Hope Edelman: ...how to deal with grief, the pandemic, and the holidays
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: This year, more than any other, has been a year of pain and loss. We've watched helplessly as family, friends, and even strangers on television describe losing people they care about to the pandemic. How do we process these losses?
Jan: Our guest on this episode, Hope Edelman, is an internationally recognized expert in the field of grief. Hope was a teenager when her mother passed away. She says the death of a loved one isn't something we get over, get past, put down, or move beyond. She's written extensively on the topic and is the author of the books, Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers, among others. Her newest book is called, The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief. Hope, we thank you so very much for joining us.
Hope: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Jan: Tell us more about what you mean by the term, AfterGrief.
Hope: As you mentioned, my mother died when I was 17. My father died when I was 40. Both of those losses are now, for me, in the past. Like many of your listeners, I'm sure, and maybe even yourselves, after a major loss, I kept bumping up against these cultural messages that grief was something I would get over, I would get past, I would move on. There were all of these platitudes about getting back to life. What I discovered, especially as the decades passed, was that the people I loved who had died were still very much a part of me. I needed to keep them, somehow, in my present in some type of relationship. I didn't have a lot of guidance about how that might work. I started writing The AfterGrief because I thought, "What does grief look like 20 years later? 30 years later? Especially if we had a loss during our very formative years. During our childhood, or our teenage years, or young adulthood." There wasn't even a vocabulary to discuss it.
I remember just thinking, "What comes after grief?" Because it's not grief anymore. It's not like I'm waking up every morning feeling like I don't know how I can go on without these people in my life because my life has gone on for decades. I developed the term 'the AfterGrief' to give us a vocabulary to discuss how these losses cycle back around, what resurgences of grief look like even decades later, and how we can also transform a major loss in the past into a kind of meaning and purpose for us later in life.
Laura: What does that grief look like for you all these years later? How do you deal with it during the holiday season since it seems like that would be a time when you would feel it the most?
Hope: It often is, for a lot of people it is. What it looks like for me are long periods of sweet, good memories punctuated by occasional spikes of grief because I'm reminded of what I lost or of what my mom or my dad lost by dying so young. In my mother's case at only 42. The holidays are a time when those grief spikes do occur for a lot of people, perhaps because we are thinking of our loved ones, especially this year when so many people need to spend the holidays by themselves, or in very small pods of people rather than their extended families.
It looks like long periods of what feel like normalcy. The word 'Joy' has returned to my life and in multitudes punctuated by those kinds of resurgences of grief that comes cyclically. There are times during the year, anniversary events, when these spikes are predictable, like a death anniversary, or the holidays, or a birthday. But there are also one-time events that we approach and anticipate and then pass. In the population that I work with, which is mostly adults who lost parents during childhood, reaching and passing a parents age at time of death, or a big milestone event, like a graduation, or a wedding, or becoming a parent.
There are also these moments that are called 'Sneak Attacks' in the bereavement world where you're just driving down the road and a song comes on the radio, or you see someone in the crowd that looks like your dad, or is wearing the same kind of scarf that your mother had, or wearing her perfume, and you have that moment where [throat clearing], you know? You're kind of blindsided by a grief spike. Then it just takes a while for it to pass, it can be a matter of minutes, can be hours, for some people it can be days depending on a number of factors. That's what grief tends to look like over the long term.
But it also can transform in many people into what is known in the bereavement literature as Post-Traumatic Growth. That means that this loss can become a springboard for an enhanced sense of meaning in your life, a larger sense of purpose, either for those around you or for the greater good out in the world for altruistic works. That is something that only occurs over the long term though, we don't typically lose somebody that we love and then a few weeks later have a whole sense of meaning and purpose. It's possible, but that's something that we tend to see only over time when we look back and we realize, "Yes, there are these things in my life today that were inspired by what I learned from that loss. That occurs along what I call 'The Long Arc of Loss.'
Jan: What are you witnessing that's different this year compared to years past since you work with people who are grieving all the time.
Hope: That's a great question, I'm going to answer that in two parts. One is, 'What am I noticing in the population of people I already work with?' and 'What am I noticing in the culture at large?' I'll start with the culture at large because we are experiencing collective grief this year. Almost 300,000 people have died, we're expecting more. People have lost the things that perhaps gave their life structure, or even in some cases gave their lives meaning and purpose before. We've also lost this, a lot of us, the idea of our anticipated or projected futures. We're existing on a continuum where we don't know what pieces of the past are going to be brought into the future, or what the future is going to look like. A lot of people are experiencing that is very disorienting and a loss of the kind of security, or stability, or expectations, or assumptions about the future that they once held.
