What grief is teaching all of us

Because of the threat of COVID-19, life has changed, for some people, dramatically. You know that saying Change is good? Well, the change we’ve been experiencing lately is stirring up a lot of not so good feelings. Fear, anxiety, grief, loneliness, anger, frustration, uncertainty, hopelessness, to name a few.

I’ve been thinking about feelings a lot and thought it might be helpful to reach out to a few professionals in the mental health field to see if they could not only share some of their expertise with us but also tell us how they are coping with the pandemic. The other day, in the middle of my musings, I logged on to LinkedIn and a meme popped up with a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Great advice, I thought.

Dr. Katie Eastman

I saw that it had been posted by Dr. Katie Eastman. Dr. Eastman is a psychotherapist, life coach, and consultant who specializes in trauma and grief. I knew her back in the early 2000s when she was the executive director of the Jason Program (pediatric palliative care) here in Maine. Her entire career has focused on helping people cope with loss. I immediately sent her a message (home is now the San Juan Islands of Washingon state) and asked if she’d like to contribute something to the Catching Health blog.

She responded right away, and told me that she’s been providing mental health support throughout the country to individuals, organizations, and communities via telehealth. She said she’d be happy to share what she’s been learning from them and for herself.

This is Katie’s story:

People ask me what it’s like providing mental health support during COVID-19. Aside from being technically challenging, the greatest issue is supporting others who are grieving while I myself am also experiencing grief.

Everyone is grieving the loss of something or someone right now and that includes me. As an online mental health provider, I offer support to people of all ages facing all different kinds of loss. I Zoom with people who are speaking about losing their sense of confidence, safety, and connection to people, places, and community. I hear painful stories of people struggling, finding replacements for experiences that are once in a lifetime events. Supporting someone who can’t gather for a funeral and/or not being at the bedside to say good-bye challenges me on a soulful level.

My job is to help people discover the glimmer of light that shows us how to live through and past these times. Thankfully, I had some amazing teachers in Maine who gave me some strong spiritual muscles, and a long list of lessons to draw from as I do this work. My work with seriously ill and dying children and their families serves me well as I once again face stories of loss and death. Every day, loss and death remind me to value love and life. Witnessing in Maine the power of a family trip to the beach with a dying child for the last time and the sincere gratitude for what most of us take for granted — appreciation for the little acts of love, forever changed me and became the foundation of my current work.

What I am re-learning is that offering support by listening and allowing people time to reflect on their losses, reveals what they value most and serves as a beacon for me as well as them to reevaluate life’s many treasures. We have an opportunity during loss to understand LOVE on a deeper level. What we miss most about a person or an experience is what we care most about.

Providing support to those who have lost jobs, homes, and businesses allows space to grieve. For instance, with the loss of a business, I help them remember why they initially built the business. What got them up in the morning and kept them motivated is about who and what they love. It becomes important to remember that the purpose of creating the business, buying the home, etc., is usually to provide for their family and loved ones.

Understanding and accepting that the same result can happen again, albeit differently, eventually offers comfort. Caring and providing for loved ones can take on another form and though scary, believing it can happen is sometimes the greatest accomplishment anyone can make while overwhelmed with loss. Holding on to a belief that it’s going to be maybe different, but OK is a choice I help people make all day long.

As a result of COVID-19, there are people of all ages, bereaved and yearning for others to know their loved ones, to hear the stories of how special and wonderful that person was, or having someone validate their pain over the conflicts that caused disconnect and separation. These are essential aspects of healing. Without the opportunity to gather for funerals and memorials, listening as they remember is a vital part of my day. Offering them the opportunity to reminisce and encouraging them to repeat the stories keeps the essence of the loved one alive and/or allows them to let go of what now cannot be.

Almost no one goes unscathed during this pandemic. My husband and I have a high school senior who has lost so much including but not limited to her graduation ceremony, concerts, performances, and other significant senior events. She isn’t making final memories with friends who will soon scatter toward their own futures. What it has taught my family and others is that connection, caring, and community is everything on all levels. This time of loss is reminding us that we are so proud of the kind, caring person she is. She has chosen to social distance and wear a mask because of her sense of social responsibility. Her empathy toward others is just as important for us to celebrate as her accomplishments.

I am learning to use this time to imagine how my life will be different when sheltering is over. I am suggesting that my clients consider what are the most cherished moments they miss and what will they never take for granted again. It is individual for all of us, it may be surprising, and it may be the source of our greatest opportunity. I myself am trying to savor this knowledge as well because it is a life lesson I received from a group of wonderful teachers and mentors in Maine whose memories I will eternally cherish.

As I experience fatigue and become overwhelmed by the missed people and experiences in my life and my family, I remember those families, those teachers, my luminaries who illustrated the value of loving each other and being together, even in the most painful of circumstances — the source of so much pain right now (thankfully we have technology to fill in when hugs are not possible). I learned so much from their stories of gratitude for every moment of every day they were together with their loved one. And I was inspired.

To rejuvenate and regroup, I go to the places that remind me of the cycle of life — the sea, mountains, or the flower fields I live near. I breathe deeply of LIFE. If I can’t go to nature I look to memories, images, or stories of others online to remind me of life and living. I appreciate and find gratitude for the smallest of things. That has been the gift of loss for me- understanding a bit better how to LIVE gratefully now.

Katie Eastman, Psy.D, LICSW

Field of daffodils
A field of daffodils near Katie’s home in Washington

Mt. Baker
Mt. Baker, a 90-minute drive from Katie’s home and where she goes to get her “New England fix” 

Thank you Katie — Dr. Eastman — for your wisdom, love, and caring. What we need right now. If you would like to get in touch with Dr. Eastman, the best way is to send her an email: kateeas@gmail.com.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.