The Giftcurse of Grief

Fall is often associated with grief. Celtic tradition has built rituals around the recognition that the veil is thinner this time of year. There is a cultural multiple-discovery of rituals during this specific season, one chosen to honor the dead and ancestors’ past, as well as to pay homage to grief itself. The Aztecs had a ritual that pre-dated and inspired Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, and the holiday continues to include Catholic influence around All Saints Day. Celts had Samhain, the Romans, Feralia; South Koreans celebrate in September during Paju. The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs a bit earlier in China, in August. 

This varied, yet overlapping ritual space that both honors and mourns is generally aligned during a time of the season where leaves die, fall, and reintegrate back into the earth’s biosphere. This fall, of 2021, grief seems particularly potent, with many of us either deeply exhaling, or holding our breath, after a long 20 months of pandemic living of varying scales. Many have experienced losses of magnitude and cadence that are out of the ordinary for this last eon. Grief has been experienced in both direct and indirect ways, as shared worry, depression, anxiety, insomnia, even studied as collective shifts in dreamlife.

It is this time of year where clients cite dreams that feel vibrant and potent, some report wanting to sleep more (daylight savings weirdness does not help this, does it?) And seasonally, grief seems more at the surface than in other months. Grief is often described by those experiencing it as a fog, a film, a visible haze that separates or delineates. CS Lewis defined grief as “a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me” after the death of his wife. Somatically, grief can show up in the head, gut, and chest. Grief can physically feel heavy. This is even noted in our idiomatic expressions of the blues, depression, sadness, loss. I feel down, it reduced me to tears, I have a lump in my throat, I am holding my breath. Unprocessed grief can compound and show up as a malaise, a depression, at times it can mirror PTSD symptomology. The DSM 5-TR has created a new diagnostic path for prolonged grief (Prolonged Grief Disorder) to give credence to the impacts an elongated, or multiple-event grief process, has on the brain and body, including sleep disturbance, substance use, and immune functioning. This addition is timely, and necessary, to witness the incredibly demanding time in which we are living.

James Hollis has described grief, or one of the giftcurses of it, as a “mythological disorientation.” At times when we encounter a loss, an earthquake in our senses of selves, the narratives we have built or lived under without question can be aptly rocked by grief and its preceding events. A false self, born under the desires of the family of origin, untapped unconscious material, or just the waves of societal norming might now be proven as outmoded based on what the more concrete situation of grief has unveiled. Therein lies the opportunity. Rather than attach yourself to the other common idiomatic mechanism we humans tend to pursue with grief: get over it; this invitation is instead to sit in it, move through it, let yourself be rocked, create some room for the ferns that grow from the char.

Here are some meditations and considerations on how you might sit with, experience, honor, express, or otherwise cool down from grief:

Stay With It

I adore Tara Brach and have gotten the chance to experience her silent meditation retreats. I often use one of my favorite tools of hers, RAIN, with clients and with myself- here is a 20-minute meditation that features this tool.

Breathe With and Through It

Try alternating nostril breathing (hold left nostril closed, inhale through the right; clamp right nostril and exhale through the left; switch/repeat) which can calm the mind and reduce stress.

Or box breathing which activates the parasympathetic nervous system – exhale for 4 seconds, pause at the bottom for 4 seconds holding your lungs empty, inhaling for 4 seconds, pause at the top, holding the air in your lungs before repeating the pattern.

Create a Ritual Space

Take a page from the aforementioned ritual book and create a space for offering. This could be a section of a table, a shelf, truly anywhere you’d like to place objects, visual reminders, remnants, and notes to a person, a pet, a part of self, a season in your life that has passed.

Open Your Chest

When we are cold we tend to turn inward, when we are grief-stricken we do the same. Doing chest- and heart-opening stretches and poses can help regulate breathing and offer a somatic pull of energy into a space we may be unconsciously holding or tightening.

Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

If you work with me you know I am obsessed with this wild gut-to-brain neural circuit. Here’s a video from the @the.holistic.psychologist demonstrating just one vagal stimulation pressure point.

Cool Off From It

Distraction can be a defense, but it can also be a great tool when grief turns to overwhelm. Get grounded and go for a walk, listen to a favorite album, draw, paint, dance the feeling out of your body.


The Two-house Two-step

Whether recently separated or long since divorced, the transition between parents’ homes is a challenge for parents, teens and children alike. Giving your child as much heads up about when the transitions will happen, how they will happen, and updating them on any schedule disruptions is a great way to start, or reset, the Two-house Two-step. Here are a few other tips on co-parenting through home transitions: 

Clear and Consistent Expectations

Expectations and guidelines might differ between co-parents, but the expectations and guidelines at each home should be clear and consistent. Despite the constraints of two parenting styles, your child gets the benefit of TWO, loving, safe homes.