Of course people are dying, not just of COVID, but of other factors this year as well. Some that are related to access to medical care, some that would have occurred anyway. But we've lost the ability to mourn our loved ones and bury them the way that we are accustomed to and is meaningful to us. There's a tremendous amount of collective grief right now. Everyone in the bereavement field is noticing that and working as best we can to mitigate the long-term effects of that; help people still find meaning in their mourning, and make sure that we can go back and reclaim the pieces that were important to us once we can get back to gathering again. That’s collective grief.
In my population, I'm noticing a couple of really interesting responses. One is that the pandemic and what we're all going through, and those associated losses, are reactivating some grief from the past. Even if we haven't lost a loved one in this past year, some of the feelings of confusion, or perhaps helplessness or loss of control, are reminiscent of having grieved in the past. Maybe bringing us back somatically in our bodies, or in our emotions, to prior states of loss that we had experienced, especially if we were younger and didn't get to resolve them, or work on them, or process them, or adjust to them at the time.
What I'm also seeing, and this I find really fascinating, in this population is this sense that, 'I have gotten through hard things before. I have a kind of resilience that I didn't know I had, I'm discovering. I can face adversity and I can help others through it because I know that we will manage. I've gotten through a hard thing before, I know I can get through a hard thing again.' That conversation was a very vibrant one on my Facebook author's page, predominantly among adults who lost parents when they were young. Talking about, "Yeah, I've always been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm prepared for it. I have the sense that bad things can happen. Bad things will happen again. I'm discovering that I'm actually, as an adult, more prepared and ready for it than when I was when I was younger and that's giving me an unexpected feeling of competence."
Even when we're not in a pandemic and losing loved ones, or friends, or acquaintances to COVID, those who lose a loved one around the holiday season would go through this anyway. They would not have a normal holiday season. November and December, there's a 1 in 6 chance that, if you're going to lose a loved one, it will happen in November or December, statistically speaking.
Jan: Oh really?
Laura: I didn't know that.
Hope: There are lots of people who lose a loved one around the holidays anyway. I work with a lot of clients who say, "My mom died Thanksgiving weekend." Or "I lost my father around New Year's." They're having death anniversary events at the same time as the holidays moving forward as well, it puts a damper on Thanksgiving weekend forever more. If your loved one died the day after Thanksgiving, or in a car on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, I've actually heard that more than once.
Laura: I know it doesn't make it easier or harder to process it necessarily, but I imagine that even though it's been so long for you, maybe the holidays are a rough time when you get together and maybe you see a cousin who still has a mother, and it just reminds you of that. I'm wondering, if you're not around those people during the holidays, is that somewhat easier or harder?
Hope: You're saying if you're not around the usual holiday triggers, might the season be easier for you? That's possible. There is something in psychoanalysis called, The Holiday Syndrome, that I've read about. It was written in the 70's, about how people tend to get depressed around holiday season if they don't have close families to spend it with. Oftentimes if you've lost one or more central family member, perhaps you have memories of warm and loving holidays that came to a stop. People tend to have this between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Some people enter a low-level depression around holiday time. I've definitely, definitely heard about that from my clients. I'm a coach, that's why I refer to clients. I lead retreats, I was leading them in person now we do work online. I suppose under those circumstances, it could be easier.
I'm hearing from a lot of people who are just grieving that they can't have their regular holiday traditions this year. They look forward every year to this time, or their children do. I've been working with people to just do a little bit of reframing around that and say, "Yeah, we are not able to spend the holidays, this year, in the way that we are accustomed to, or look forward to, or hope to, or wish we could. But let's all hope that this is a one-time event, that we are not in this phase next year.
Jan: Yeah, let's hope.
Hope: And it's looking like we won't be. It's looking very hopeful that we will be able to gather again, as close to typical or normal as possible by next Thanksgiving and next Christmas. Let's think of this as a special one-time event and make it a special one-time event that we will look back on in the future. I talk a lot with my clients and in my work about planting seeds for your future self. What story would you like to be able to tell, five years from now, about the COVID Christmas?
Laura: That's interesting.
