What Does Grief Look Like?

The Parts of Grief We Do Not Expect and Do Not Talk About

I am a Covid Widow. I lost my partner of nineteen years at the very beginning of the pandemic before we knew what Covid was, and before it was being diagnosed. We do not have an official diagnosis of Covid as the cause of death for my partner, however, all of the signs and symptoms and her cause of death point to Covid as the cause.

Since losing my late wife, I have become a non-consensual expert on Grief. Not only do I sit in and process my own grief, but I now have a collection of widow friends (we call ourselves “the weeping”) that I have formed a deep and intimate relationship with over these past eighteen months. Having a community of people who know what it is like to be a griever is a game-changer in being able to sit with and process grief. My weeping and baking bread are probably the two things that have made it possible to continue to exist in space with folks.

This blog isn’t necessarily about me and my experience with grief and it’s not about all of the usual mainstream conversations around grief, either. This blog is about the unspoken pieces of grief and the things that crept up or surprised us Weeping Widows while going through our Journeys.

grief is normal

First off…

Grief is not a horizontal line, and it’s not even a circle. Grief is like an ocean. Some days you have giant capsize your boat waves, and sometimes you just have little laps on the shore.

Grief has a starting point but never an end point. I think this is one of the hardest things to learn when going through the process. So many folks ask me when grief will end. I am the forever optimist and I want to say that it will end soon or someday, but the realist in me (and the griever) has to say unfortunately, never. Grief stays with you. At first it’s really intense and ever-present. As it continues to flow through you (and as you continue to process along your journey) it evolves. It still can be intense and ever-present, but hopefully those days get further apart and don’t linger as long as they did in the beginning.

Grieving is unpredictable and pops up in strange ways during the most inconvenient times. It can be a song or a smell, a bird or a flower, or something you didn’t know was going to bring on strong feelings. When talking with my widow friends, we all agree that those “surprise griefs” are the worst. Surprise griefs are the moments that show up when you least expect them; you have no idea where they came from. These are moments in grief that you can’t prepare for.

I asked my widow friends what were the things that surprised them the most after they lost their person, and here are their responses:

The build-up is always worse than the day…

The buildups to the big anniversary milestones (birthdays, hospitalizations, etc.) are hard and painful. We spend so much time and brainpower thinking about all the things that are, were, or what could be. We are also just anxious about how it’s going to be on the actual day. I have had 18 months worth of anniversaries and this statement is always true: The build-up has always been worse than the actual day. When the day comes, it might be sad, but it is never as tragically sad as we prepared for.

Those who you thought would stick around don’t, and those you didn’t think would stick around, will.

Is very interesting to see who stays after a significant loss. Everyone shows up obviously for the first two weeks to a month after the death, and then the world tapers off and gets back doing their thing. At this point, we as grievers are left feeling very lonely. Many of the people that I thought would hang around and be supportive did not support me, and I was constantly surprised by who was able to lean in and stay present even after that first month.

Grief math or “Widow Math” as I call it.

This is the subconscious need to countdown until the next significant event. How many days until the next anniversary? how many days has it been since the first anniversary? how many days until I’m older than they were ever going to be again? That constant counting of time is our brains trying to keep us connected to the human we lost, and also breaking down forever into measurable moments. It is not an anxiety easing process or technique. In fact, grief math is incredibly difficult and intrusive for most folx.

It’s really hard to be around people who don’t also experience grief.

This one surprised me. I am a people person and I love to be with people. I now find it hard to be around people who don’t know what it’s like to experience grief on a cellular level the way I have. I’ve asked a lot of widows about this, and this is something that they feel as well. It is a common theme. We tend to lean into each other and into our network because it’s a lot easier to be around people who get it than it is to explain it.
You see grief and death everywhere.

Until becoming a widow, I never realized every show has a character who deals with some sort of significant loss. Many shows have widowers or widdudes as we call them in the Widow’s Club. You can’t help but see those characters differently after joining the Widow Club/Grief Club. Or maybe you didn’t even notice that character at first, and then that’s all you can see.

The body remembers before your brain will.

There is something to be said about the body keeping score. We hold trauma in our bodies, and our body then reacts in somatic ways. My body told me an anniversary was coming up before the calendar did. It was shocking to make the connection between the physical pain and the proximity of the anniversary. Grief does not just hurt emotionally, it hurts physically, as well.

minnesota counseling can help

What is the takeaway from all of this?

