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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

It’s OK to Feel What You Feel

We've all experienced loss recently, in one form or another. Even if you are among the more fortunate, making yourself feel guilty for feeling your feelings is, ultimately, unhelpful.


My husband had been doing most of the COVID-era grocery shopping. But it was my turn. Armed with mask and bottle of hand sanitizer, I bravely ventured out into the grocery store but became aware that I was increasingly feeling both sad and anxious as my shopping trip progressed.

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I got home, went into the bedroom, and had a long, good cry. It was needed; I felt better afterward and was able to start putting away groceries. Even after years of working in a sometimes-chaotic environment, I’m still basically highly sensitive; its a feature of my personality that is hard-wired. Meditation and self-care can help mitigate it. However, the tendency to get overwhelmed easily or overly emotional is, unfortunately, my constant sidekick.

But, of course, my husband noticed that I’d been crying and wanted to know what was wrong. “I’m OK, I just feel sad,” I told him. I left it at that because last time I started talking about grieving personal losses during this time of COVID, I felt like he was getting irritated. I have it good; there are people in the world with much worse problems than I. He also, sometimes, doesn’t understand that I almost always have a mix of feelings. Lewis Carroll said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Sometimes it seems like I’ve felt at least 20 different, contradictory feelings before lunchtime. This is one of the reasons I’m getting back to my meditation practice after an absence from the cushion; as I said before, my longstanding practice took the edge off this — but, it turns out, zazen isn’t a permanent fix.

Why was I crying? What was this sudden tsunami of grocery-store induced emotion? I think it had just been a long time building up and the grocery store trip was the small seismic quake that set it off.

I was crying for a world in which I now had to wear a mask. I was crying because my glasses fogged when I wore it because my eyes are getting old, and I couldn’t see the signs on the aisles when I took them off and because they fell on the floor when I bent over if I wore them on my head. I was crying because I saw too many people not wearing a mask — didn’t they care about the health of others? I was crying about Black lives, about injustice, and also about the lives that will be lost because people now need to protest amid a pandemic. I was crying because we have a President who has responded to every current situation in the worst possible way. I was crying because I hadn’t seen my oldest daughter, a nurse, since February, except on Zoom, and she was coming over later today for the first time. I was crying tears of joy and also tears at myself for feeling bad for feeling slightly afraid that she might bring something else along, too. I was crying for my younger daughter, who is autistic and was, finally, getting out on her own a bit and having success in her first year of college, only to have all in-person classes canceled—stuck at home with her mother. And, yes, I was crying for her mother. I was lamenting that I was stuck at home with my spouse and her, even though I love them. I was crying because I thought I finally had the opportunity to start working on some projects and personal passions, only to have my burgeoning freedom threatened to be canceled like everything else was being canceled.

Am I just whiny? Was I in the wrong to be grieving personal losses when many have lost more than I have? Grief? Yes, that’s what I was feeling. Grief is a response to loss in any of its forms — not just to death, though that’s usually what we think of when we talk about grief.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had much to say about grief, of course. While her classic book about grief, On Death and Dying, was (as its title suggests) about death, the stages she describes in it can pertain to grief in any of its guises. During this pandemic, I quickly moved on from denial, and have veered back and forth somewhere between anger and depression. I have yet to approach acceptance.

We’ve all lost something during this pandemic. Knowing that can put your own problems into perspective and can also make you feel less alone, even when you’re isolated — “we’re all in this together.” Some have lost much more than others. But beating yourself up for grieving your own losses because others have lost more is just adding an extra helping of guilt onto the multi-layered sandwich of negative emotions and is, ultimately, not helpful (though helping those others who have lost more may be a productive way of dealing with your own grief.)

Guilt does not help with overcoming grief in any of its forms. Shaming yourself for feeling what you feel just adds an extra helping of steaming dukkha onto your emotional plate. Reminding yourself that your problems are relatively small (if they are) may help put things into perspective, but if you’re like me — someone who can find a way to feel guilty about nearly anything — it may just make the problem worse. And, as my daughter once said to me when I tried to use this approach on her, “What? You want me to feel better by thinking of the suffering of others? What kind of person would that make me?”

I wanted to throw a pithy Buddha quote in here — even a fake Buddha meme can add a certain something to your touchy-feely blogpost. I couldn’t find any Buddha-isms specifically about grief, just about staying in the present moment. Well, yes, the present moment is the enemy of grief, but staying there when you’re in the midst of grief is easier said than done. And berating yourself for not being able to stay there is counterproductive. But Buddhism, Zen, mindfulness practice — they do have something to offer when we’re up against dealing with grief.

I think that the best way to deal with grief is to feel it in all of its pain. Let yourself feel sad, both for the problems of the world and also for your own. Things that are happening now are extremely sad, though if you follow Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers, you can find some good news amid the mess. Meditate and let the feelings well up and pass. Let them be what they are and live their grief-y life — and cry if you need to. Let yourself, for a time, waver between anger and bargaining and depression.

Of course, if you find that your grief has, somehow, unnaturally extended its life, it’s time to take a closer look. If old hurts are rising, zombie-like from the grave and coming back to life, if you find your feelings are continually combined with thoughts of self-condemnation and low self-worth, or that when your plate of grief seems to be reaching empty, you reach for a second helping, you may need to find someone to help. Having a non-judgmental listener can be extremely helpful in dealing with grief, someone who won’t enable us our efforts to shame ourselves for our feelings. Sometimes, that person cannot be our partner or a close friend. Listening is hard; while our significant others may want to help, they may be going through their own issues and may not be able to lend an impartial listening ear as much as you need or to separate themselves enough to be neutral.

Ultimately, the best “fix” for grief is no fix. Unless it’s unnaturally prolonged, grief is a normal response to a loss of any sort. The best “fix” is to let it run its course: to feel it, to sit through it, to be it until it diminishes. And, while you’re allowing yourself to feel its pain, to take as good of physical care of yourself as you can. As fake bad haiku Buddha said, “just let that shit go.” But letting go takes time, patience — and treating ourselves gently.

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Perplexity is the pen name of a perpetually perplexed person who used to write and is writing again as DukkhaGirl. She tends to write about Buddhism, meditation, and the like. Her superpower, she thinks, is making herself suffer, thus her superhero name. She tends to write about Buddhism, meditation, and the like though if she's a Buddhist, she's the "bad" type.
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