Hope: Or the COVID New Year? Or the COVID Thanksgiving? When you look back, what story would you like to be able to tell? Do you want to tell the story where it was a very sad time because you didn't get to spend the holidays the way you wanted, so you just let it go and had no holidays at all? Maybe that's okay, maybe that is the story you want to tell, which is fine.
But maybe the story that you'd rather tell is that you made this year a one-time event in a certain way. In what way would you like to do that? What way could you make it meaningful? Maybe even test a tradition that you might want to carry forward in the future, replicate, and fold in and remember, "This was our COVID year tradition. We developed it that year and we're going to carry it forward." To me personally, that's a kinder and more uplifting story to tell. I've been looking at ways that, "How can this year be different and special so I can talk about that in the future. Yeah, we had this one-time experience and this is what we did."
Jan: Is it your sense that people are more understanding and compassionate about helping others cope with grief right now than they were before the pandemic? Has this enriched our ability to help others ?
Hope: We'll find out. I think we'll find out in the future when we see what the echo effects are. I do think we're becoming a more grief-literate culture than we were in the past because it's almost unavoidable now because of all of this collective grief. I hope that people are becoming more fluent. I hope that The AfterGrief gives them some vocabulary to talk about some of this later. I do develop other terms in there just to give people a shared language to discuss experiences that we weren't really talking about before. I think we'll find out.
In my community, I do find people being enormously altruistic and compassionate. They are also learning new forms of self-compassion to help themselves get through this year through certain coaching exercises that we do. But I hope so, the answer that question is, I hope so. But I think it still remains to be seen.
Laura: I think people are also really being a lot more open about their mental health struggles, which is refreshing. Although the suicide rate is so high right now, I believe it was 1 in 4 young people have considered suicide during the pandemic. Do you think that we need to be very concerned for the emotional well-being of young people, especially if they have lost somebody and they don't have someone and, really, we can't help them because we can't be with them?
Hope: I think we need to be concerned about the mental health of young people in this society in general, and a lot more concerned than we have been as a culture. Part of that is because those of us in the next generation, I have two children who are almost 19 and 23, I'm living with them right now, or they're living with me. I'm seeing the world that they inhabit and how different it is from mine and how much of their experience I really just don't understand because things have changed in so many ways so quickly between my generation and theirs. Yes, we absolutely need to be concerned about them.
As the adults who will be helping them, or who they might turn to, and also some of their peers, need to really learn and educate ourselves about what it means to lose a loved one during the teenage years and during young adulthood, which is very different than losing someone during early childhood or losing a loved one as a full-on adult and later in life. They are going through so many rapid changes, including ongoing brain development up until, we believe, somewhere in the mid- to even late 20's. Their experience right now is, if they are in a state of isolation, we should be deeply concerned about them.
One of the symptoms of suicidal ideation is an inability to be able to see a future for yourself and that concerns me deeply. Right now, we are living in a time when many elements of the future feel really uncertain, so all of us are wondering what's coming next. Everyone I know doesn't have a real firm footing about what we're going to be able to do or experience three months from now, let alone six months from now. Someone who is already susceptible to feeling like they can't see a future for themselves, then to be in a collective experience where the future is unknown, I'm concerned that would make them at even higher risk.
I'm working with clients right now, not who are talking about suicide, fortunately, but just in general about what pieces of your past, or of your present right now, can you reasonably expect to carry into the future? Let's really focus on and enhance some of those because it's a grounding experience. It helps us feel more centered, to feel like, "Okay, a month from now, I'd like to be able to focus on this, or do this, or experience this. What steps can I take now to make that happen." We have to focus on goals that we feel we reasonably can achieve. It can't be, "Oh, I want to be in Italy in three months," for example, because we don't know if Americans are going to be able to travel to Italy in three months. But it might be, "I'd like to finish that quilt that my mom started that I never finished. Yeah, I think I can probably get that done in the next month or two."
Jan: Interesting. Hope, what advice would you have for someone who is hearing this and really feeling a sense of loss? Where would you suggest people turn if they're kind of having a crisis right now? What are the resources? Maybe they don't have a lot of money, maybe they lost a job.
Laura: Maybe just a virtual grief support group or something.
Jan: Where would you suggest that people turn?