If you are a griever:

Find a community. Find people who know what it’s like to experience what you have experienced. A community will give you common language, and most importantly connection. Grief is such an isolating experience that creates such big internal and external spaces of loneliness. Most people need to have people around them in order to get through, and out to the other side of those dark spaces. Remember that you’re not alone. There are so many of us out there. Just come find us.

If you’re not a griever:

Don’t forget about your friends who have lost humans. Be patient with them, as they may not be the same person they were before the loss. Allow people to grow into their new selves as they work on figuring out who they are becoming after their loss.

Don’t take silence personally. If your grieving friend withdraws, it is not about you. It is most likely because they needed to go inward and do some work.

Be there for them when they return with open arms, and not with judgment. Remember, they are different now.

Trust your grieving friend when they share things with you about their experiences. If you don’t understand why they are doing a certain thing or you don’t agree with the choices they are making, ask them about it. They may be doing things a certain way because they have to protect themselves or because they may be dealing with other people’s grief. They have to be a certain way in the world right now in order to keep themselves safe.

Do your best not to put your own grief onto the person who is grieving. If your friend loses a parent or a partner, going to your friend and talking about how sad you are and leaning into them to help you process your feelings of grief and loss may be incredibly overwhelming to that individual. If you’re able to take your feelings and process them with somebody else who is not as close to the loss, that is going to be more beneficial to your grieving friend. Grievers do not have the emotional space to hold grief for other grievers the way that other grievers need. This is not Universal for everybody but in general it’s very hard for those who are in it to be there for others.

One important thing to remember is that we will all be Grievers one day.

Unfortunately, death and loss are inevitable and every person will experience some sort of significant loss. As a culture (in North America), we are generally not great about talking about death. Death is scary, so it is avoided. But it is a thing that happens. The more we can all remember that we will all be grievers one day, the easier it will be for us to lean into that experience and to feel what we need to feel and process what we need to process.

You cannot bypass grief, you cannot avoid the loss, and grief can never be outrun. The only thing you can do is go through, feel it, process it, and even eventually embrace it. It is not scary, it is just beautifully sad.

What has helped you in your grief?

Blog written by Sentier therapist, Ashley Groshek, LMFT

Coming to Terms With the Psychological Effects of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic upended much of life as we knew it and people are now trying to make sense of what just happened to us. The existential weight of it is almost too much to comprehend, especially because it is still going on around the world. However, in the United States and here in our home state of Minnesota, we see rising numbers of vaccinated individuals and plummeting numbers of positive cases of COVID-19. We are receiving permission and even encouragement to resume “normal” activities. As we begin to see the restrictions of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, it can feel exciting and upsetting all at the same time.

understanding the psychological effects of covid

So exciting: Friends! Hugs! Live events!

So upsetting: Anxiety. Stress. 600,000+ deaths.

In therapy, we call this the dialectic: when two seemingly conflicting truths exist at the same time.

For example, I have heard clients talk about all of these dialectics throughout the pandemic and also experienced some of them myself:

  • Quarantine was both terrifying and relieving. Some people described an exciting pandemic “honeymoon” period while at once knowing that others were sick and dying – and that it could also happen to them.
  • The pandemic brought job loss and financial devastation to many while also presenting the chance for important professional reflection and growth that may have never happened without the forced slow down.
  • Some people decided to make important changes in their lives that will bring them closer to peace and happiness while also being forced to reckon with painful changes in other areas of life.

And now we are facing another dialectic: It is very hard to act or feel like everything is fine even when the experts say it is safe to get back out there. So why is that?

Simply put, we have experienced trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic has combined the threat of physical harm (“I could get sick and die.”) with heightened psychological vigilance (the 24-hour news cycle, constant changes to the rules and recommendations, worry about getting others sick, missed events, lack of closure, grief). Taking precautions like social distancing, masking, and immunization helped keep us safe, but it also meant being on guard all of the time. In addition to the pandemic, we also collectively felt stress from natural disasters, racial injustice and human rights violations, political turmoil, and police and community violence.

