“If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it.” –Brene Brown

A sense of loss is pervasive and universal during this pandemic. So much has been lost: loved ones, jobs, celebrations and rituals, guiding rhythms, vacations, safety and security, private and public spaces, physical connection… the list is unbelievably long. However, during this time so many of us find ourselves thinking, “Well, I shouldn’t be sad about losing my job because Trish lost her parents” or “How can my son be sad about missing his graduation when the world is losing hundreds of people per day?” Or “I don’t have the right to feel upset about my situation, I’m not out there risking my life on the front lines everyday.” This is called comparative grief and, although natural, it’s not healthy.

Grieving for what is lost is a normal and valid response. Feelings, such as loss, signal us to pay attention to something important that has happened so that we can manage and heal it. When we bear compassionate witness to loss, we are better able to cope with the event and heal the feelings exposed by it. However, when we rank or compare our feelings to those of others, we block this process. Rather than bearing compassionate witness to feelings of loss, comparative grieving dismisses the significance of the loss and judges the feelings as being unimportant or not worthy of attention. We then try to exile the feelings and disregard them.

Unfortunately, this teaches our system that such feelings and situations are to be avoided or eliminated. Consequently, when we encounter similar feelings and experiences in the future our system tries to eliminate and avoid, instead of witness and cope. But exiled feelings don’t actually go away, they linger in our bodies and mind, causing us to be disconnected from our authentic selves without us knowing. In the long run, exiling feelings can lead to a variety of maladaptive coping methods such as obsessive worried thinking, compulsive behavior, chronic distractibility, dissociation, drinking, drugging and other numbing/avoidance tactics. 

Uncomfortable emotions are a part of life. We cannot eliminate them. At no time in our recent history has this reality been more readily apparent. This pandemic brings the inevitable uncertainty and discomfort associated with the ever-changing nature of life, which always includes loss, into full view. The most important thing we can do for ourselves and our children during this time is to bear compassionate witness to feelings so we can model and teach how to cope with the uncertainty of life. This is what builds resilience.

Your children’s losses are real. Your partner’s losses are real. Your losses are real. All of those losses deserve witness. None of them need be compared to anything. Take the time to bear compassionate witness to loss and other feelings within your family. When you allow yourself and your family members to grieve for losses without comparing them, you are giving everyone the space to heal and tap into their innate capacity for resilience.

For more on grief visit www.grief.com

Click here for an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on this topic.