Hope: If somebody has a very recent loss, I would suggest finding a local bereavement center. A great place to look for that is at dougie.org. They have a drop-down list where you can look for any place near you. While all of these centers used to have in-person groups that required that you get there, some of them now have been able to expand their reach, so even if it's one or two cities over, you might be able to join a virtual group.
It's so important to be able to listen to, express, and share your story if you feel comfortable doing so with other people who are in the same place and can understand. This became so apparent to me when I started leading retreats for Motherless Daughters, which I began about four or five years ago. I saw the experience that women had when they sat in a circle with 23 or 25 other women who understood them, as well as this population can understand each other. You discover that your story is radically unique, but there's also a lot of overlap, and you learn from each other. I would recommend that.
If your loss occurred in the past and you're having, what I was calling these resurgences or these recurrences of grief, we have free resources that every month we're adding more at theaftergrief.com. There's not a lot out there for someone who is experiencing, or is revisiting or experiencing a grief spike years or decades later. I recommend anything we've got at theaftergrief.com. There's also a Facebook community that's very active right now, where people are talking about how losses from the past are still affecting them in the future, particularly now in the age of COVID.
Laura: I've always thought about how anyone who you lost wouldn't want you to be sad for the rest of your life. Is there a way to really convince yourself that this is true? How did you help yourself realize that there would be life after this and, like you said, you would realize that you were actually more resilient?
Hope: I will say it's true that anyone who loves you doesn't want you to spend the rest of your life feeling sad because they're not there. I find that to be one of the least helpful things to say to someone who's grieving.
I heard that a lot when I was a kid, "Your mom wouldn't want you to be sad." What that was saying to me was, "Don't be sad." I remember thinking, even at 17, "A really sad thing just happened to me, sadness actually seems to be an appropriate response."
Hope: Of course my mother wouldn't want me to be sad for the rest of my life. But in all honesty, if I were to die, I actually want my daughters to be sad. I know that it sounds strange, but I would liked to have been a good enough mother that they will miss me. Of course I don't want them to be sad for the rest of their lives. I don't want that to become a crippling emotion for them moving forward. But I want them to miss me because I'd like to think that I was a good enough mom that they would.
I think we need to remove ourselves from the context of what our loved ones would have wanted. We don't really know what our loved ones would have wanted, we can assume that someone who loves us wouldn't want us to be sad. But I also think we need to acknowledge or it's helpful to acknowledge that sadness is an appropriate response to losing someone that we love, especially for men. Men get so many messages about suppressing their emotions and not showing their sadness. They do show sadness differently than women do.
This is a whole area of bereavement research that I got deeply into when I was writing The AfterGrief. This book, The AfterGrief, is for men and women. I interviewed a significant number of men for this book and even the interviews needed to be done differently to help them open up and share their stories because their experience of grief is so different than women's. We, as a culture, tend to think of grief as pounding our chests, wailing, crying, talking about it, and feeling despair.
The reason that we think of grief in that way, I believe, is because most of the research on grief was done on female psychiatric patients in the first half of the 20th century. Our idea of what grief looks like, or should look like, was coming from some of the most extreme cases, meaning women who were hospitalized and women and female patterns of bereavement. Whereas the masculine model of grief is to work your way through your feelings by doing through action.
Other cultures know this. They know that the genders tend to, for reasons of social conditioning, but also perhaps it's believed because of hormones, our physiological makeup, that men process their emotions after a loss through activity, and women process it through emoting. In The AfterGrief, I write about, this was the clearest example I could find of this, I write about a Hindu caste whose mourning practices divide exactly along gender lines. After someone in the family dies, let's say the male head of a household, typically the men will be assigned all of the tasks for the funeral, the cremation and everything around taking care of the body. Whereas the women will be guided into a special designated room in the house, a female elder from the community comes, all the women who know the family come over and they all go in the room together. The women in the family are guided through a process that helps them release their emotions in public or in community. Whereas the men are off doing all of the instrumental tasks. Culturally, that is the practice.
In Western research, more recently, it has been found that we actually need a little bit of both to adjust well over the long-term. In Western culture, the expectations that are placed on us, because grief is so culturally relative, women can also be given some tasks or guided into more masculine, what is thought of as masculine forms of grief when they are and when men are encouraged to express their emotions more and not only grieve only through activity, that the long-term adjustment for both genders tends to be more effective, I should say.
Jan: Hope, how does the human body respond to grief?