If you don’t quite feel like yourself, rest assured there is a good reason for that. Brain fog is a common symptom of chronic stress, and “chronically stressful” is an apt description for the circumstances of the past year. Under threatening conditions, the brain gets hijacked by stress. Then hormones like adrenaline flood the body and the nervous system goes into what is commonly known as fight, flight, or freeze to help keep the body safe. It becomes difficult to concentrate, reason, and have a clear sense of time and perspective when we are on high alert at all times waiting for something bad to happen. This is brain fog. Another common symptom is disorientation, especially under ambiguous circumstances. Although the virus is receding, there will be no hard and clear end to it, and that type of uncertainty increases anxiety even more.

Remember that you have lived through a series of rapid changes following a very abrupt shutdown. If you are feeling more upset than excited and struggling to return to “normal,” gently consider the following tips for recovery:

  1. Get organized. Show yourself compassion by using a calendar to track plans and tasks and set reminder alarms. Carving out a little more time than usual for daily tasks will increase the effectiveness of your work and give you a sense of accomplishment.
  2. Leave your home. You may be isolating yourself after following recommendations to physically distance. Question any notion that you are better off alone as that is likely anxiety speaking and not a rational thought. Start by establishing a simple routine for going outside, make eye contact, run errands, and be around other people with increasing frequency.
  3. Move your body. Movement creates new neural pathways that can help your brain get through mental blocks and also helps rid the body of stress hormones. This is particularly true with movement that engages both sides of the body in an alternating, repetitive motion. Take a walk, hop on a bike, or row a boat to help you process the big emotions of this new reality.
  4. Humans recover best together. Your relationships may have changed over the past year, and that is ok. Conversations with just one trusted person about the highs and lows of your experience can help calm your nervous system, reintroduce a sense of lightness and safety, and move you toward feeling and functioning better.

If you are struggling more now than earlier in the pandemic, you are not alone. This is trauma, and it takes time to get back into your body, calm the nerves, and make sense of it. Accepting the dialectic of the present moment – that it is indeed both exciting and upsetting at once – can get you feeling more like yourself again.

Sarah Souder Johnson, M.Ed., LPCC is a therapist at Sentier Psychotherapy in St. Paul, Minnesota

Gratitude During COVID Pandemic

Historically, as the calendar year comes to an end, I take time to reflect on the past year. I ask myself: What did I learn? How did I grow? What ways did I struggle? I create a mental Top Ten list of my favorite memories I long to hold forever.

I pause to honor the difficult memories, too, and consider what’s left to heal. Then, I take those reflections and allow them to help me consider goals for the new year.

As 2020 neared its end, I found myself avoiding that tradition. This past year felt like too much to process properly. I felt stuck. Then, as the great prophet Oprah Winfrey says, I had…

This tradition involves practicing GRATITUDE!!!

Ahem…..Confession.

Yes. It’s true.  My gratitude practice struggled in 2020.

This year brought heavy grief on a global, national, state, local, and personal level. There was no manual on how to be a mom, partner, friend, daughter, sister, teacher (not self-inflicted), or therapist during a pandemic.

Gratitude is high on my personal values list and typically feels second nature to practice. However, sometimes the things that once felt  easy can feel almost impossible in times of crisis.

As the dumpster fire of 2020 continued to spread, this value was challenged for me. I could always force myself to find something to be grateful for, but the key word here is FORCE. What once felt familiar, was now a struggle. I wasn’t feeling grateful for this pandemic year.  So how can I practice it, if I don’t feel it?

As I processed these thoughts with my best friend, he said, “Thankfulness is a feeling, gratitude is an action.” This brought my second ah-ha moment.  My ACTIONS of gratitude were lacking because I didn’t always FEEL it.  With this revelation, I researched ways to jump start my gratitude actions in 2021:

“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”
Henri Frederic Amiel

  1. Keep a gratitude journal.
  2. Consider the small things; they add up.
  3. Complete a random act of kindness.
  4. Take 2 min to think about someone who inspires you.
  5. Say it out loud: Tell someone you love something you are grateful for. Tell them you love them while you’re at it too.
  6. Write a thank you note to someone.
  7. Volunteer your time for a cause you are passionate about.
  8. Create a gratitude jar.  Write the items you’re thankful for and place them in a jar, read as needed.
  9. Create a piece of art to represent something you are thankful for.
  10. Build routine: pick one consistent time of the day to practice.

