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Dealing with grief and loneliness at Christmas

By Dr Gerard Hutchinson

The dictionary definition of grief describes it as an experience of intense sorrow or sadness after having experienced a loss. This feeling is particularly troubling when that loss involves the death of someone who was very close either as a relative or friend.

When the death of that someone means that a vital connection with the world is lost, for example when a mother or spouse dies, the expression of grief is aligned with a sense of loneliness or being left alone—a feeling that itself can exaggerate the feelings of grief and lead to greater psychological distress.
A study in the USA reported that an estimated average of nine people are negatively affected when someone dies. When the death is associated with Covid-19, the pain is deeper because of all the quarantining, social distancing and isolation protocols that have come to be associated with this viral pandemic and the fears associated with its spread.

The sadness that arises has physical, emotional, and social effects that can last for lengthy periods of time. A concept of complicated or prolonged grief has been introduced to account for the individuals, in whom this mix of physical, emotional, and social pain takes a longer time to resolve and creates other problems, like the inability to cope with daily stresses or to return to carrying out the necessary functions of life. This all leads to a sense of vulnerability about our own security and survival.

However, as Brené Brown has noted, vulnerability is the foundation of human connection, and the acknowledgment and acceptance of its effects is the first step toward successful or adaptive coping.
The recognition that the struggle with life is a struggle against death is one that only becomes significant when one is tormented by the loss or the absence of a loved one.

The realisation that this person or persons were central to your appreciation of life and acknowledging what has been lost in their absence also reminds you that you too will also have to face death and that journey is singular and personal.

This is where loneliness and grief unite, the understanding that without human connection life is almost meaningless. That is the pain of loneliness, not just the sense of being alone but the feeling that one has been disconnected from a valued and life-affirming connection and presence.

The Christmas Season is a time where presence (and presents) generates an atmosphere of sharing and human connection that powerfully intersect to help us celebrate its deep significance. It is also a time of rebirth, so the contrast with death is also quite stark.

It is a time of family gatherings and warmth, even celebration, and it is natural that those we have lost return even more vividly to mind with the accompanying grief and sense of loneliness.
Our helplessness in the face of the inevitability of death runs counter to the sense of control and order that we try to impose on the world, and this sets up another axis of despair when we contemplate the loss of our loved ones and all the things we should have or wanted to do with or for them. The realisation is that they will no longer be with us, and we must bear the pain without judgement.

These lessons have been starkly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic and its indifference to our self-selected and determined priorities and desires, and our illusion of control.
The need  is to appreciate the degree to which we are not in control and accept and surrender to the reality of this without becoming demoralised by our powerlessness, and instead use it to affirm life and maximise your involvement with the people you care about and those with whom you come into contact during your daily activity.

Acceptance, awareness, and surrender are powerful tools to utilise at the times when our sense of being alone is most profound. It can only be soothed by a sense of gratitude for the benefit of learning about oneself through the lens of grief and loneliness, and a commitment to healing through the experience—not trying to avoid or deny it.

Even in times of the greatest distress, affirming the beauty and fundamental unity of life as a force for growth and mastery is a path to meaning and purpose, and to get closer to the spiritual wells that serve your soul.

Perseverance and patience become the attributes that lead to overcoming of distress. All things are transient, and the hands of time are not controlled by your needs or desires.
Even if our own lives and those whom we love who are present will someday be no more, we must attempt to derive as much meaning as is possible from our presence here and the presence of the people that are integral parts of our life.

In conclusion, be prepared to engage your emotions, don’t hide or run away from them. Use methods like grief journalling to achieve this, use your emotional response to better understand who you are and the place that the person you have lost and yourself share in the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made self-care and resilience universal buzzwords, and these are necessary tools in the path toward transformation and healing. Dr Lisa Miller, Clinical Psychologist at Columbia University has proposed that one’s resilience is enabled primarily by one’s spiritual core and this core is the deepest source of renewal, revival, and persistence.

It is therefore critical that significant attention is paid to developing and strengthening one’s spiritual core.
If the capacity to bear and manage the feelings generated by grief and loneliness become too much to manage then one should seek help, talk to someone, identify and explore other perspectives but most of all, do not withdraw and give up. Grief is a way to appreciate all that you have more abundantly.
Human cooperation is among our most powerful tools to face challenges, develop solutions to problems and create new vistas to marvel at and embrace. Just so with life, seek to become part of something greater than yourself.

You should engage your commitment to the common good, start a project in your community, even as a testament to those who are no longer with us. The busyness of modern life has left us little time to dwell in the glow of friendship and when you are grieving and lonely, friendship can be our greatest balm.