Hope: That's such a good question because we do have physiological responses to grief. Sleeplessness, oftentimes disturbances in appetite, some people can't eat, some people eat too much. There's a really interesting body of case studies where mourners or the bereaved, will adopt some of the same physical symptoms as the person who died. Oftentimes, subconsciously they'll do this around anniversary events like the first anniversary of a death, the 10th anniversary of a death, almost like the body has an internal calendar and knows when these things are coming up even when the mind is not registering it.
For example, it's not uncommon to see a client, or a patient, complaining of intense headaches when there seems to be no physiological reason for it. But then a psychiatrist might discover that it is the 10th anniversary of a loved one's death from a brain tumor, for example. Or we see men sometimes starting to have chest pains or shortness of breath for no physiological reason when they're about to reach the age their dad died of a heart attack. The body does keep the score as Bessel van der Kolk says.
We also see, physically, when we don't have an opportunity to express our grief, to share it, to tell the story to somebody else, to release any emotions that we're feeling, or to grieve through activity if you're a man, the stress and the tension in the body can result in physical symptoms later. There's a lot of research about early trauma and how if it's unexpressed, or unaddressed, or in the grief world we say unattended to, so unattended grief can show up in physical ways later.
It's believed that certain autoimmune conditions might be related to unexpressed grief. There are certain types of cancer, definitely hypertension and heart disease are linked oftentimes to the stress of holding your emotions in over a long period of time.
Laura: We've asked you this before but we're going to ask it again in a little bit of a different way. What did nobody tell you about grieving during the holidays that you wish that they had before your first holiday season without your mom?
Hope: Let me think about that. Nobody told me how sad I would feel every year and that it was okay, that it would be cyclical, and that I could feel two emotions at once. I can be really sad that my mom wasn't there and my family wasn't cohesive in the same way and couldn't maintain the same traditions without her, but also feel happy when I found new traditions to follow. It was okay that I can feel two truths at once, nobody told me that. Nobody told me that the human heart and brain were complex enough to be able to hold two competing emotions side-by-side.
Laura: I read about somebody who said that they felt like this holiday season had them feeling two things, grief and gratitude, and that's exactly what you said.
Hope: Yes, exactly. The work of Francis Weller actually talks about that. He talks about the prayer of life. Take sorrow in one hand and gratitude in the other, place your palms together, and that's the prayer of life.
Jan: Wow. We absolutely love the work that you do. We wonder if you would share for us how people can connect with you on social media and the internet and find out more about the wonderful suggestions you have.
Hope: Thank you so much for offering that to your listeners. You can find me at hopeedelman.com. You can also find my work at theaftergrief.com. I have, in January, four free live events coming up. I know this holiday season is hard for people, so you can get a free gift for yourself, or you can give this free gift to someone you love who has a loss in the past. Four Sundays in a row in January, there'll be free live events.
I'm really excited, also in February, I'm starting a brand new coaching circle, just 12 people per group with two groups, so only 24 people. We still have a couple slots open. I'm going to be guiding people through revisiting their losses and rewriting their stories forward into more strengthening and empowering futures. That starts in February, it will be a six-month program. Then there's free resources available too, hopeedelman.com and theaftergrief.com.
Laura: Wow, that all sounds like it's so valuable. You're just providing such a service to people who've lost somebody and I really hope people take advantage of everything you're doing.
Hope: Thank you so much. We really need to create resources for people who have losses in the past that are showing up in the present. If you're getting married, let's say, and you call a bereavement center and say, "Gosh, my dad's not here to walk me down the aisle and I'm feeling so sad about his death. I'm really looking for some support or a group." The first question that's asked, or one of the first questions is, "When did he die?" If you say 12 years ago or 15 years ago, there usually aren't any resources for you except private counseling and not everyone has the ability to do private counseling.
But also, generally people want to talk with others and say, "How did you handle this when you went through it?" and look for ideas or support around it. We're trying to build out those resources so because grief is a lifelong process. It doesn't mean you suffer the rest of your life, it doesn't mean you're grieving the rest of your life. When you enter The AfterGrief, there's still a need for ongoing support. Thank you very much for letting your listeners know that it's available.
Jan: Hope, we thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us. We've been talking with Hope Edelman. Again, hopeedelman.com is her website. Her books include, Motherless Daughters, Motherless Mothers, and the latest, The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief. You can find more information about that at theaftergrief.com. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.