If you have also struggled to feel thankful this year in the midst of grief and loss, consider trying one of these action steps to increase your gratefulness. What other ways do you practice gratitude?

Blog written by Sentier therapist, Alyssa Haggerty

Home for the Holidays… Still.

santa with face mask

It was great to see how creative families were in making Halloween an exciting holiday, even with COVID-19 restrictions. There were candy chutes, scavenger hunts, and small get-togethers with safe “pods” of people.

With winter holidays approaching, feelings of disappointment might be coming up because you can’t see family or do certain traditions.

Many of you have also been home for the past nine months, which means coming home for the holidays just isn’t the same. It is important to acknowledge that loss and feelings of disappointment. It is also important to try and embrace the current situation.

Just because the holiday season looks different this year, doesn’t mean it can’t have the usual holiday cheer! And hey, you might even create a new tradition!

things to do for christmas

I have 14 ideas for you on how to have a safe and fun holiday this season:

  1. Have a virtual ugly sweater party. You can make DIY ugly sweaters or if crafting is not up your alley, there are many available for purchase online. At your virtual party you can vote on who is the “ugliest.”
  2. Do a Secret Santa gift exchange. You can draw names virtually using a website such as drawnames.com. Deliver gifts secretly and follow social distancing by dropping them off on the giftee’s doorstep or mail the gift anonymously.
  3. Have a virtual family dinner. The holidays are often a time to get together and enjoy a big meal. Before the holiday dinner share recipes or do driveway drop offs so the family favorite dishes can be enjoyed. Share the meal or dessert together via Zoom.
  4. Watch your favorite holiday movies. You can still watch your favorite holiday movies! If you want you can discuss them with your friends and family while you watch using Teleparty.
  5. Bake cookies. Baking cookies is always a classic. Families often have their own traditions around baking cookies for the holidays. This year you could bake them together virtually and deliver them to friends and family.
  6. Go to the St. Paul Winter Carnival. The Saint Paul Winter Carnival is happening this year with COVID-19 restrictions.
  7. Go to the GLOW Holiday Festival. The Minnesota State Fairgrounds is having a drive-thru event that will include a light display, State Fair food court, and more.
  8. Go to a drive-thru light display. Severs Holiday Lights (Shakopee, MN), Christmas in Color (Shakopee, MN), Bentlyville (Duluth, MN), Sleepy Eye in Motion (Sleepy Eye, MN), Sam’s Christmas Village (Somerset, WI) and Christmas Village (Chippewa Falls, WI) are having drive-thru light displays this year. Get everyone a warm beverage, load up the car, put on holiday music, and enjoy a cozy ride in the car.
  9. Look at light displays in residential neighborhoods. Many houses in the Twin Cities have impressive light displays. Here is a 2020 light display guide.
  10. Attend an outdoor/virtual Holiday Market. Holiday markets are great ways to check out goods from local vendors. You can get gifts for everyone on your list. If visiting in person, don’t forget to wear your mask.
  11. Attend a virtual event. Holidazzle has gone virtual this year. Check out the link for more information: https://www.holidazzle.com/
  12. Check out Gingerbread Wonderland at the Norway House. This exhibit of elaborate gingerbread houses is available to see in-person by appointment from November 6-January 2 or virtually beginning December 6.
  13. See a play. The Ordway and the Guthrie are having virtual performances this year.
  14. Embrace Hygge. Hygge is a defining characteristic of Danish culture that means: a quality of coziness that results in feelings of contentment and well-being. Read more to capture this feeling in your life: https://www.countryliving.com/life/a41187/what-is-hygge-things-to-know-about-the-danish-lifestyle-trend/

christmas lights st paul

There are many creative ways to make the best of the holidays this year. What ideas do you have?

Blog was written by therapist, Andrea Schroeder, MS, LPCC

College Students and COVID-19

covid-19 memeTo say that it is a weird year for college students is an understatement.

When I think of college, I think of it being a time to meet new people and “find yourself.” I think of busy cafeterias and full lecture halls. This year schools look a lot different.

Some schools are fully online, while others are doing in-person classes with restrictions, and others are doing a hybrid model. Some students are choosing to defer their enrollment altogether because none of these options seem desirable.

