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3 Ways to Ride the Waves of Grief

it is being honest
my pain
that makes me invincible

— yield
From Salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

One year later, there is still no justice for the more than 215 lives lost, the city torn apart, the national trauma. No justice either for everything that came before it, or after. The Beirut port explosion of August 4th now feels like a physical manifestation of the crumbling of the country under the weight of rampant corruption, entitlement, and neglect. In one terrifying moment, any facades of infrastructure, function, and civility fell away. Walls, ceilings, and windows were rebuilt, but the sensation of absence stayed. Streets echo. Familiar places are suddenly jarring. Beirut seems like a pretend version of itself. All the while, the currency continues to bottom out, social services recede further into the distance along with access to basic necessities, the COVID pandemic alters the landscape of global society as we know it, and the devastation of the climate crisis lays our failures bare. This is a daily heartbreak.

If you struggle to allow yourself to feel heavy, consider this permission.

August is now the month we openly grieve together in Lebanon. What we are grieving is cumulative, collective, and diversified. This is not the kind of grief that comes with predictable closure. I’m going to suggest that it is what’s been called ‘Ambiguous Grief’ by psychologist Dr. Pauline Boss:

While studying families of pilots missing in action during Vietnam in the 1970s, Dr. Boss named ambiguous grief to describe a physical absence with a psychological presence, such as with missing persons (like the military example above), divorce, miscarriage, and desertion. The term also describes psychological absence with physical presence, as with cases of dementia, traumatic brain injury, chronic mental illness, or addiction. And when you’re tasked with handling ambiguous loss, the feelings that arise are often complicated because there’s no real recovery.

“Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process.” says Dr. Boss, “People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.” Unlike with death, there is no proof that allows for any sort of conclusion. There’s no funeral and there’s no script, so to speak, to follow.

“Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.” —psychologist Pauline Boss, PhD

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Even though we are not grieving a missing person, a miscarriage, or chronic illness, we are in a similar state of suspension and discombobulation. There is, ‘no real recovery’. There is no ‘return to what was’. Not in Lebanon, not in the world. There is also no discernable cut off point between what was and what is becoming- the tendrils all intertwine inseparably. The grieving process here is not linear- it is multiple spirals, overlapping and intersecting with each other, at greater and lesser intensities. So how can you ride those waves and integrate your grief in a healthier way? Here are 3 places to start.

1. Lean Into the Pain

If you pull two sides of a knot away from each other, the knot tightens. If you press them towards each other, the knot loosens. The same principle applies to feelings. Lean in. Name the pain. Keep naming it- because the losses keep coming, so you’ll be mourning them in an ongoing way. The nature of the losses change, the way you feel them change, so it’s important to keep checking in. Being aware of what you are feeling helps you notice what your triggers are, what self-care you need, what boundaries are necessary for you, what help is required. Journal daily as a place to let it all out, or schedule moments of intentional reflection.

Turning inwards isn’t about turning away from others though. Isolating yourself can feel inviting when you’re in pain, but being alone has to be balanced by staying connected with family and friends who care and keep you engaged in the world. Reach out to them. Seek a support group as a place to speak openly and provide a listening ear to others.

Don’t take this as an encouragement to wallow, or to be stuck in grief. Acknowledging and engaging the feelings creates movement, and that is the opposite of being stuck. A wound doesn’t heal if you don’t tend it. However, if your grief is affecting your capacity to function or find meaning in life in a way that endangers you, or even if you simply struggle to recognize and work through your emotions, it is important to seek out professional care. If you can’t afford it, there are still resources for you that you might find here.

2. Increase Your Capacity to Bear Uncertainty

Historical moments like these are existentially harrowing for people, as much as they can also offer some excitement or hope. Our sense of predictability and security in the world is stripped away. One might argue this was illusory in the first place, but it’s also true to say that we are in a world that is changing quite quickly into something much less familiar. A different world is on the horizon- we are in the process of making it- but there is no final model or blueprint on the table to refer to. The end result is visibly unknown. We humans have trouble with this set of conditions. That means collective anxiety is through the roof. Here are 4 solid tips on how to manage the anxiety of an uncertain world.

Increasing your capacity to bear uncertainty is all about helping yourself regulate your emotions better. Again, the 4 tips can definitely get you there. Mentioned in them, but worth mentioning separately, is cultivating mindfulness. The more you help your mind (and body) stay in the present moment, the less you worry about what uncontrollable possibilities may occur in the future (just a note that being present in your body can be quite difficult and even triggering for those who have trauma, so build up your tolerance slowly, and get help if it doesn’t feel safe).

Also in the interest of staying present: seek small joys. Find pleasure and gratitude in the little moments of pleasure, of kindness, of ease, of community, that make their way into your day. Seek these types of small moments.

Last but not least, use the power of ritual. Religious rituals like prayer (times of day, location, repetition of words), and fasting (discipline, structure, symbolic times of year) help us to commemorate and give meaning to moments. They focus our intention on them. You can create your own personal rituals to help you commemorate and find closure for the losses you identify. Think of the significant ones. August 4th is now one we do collectively. When was the first day you felt the pandemic shift your life? Is that worth creating a ritual of closure around? Is there another day, another moment, another loss? Maybe it is one you share with a friend, or family member, and you can do together. Every tradition that honors a sad or happy moment, a shift or transition, began because someone conjured it. Ritual helps us feel some control, find meaning, and let go.

3. Build Inner Balance Through Perspective

In the midst of feeling so much grief, and finding new griefs emerging each day, our cognitive tendencies towards negativity may begin to take over. That’s not to say we want to redirect into some toxic pseudo-spiritual pop-positivity. Instead, it is important to help ourselves recognize the whole by gaining perspective. Zooming ourselves way out away from our individual positions in the world, to recognize where we are in the vast cycles of history, in the even vaster expanse of the galaxy, can actually help. Seeing this moment, this year, as a barely perceptible pindrop in time, is a little relieving.

More concretely, helping yourself, day-to-day, put your experience into perspective (without diminishing or dismissing it), is powerful. Acknowledging, day-to-day, both the gains and the losses, the good and the hard, the challenging and the elevating, prevents any one element from entirely eclipsing the other. People can be terrible, the world can be terrible, but every day, some tiny act or moment is so exquisitely beautiful it can bring you to your knees.

No matter how dark the day, some light gets in, and with the light, just enough hope. Perhaps this beautiful poem by Nayyirah Waheed will give you a little more light in a week when the dark might feel too big to bear. Lebanon, I am loving you hard today.

From Salt. by Nayyirah Waheed