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Grief is as old as humanity, and yet, so much about the emotion remains a mystery to us.
There are the Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross that are often cited. Some organizations, like The Groundswell Project out of Australia have published a Death Literary Index. And there are countless communities online to bring people together –- to talk about their loss, their grief, and what the experience is like.
One such community is Rachel Reichblum’s That Good Grief. There, she uses the hashtag #adayinthelifewithgrief to highlight the fact that every single day in grief is different. That it comes in waves. That even years out, you could experience every single aspect of grief –– the highs, the lows, and everything in between –– within a single 24 hour period.
Both the big and small things weigh on you. They also offer levity. There is no right answer. There is no right, or wrong, way to feel. There is only this experience.
And we caught up with Rachel for an Instagram Live Q&A session to talk about that experience, and how it applies –– or doesn’t –– to our current quarantined situations.
Rachel: So my story in short, quick form would be that in the last three and a half years of my life, my dad passed away from glioblastoma, which is a terminal form of brain cancer. About 14 months later, my mom passed away from the same thing. In that time also, my brother struggled with addiction. He's been clean and sober now for 18 months, which is amazing. But in that experience, there was a lot of grief.
I was going to grief retreats. I was reading grief books. I was going to therapy.
And yet, there was so much of my grief experience that felt locked up, and like it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. Not just for me, for all of our grief experiences, all of the little moments of grief, and loss and mourning that we experience as people.
So, I started my Instagram account as a way to document as well as process for myself those moments in time.
Rachel: Oh boy, yeah. I think the one thing that hasn't changed is that every day is different. Grief comes and goes in waves and there's no predicting what the day is going to entail.
What someone who's experienced grief comes to appreciate when they've experienced significant loss, is that in a day you can have the highest highs and the lowest lows. Every moment in and of itself is pretty bittersweet.
Every moment has both that bitterness and that sweetness to it. It can be a happy moment, but some piece of it is missing because you're not able to share it with the one you love.
For me, the point of #adayinthelifewithgrief is that the whole experience of grief can happen within a single day, too.
Rachel: It's helped me talk about those little things that happen all the time. Rather than thinking, "Oh, in therapy, you're not going to talk about how you saw two parents walking with their kid and you were jealous, and felt that pain of sadness and grief."
Instead, you do talk more about these life changing events that have happened, and how they have changed even really small moments for you forever.
Rachel: In quarantine, this whole process is interesting. Our collective and individual experiences right now parallel grief and loss in a lot of different ways. A lot of people in the world right now are experiencing some of the things that those of us who are grieving have known all along. Things like living in a time of organized chaos, of uncertainty, of a lack of control.
What I have discovered is that, at first, it was really easy to discount this experience as something I've been through before.
"I've got this handled," I thought. I know how to deal with chaos. I know how to deal with uncertainty. I know how to deal with the unexpected. I know how to deal with things when they are completely out of my control.
And yet, this experience doesn’t not wear on me because I know how to do all of those things. The emotional response to it comes and goes in waves, just like my other experiences with grief. I go from, "It is what it is. What can I do?" To a place of, "Oh crap. What am I doing?"
The one thing I found kind of surprising early on was I didn't really associate the loss of my parents with the quarantine experience. Their loss was something personal to me, and I felt like because this is such an unprecedented, unparalleled experience, I had nothing to pull on.
So much of the time that I miss my parents, it's because I'm in a situation where I would love nothing more than to talk to them about it, tell them about it, experience something with them. And we certainly never went through something like this before together. So it's hard for me to even pull on those strings rather than just general grief and loss.
Rachel: There is so much grief right now to go around. I feel like people are learning what grief is and what it feels like through no choice of their own.
That grief comes through this quarantine experience of feeling isolated from the people around us, disconnected from thinking about what we lost to what we wanted to have happen during this time. It's really hard to just let any of that go without feeling some sort of loss.
And that's a very valid feeling that I want to normalize for people. That grief is a legitimate feeling.
It can be something as small as because you were supposed to take a trip with a friend one weekend to your wedding got canceled and postponed, or whatever it may be. All of it is completely valid.
The biggest lesson grief taught me in general was we're not in control. There are things you're in control of, but the extent that you are in control of anything is limited to your own physical body. That is it.
There is nothing past my physical being that I am in control of. And even sometimes we can find that we’re not in control of our own bodies, either. That can be really hard in a time of grief, as well.
What you can control is in your own head. It is your own thinking, your own motivation. All of that is all that you have control over as an individual.
Rachel: Yeah, I think there are a couple of different things that I tend to turn to.
These are unprecedented times. And in times like these, we invent new things. For me, it's something as small as getting enough sleep. That is absolutely essential, a non negotiable.
I've always been jealous of the people who are like, "I can get four hours of sleep and then function perfectly." And I'm like, "Well, I would be a literal disaster and not get a single thing done."
So, for me, that's what I have to do and I can't fight it because it's truly my biology.
Another thing is just creating space, and allowing yourself to feel what you're feeling.
The longer you fight a feeling, the more overwhelming it's going to become. You have to try to find the space and the time to let that feeling pass through, whether it's good or bad.
I always try to think about leaning into the good and leaning into the bad, because both are equally fleeting.
Now, all of this is easier said than done for sure. I’m also trying to not judge myself if it's a Sunday and I'm like, "I could really use a nap right now." Honestly, that would be my presidential platform: “Just take naps.”
Rachel: I will admit, the intention initially was pretty selfish. It was like, "I have these daily feelings. I need somewhere to process them and talk about it. And so I'm going to create this thing just so I can say it and put my words out there and then kind of walk away."
It's so interesting to be here now a year and a half later, and realize that it's very much a two way street. If anything, I'm getting more from it than I'm giving to it.
That's because the best thing to discover about grief is the community that surrounds it.
There are so many other people who know the experience, know the feelings, have been there before and can relate to you on a level that you otherwise would've had no access to.
For me, it's been super rewarding to see people who have similar stories, especially when you think you were the only person in the world who's experienced something. Also, being able to connect with people on a human level at a global scale, and share resources, and share moments and feel community around it –– that is all so magical.
Rachel: It's funny! Before I started my account, I did not do any research about what was already out there. I think part of that was actually a really good thing because if I had seen how much great content around grief and loss in the community that surrounds it existed already, I think I would have been scared out of creating anything at all.
What I've found is that there is still value to be added. The goal is to bring grief and this experience full circle for people. I work in the media world and my expertise is in curating information.
So, my account uses a lot of other people's artwork and resources, for example. I give everyone tons of credit for what they’ve created. I see my account as an aggregator of all the great grief content out there.
People can read a newsletter and in it, everything includes a recap and a summary of what I’ve found to be truly helpful.
I think that that's super valuable and seems to resonate. So I just want to say that even without creating content, there's still value to your skills and your words matter. And it can really help people in their time of need.
Rachel: My favorite book for all beginners, intermediate and expert level grief people and friends of people who are grieving who want to have access is certainly Modern Loss by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner.
It's made up of different kinds of grief, different people's stories, different experiences of loss from the full spectrum.
As someone who's specialized in grief, the book was really helpful, because that first year or so after that experience was definitely loaded with just mourning the loss that we were experiencing and not what it meant for everything else in my life.
Now with some distance, I've evolved to get closer to that, to think about it in that larger way.
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