College students know they won’t get the typical college experience because of the pandemic and want to wait to attend school until they can.

I remember my first night of college. My wing had a “wing event” where all my hallmates went to get ice cream at Sonic together. Around October there was an event in which all organizations on campus set up booths and you could walk around and see what interested you. I signed up for Psychology Club. Events such as these are online or cancelled this year, which makes it more difficult to try new things and meet new people.

how to deal with covid-19 in college

Whether your classes are virtual, in-person, or you decided to defer a year, you are undoubtedly experiencing grief. Grief does not just occur when there is a loss of a loved one.

People have feelings of grief when life goes differently than they envisioned or there is a loss of any kind. There are so many losses when it comes to COVID. School is different, sports are cancelled, events have been called off, we can’t see friends, etc.

Fortunately, something that helps with grief is gratitude. Since it’s November, expressing gratitude often happens if not personally, at a family holiday or tradition.  Sometimes it can be hard to think of something that you are grateful for, so here are some tips to start your gratitude practice.

Gratitude Tips:

  1. Write down three things that you are grateful for each day
  2. Let people in your life know what you appreciate about them
  3. Make a collage of things you are grateful for; engage someone in your bubble to clip magazines together!
  4. Try to think of the positives in negative situations (eg. being able to stay connected with friends and family through virtual get-togethers)
  5. Make a gratitude practice part of your routine by thinking about what you are grateful for at the same time every day (such as meal time or before bed)
  6. Post what you are grateful for on social media
  7. Expressing gratitude is not intended to minimize your feelings of anxiety, sadness, etc. You can feel your feelings AND be grateful for something.

COVID is hard and it has taken and will take a lot away from us. Despite this, what is something you can find to be grateful for?

Also see Preventing Social Isolation to Protect Our Mental Health


Blog written by Andrea Schroeder, MS, LPCC, therapist at Sentier Psychotherapy

Will Seasonal Affective Disorder Arrive Early During COVID?

Winter… ready or not, here it comes!

With winter comes beautiful snow falls, cozy sweaters, and warm cups of cocoa around the fireplace. But let’s be real, winters can also be long, dark, and take a toll on our mental health.

People often describe getting “winter blues,” also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, and experiencing feelings of sadness, changes in mood, low energy, and difficulty sleeping. In addition to the change in season, the uncertainty that comes with the Coronavirus pandemic might add stress and have negative impacts on our health, schooling, work-life balance, and ability to get a good night’s sleep.

sunshine and your health

With this in mind, now is the time to begin preparing ourselves for the effects of these seasonal changes and continued social isolation related to Covid-19 in the winter months. Ways to fight against symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • Get as much outdoor time and sunlight as possible
  • Find creative ways to stay connected with loved ones
  • Exercise
  • Practice good sleep hygiene

Another way to help manage “winter blues” and increased stressors, is taking the right vitamins and supplements. Vitamin D is sometimes known as “the sunshine vitamin” due to its production in the body in response to sunlight. Vitamin D helps our immune system fight off disease and builds healthy bones. But did you know, vitamin D is also linked to improved mood and reducing symptoms related to depression?

hello sunshine

Vitamin D and Depression

Researchers have found links between vitamin D deficiencies and increased levels of anxiety and depression. Studies show that individuals taking vitamin D reported a decrease in their depression. Because increasing your sun exposure during the winter months is difficult, taking a vitamin D supplement may be a healthy alternative to getting that needed dose of sunshine. Vitamin D can also be found in foods such as:

  • fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna
  • egg yolks
  • cheese
  • beef liver
  • mushrooms
  • fortified milk
  • fortified cereals and juices

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/161618

vitamin d supplements

Can Vitamin D Supplements Help Fight Depression?

Health professionals recommend taking magnesium along with your vitamin D to help support your body in absorbing the vitamin and receiving its full benefits. Taking vitamin D and magnesium supplements are best paired with other practices, such as those listed above, to help treat depression.

When considering taking vitamin D and magnesium, be sure to consult with your doctor to ensure you take the correct amount and consider all potential effects to your individual health.

How do you plan to combat winter blues? Do you take any vitamins or supplements that are helpful for your mood and overall health?

This blog was written by Sentier therapist, Tana Welter, MSW

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