Grief: The Hidden MedicineMar 02, 2022
On Saturday February 19th, 2022 I received a much-dreaded message: “do you have emergency contact information for Dr. X’s brother?” My friend, colleague, and employee had died in a tragic accident that very morning. The all too familiar emotion of grief invaded me. As many of us do when faced with a profoundly painful moment, I transitioned to a more familiar feeling--anxiety. If anxiety were a parasite, I would be its host. I find anxiety extremely unpleasant, but the familiarity of the emotion often provides a source of comfort—a more established run-of-the-mill way to suffer. Transitioning to anxiety, I managed to delay the invasion.
Here was my plight; anxiety creates sensations that feel agonizing within my body. When anxious, I feel nauseated, my heart races, I experience gastrointestinal side effects, and I ALWAYS experience a cortisol crash once the stress has passed. This chronic physical experience led me to a very intentional decision early in the pandemic: “come hell or high water I will not live every day of my life feeling this way (anxious).” This change required me to know the origin of this anxiety. In life coaching we are taught that all emotions are triggered by our thoughts. When I examined my thoughts, this is the story that emerged.
I’ve always considered anxiety a painful emotion to experience; yet still it was a hidden treasure—something that I believed was the key to functioning at a high level when stressed. When I felt the familiar sensations of panic traveling throughout my body, I would become hyper-focused on finding a solution. Anxiety engendered a sense of urgency in me, and the solution once found would alleviate my anxiety. In my mind, I saw a clear upside to anxiety. I believed that my anxiety was the key to producing solutions faster than without it.
With deliberate focus, I began the coaching process that I knew would lessen this emotion. As my anxiety lessened, I wondered if I was becoming less functional during stress responses. Not cooperating, my brain kept trying to create the same primitive narratives repeatedly in new and fascinating ways.
Our thoughts, repeated and instilled with the idea that they are true, become beliefs. Pruning an old belief and cultivating a new one would require precise steps. First, I accepted that the previous narrative of thoughts were simply thoughts and not my truth unless I imbued them with meaning. Next, I identified new thoughts more serving of the desired result. Finally, I linked those new thoughts with the idea that they were true, and I played those thoughts on a loop inside my mind.
Although I do NOT now believe that anxiety is the key to producing solutions faster, old habits die hard! Anxiety as uncomfortable as it is, still feels like a safer way to suffer-- a way I have practiced and refined over these last 40 yrs. When notified that my friend and colleague had died, my mind started looping thoughts. “Will I be able to locate her family? Who will take care of her beloved horses? Did she suffer in her death?” All these thoughts produced the cocoon of anxiety I loathe and find comfort in. Because of life coaching, I was able to recognize this old coping pattern, consciously choose to move away from the familiarity of anxiety, and feel the feelings. The grief swelled once more. As I floated along in this ocean of grief, I began to ponder the topic.
As a Hospice and Palliative Care physician, who also practices as a Hospitalist, grief is a familiar concept. Grief is commonly discussed in the context of loss of life. However, grief can be precipitated by ANY loss, and it can be just as profound and agonizing. Grief is ubiquitous and often unresolved. Unresolved grief results in prolonged suffering. Prolonged suffering promotes excessive stress and burnout.
In medical training I learned to compartmentalize my feelings to such an extent that I couldn’t identify or process them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to learn to process my feelings including my own grief. I really had no choice; there was just so much concentrated loss and grief that it permeated my life. With help and work, I learned the art of being present with my feelings—present without grading the present through the lenses of the past or the anticipatory anxiety of what the future may hold.
As William Cowper says, “grief is itself a medicine” and I’d argue it truly can be if we learn to allow and process it.
Courage is leaping in the face of fear. One person thriving can change the world with an immeasurable ripple effect. Are you interested in processing life’s losses? I invite you to join me in small group (5 people) coaching around loss beginning April 25th 2022. For more information, please click here.
If a group meeting doesn’t fit your life, I’d be happy to work with you individually and you can schedule a consult here.
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