Create Routines and Lists

Parents and children should establish a drop off routine together and allow for adjustments and flexibility along the way. Create a shared list of commonly forgotten/important items of the child’s. Allow your child to edit and update this list freely and clearly reference the list during pack-up/drop-off times. A routine and list provides structure and helps build your child’s trust in the transition process. 

Give Grace

We all know how stressful a move is for an adult. For some children, the two home shuffle can feel like a lot of mildly stressful mini-moves on a set schedule. Even with a great transition plan and the most responsible children, expect there will be the occasional forgotten item when transitioning from home to home. Give your child some grace when things are forgotten; their brains are also transitioning! 

Validate Their Feelings and Model Problem Solving Skills

Identify comfort items and important, unduplicated items such as schoolwork. Validate your child’s discomfort and any other emotions they are feeling as a result of forgetting to transition an item. Of course it’s frustrating your teen forgot to bring a project due tomorrow but they remembered to bring their phone and 3 backup chargers. Of course it’s frustrating when your 9 year old forgets their soccer jersey the night before a game but remembers to bring all their Halloween candy. Instead of another lecture about remembering important items, consider modeling adaptability and problem solving skills. Calmly talk through your options with the child on whether retrieving the item is appropriate and feasible. 

Recap Your Time Apart

Establish a pick-up ritual with your child. Children may feel they are “missing out” on fun activities or bonding that happens while they are at their other home. Spend a few minutes recapping your time apart and talk through any upcoming events or reminders. 

Communicate With Your Co-Parent

Avoid using your child’s possessions as a co-parenting weapon. If a consistent pattern of forgotten items presents itself, please consider contacting your co-parent when neither of you are with the child, such as during the school day, to come up with a solution. 


How to Help Your Child When They Flip Their Lid

Many of us have witnessed children getting taken over by intense emotions resulting in losing their temper, reacting without thinking, or blowing up. In those moments it can be really difficult to stay grounded and regulated, while also trying to calm your child down. Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Whole Brain Child, terms these instant reactions your child experiences as “flipping their lid.” Once we understand how the brain affects the way we regulate emotions, then not only can we can help our children stay calm but we can also keep our own lid on. 

What is Flipping a Lid?

Flipping a lid has everything to do with the brain and how messages are sent to different sections of the brain about what our bodies are experiencing. When children are able to problem solve, act kindly, and be empathic, those are immediate signs that their prefrontal cortex or “rational brain” is intact.  Said differently, their lid is on. When the prefrontal cortex is engaged, children feel calm, safe, and relaxed. When children are experiencing big feelings (e.g. very angry or anxious, overreact, yell) that serves as a warning sign that they are not thinking with their rational brain but instead using their “emotional or animal brain.” This is when the amygdala is activated, fight, flight, or flight response is triggered, and children flip their lids. The emotional brain keeps children safe and guards them against things that pose as a threat. During this state, their rational brain has been disconnected from their emotional brain- logic no longer influences emotions. 


How to help your child keep their lid on 

Hugs 

Hugs can be a great way to provide relief for your child who has flipped their lid. Instead of flipping your own lid and matching your child’s high emotional state, hugs activate mirror neurons in your child’s brain. This can can help your child sense your emotionally regulated state and influence their reactions. When your child’s brain recognizes the love and affection in your hug, its chemistry is altered and can return to a state of calm and relaxation. Their lid begins to close.  

Validate and Ask Curiosity Questions

When you are noticing your child has flipped their lid, it can help to understand their point of view. Show your child that they have your undivided attention and provide them a space where they feel seen and heard. Ask them curiosity questions to better understand their experience, such as “Are you feeling frustrated that you have to go to bed?” or “Do you want some space from me or would you like a hug?”  By creating a sense of safety and being empathic, they can slowly tame their emotions and put their lid back on. 

Apologize

There will be times when flipping your lid is unavoidable. It is after these moments that sincere apologies can repair the relationship and reconnect you with your child. Let your child know that you are sorry for flipping your own lid, which may have caused hurt feelings. It is also important to ask your child how you can fix this mistake. Mending the rupture with apologies can model valuable skills to your child, such as cooling off, emotional regulation, problem solving, and reconnection. 

You can find Dr. Dan Siegel’s scientific explanation of “Flipping Your Lid” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw&ab_channel=FtMyersFamPsych


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