.  When we pass people on the bike path or in the grocery store, we can look them in the eye, as if saying “I see and acknowledge you.”  We can smile at them (true smiles come from the eyes) as if to say “I’m glad you’re part of this community.” When we speak, especially with those who have different viewpoints of us, we can check within ourselves to make sure we are speaking from our hearts.  Then, not only seeing and speaking but acting.  We change our attitude from “there might not be enough for everyone, so I’m going to make sure I have all that I need to survive, to something that more closely  resembles the famous phrase of the three musketeers “all for one, and one for all.”  When we look at each other as fellow community members, we lose the illusion of the separate self and that we must do it all on our own.  Instead, we trust that there will always be a hand to pull us back up, and a promise we’ll do the same when it’s our turn to share our own blessings.  

“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.” Martin Buber

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(Me and a bunch of other goofballs who decided to get together for a very snow run in December.)

OCD Nation: Are We All Destined to Become OCD?

Here’s my short answer:  NO.

First of all, no one can actually be OCD, although someone can have OCD.

But let’s backtrack a bit.  What actually is OCD? OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”

We tend to throw around the acronym OCD a lot.  Sometimes, we’re partially accurate in describing the low-end of the spectrum, such as when someone needs his books in perfect order on the shelf or uses hand sanitizer everytime she shakes a few hands.  Other times, we’re much less accurate, like when we say it to describe someone who always goes back to check to make sure their car door is locked. That actually has to do more with conscious memory. A lot of times when we go to lock our door, or put down our keys, we’re thinking about 10 other things and don’t consciously think about the action we’re doing. We’re so distracted that we don’t even remember doing it, so we go back and check.  Really, this is more of a lesson in staying present.  

I could go into a bit more of what qualifies as diagnosable OCD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders-5 (DSM-V), but honestly, I don’t love using the DSM-V and I don’t want to bore you.  The main thing you need to know is that what constitutes for clinical concern is when the behavior or habit negatively impacts a person’s everyday life. For example, if someone’s habit to keep his bookshelf in perfect order makes him feel better, even if it seems over-the-top to others, I’d consider it a positive or neutral coping mechanism.  On the other hand, if someone needs to switch a light on and off 7x, or clean their house all day to make sure there is not a speck of dust on any surface, even if no one is coming over, and their thoughts are telling them they have to do this even though they’d rather go spend time with a friend, then I’d probably want to work with them figure out the better coping tools and see what’s at root of their habits.

Now that we have a little bit better understanding of OCD, let’s apply this to COVID-19.  Right now, most of us are on high alert in fear we’ll come into contact with the virus. We’re washing our hands more, carefully dis-infecting our packages, keeping physical distance, covering our faces with masks, etc.  This is all important, and taking action to prevent ourselves from getting sick may actually help reduce anxiety.  But what happens when this is all done? (It will be, eventually.*)

*There may be a “new normal”, but we have the opportunity to make it a better normal.  A bit more on that topic below.

We can acknowledge the good take-a-ways.  Most of us, including myself, can afford to wash their hands a bit more and for a bit longer.  Some of us can learn to be a bit more diligent about coughing or sneezing into a tissue or their elbow rather than into open air.  

Also, a lot of us may remember from school that there’s a lot of good germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) out there. Actually, as a nature-based therapist, I recommend digging your hand into the soil (some studies say that soil can act as an antidepressant).

So what’s going to keep us from compulsively washing and sanitizing our hands or obsessively thinking that everytime we go out we may contract a deadly virus?

Knowledge. Choice. Courage. Love.

Let me clarify, for someone who has a clinical form of OCD, it’s hardly a choice.  It is, however, a fear-based coping mechanism that has roots, often in some traumatic experience.  We also know that the symptoms of OCD can be greatly reduced with exposure and talk therapy. 

* While many people do find our current pandemic traumatic, by working with our emotions and thoughts in the now, we can limit it’s impact on our mental health.

What irks me the most when I hear others say that “we’re all going to be OCD after this…” (besides the “be” vs. “have” part) is that it ignores human resilience.  By saying everyone is destined to be OCD removes our ability to choose our paths forward. Sure, there are some things beyond our control, but whether it is by our actions, attitudes, or responses, we always have a choice.  As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankle said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

For us, if we can step away from our fear for a moment, we have the ability to look at our options for the future.  To step back from our fear, we must first realize what it is: a natural and primal response to a threat. It activates our flight, fight, freeze response, which is a great response if we’re being attacked by a large predator, not so much if for an invisible-to-the-human-eye virus. In the brain, intense reactions to fear stem from the amygdala, while our prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of our brain, goes offline. In order to get back into a prefrontal cortex, we often need to do an activity that helps us relax.  There’s a ton of options, but physical exercise, deep breathing, going outside, and journaling are the tools I most often share with clients.

When we give ourselves this space, we can then start asking ourselves questions like: What does the science say about the spread of germs?  How do we want to live our life and what is important to us? What behaviors are helpful, and what behaviors keep us from truly living? Collectively, are there any actions we can take to mitigate another pandemic or similar event? (Ex: Vote!)

That fear may still be there.  It may not leave for a while. But remember, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).

If the fear and anxiety seem like too much right now, it also takes courage to ask for help.  Actually, asking for help may be the most courageous act of all, so I encourage you to talk to a friend or seek out a therapist. 

To end, my friends, wash your hands (20-30 seconds is just fine!), but remember to take the courage with you that lives deep inside your hearts.   

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Trying to keep your house nearly dust free with a dog, especially when you live on a dirt hill= impossible!