I arrived on the 6th floor nursing unit one day last fall to find halls abuzz with people. Something didn’t feel right, and then I a saw a nursing colleague with tears streaming down her face. My heart dropped. She looked up at me and said, “Dr Hass, K died last night.” She started to sob. I stood dumbfounded for a moment. We had lost a beloved coworker to COVID.
There has been a collective sense of grief in our country since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as we have all been suffering losses: smiles, touch, in-person relationships, a “normal life.” But it went to another level for us at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., with the passing of a couple of our beloved teammates in the fall. Strong emotions triggered by these events caused me to pause and think: “What is grief? Is it another word for sadness? How do we work through it?”
What is the difference between sadness and grief? While related, they are temporally and functionally quite different. Sadness is an emotion, and like all emotions, we feel it in brief episodes. Those moments of profound sadness only last minutes at a time. Sadness leads to decreased physiological arousal, especially after crying. When less intense, the physiological slowing is thought to allow for some mental clarity that lets the loss sink in and moves us toward a recalibration process. These episodes of sadness occur more frequently and with greater intensity the closer we are to the triggering event.
While emotions last minutes, mood, another affective state, lasts hours to days and is less intense and specific in content. A sad mood can be present much of the time after a significant loss. Emotions predispose to moods and vice versa.
Grief, on the other hand, is a complex and lengthy process that moves us from a place of loss to a new place with a new equilibrium without the lost object. While sadness is about fully acknowledging the loss, the grieving process is about getting beyond it. The bigger the loss, the bigger the hole in your life and the longer the grieving process. Grief is a multi-emotional process with people often experiencing a range of emotions, such as shock, anger, and fear in addition to sadness.
As I grappled with my sense of loss, I realized that understanding the grieving process was going to help me as I navigate this world now full of loss. Here are a few things we should all keep in mind.
A sense of mindful self-awareness
As we work through our grief, a mindful self-awareness can help us identify our emotions and see them as part of the grieving process. Simply anticipating emotions can lessen the impact of them when they come. As they come on, try to name the emotion, e.g., “I am so sad,” and feel the experience in the body. The sadness can be cathartic, and by focusing on the body and not the head, we can also drop the sometimes healthy, sometimes unhealthy rants and ruminations that can accompany these events. If we experience the emotions with mindful self-awareness, we can see our emotions as part of a healing, grieving process, and we will likely be able to handle them more gracefully.
In the days after the death of my nursing colleague, my sad mood would be interrupted with flares of anger triggered by thoughts of those not wearing masks or spreading misinformation. Moving my thoughts to the emotions, I would say to myself, “I am really angry, and I am angry because of these deaths.” I felt the recognition of the emotions helped me better ride the big waves on the grieving journey.
Counter to the thinking of the 20th century, research by George Bonanno at Columbia University found that the majority of bereavement is met with resilience. We will be sad, we might have moments of anger or denial or fear, but for most of us, despite the gravity of the loss, our innate resilience will lead about 50-80% of us to recover to near our baseline in months. It is nice to know we are not repressing things if we don’t pass through all the stages postulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the dominate paradigm in the field.1
For those grieving, this idea of resilience being the norm can provide reassurance during tough moments. While our degree of resilience will depend on our loss and our circumstance, the work of Lucy Hone, PhD, suggests that resilience can be fostered. Many of the negative feelings we experience have a flip side we can seek out. We can be grateful for what remains and what the departed has left us with. We can aid in our grieving journey by using many of the resources available from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action (https://ggia.berkeley.edu/).
While most grief is met with resilience, complicated grieving with persistent negative moods and emotions is common. We should consider seeking professional help if our emotions and pattern of thought continue to feel unhealthy.
Meaning and wisdom, not acceptance
Another change in our understanding of grief is this: Instead of “acceptance” being seen as the end result of grieving, meaning and wisdom are now recognized as the outcomes. Research has found that efforts to find meaning in loss facilitates the grieving process. As time passes and our sadness lessens, the loved one doesn’t leave us but stays with us as a better understanding of the beauty and complexity of life. The loss, through grieving, is transformed to wisdom that will guide us through future challenges and help us make sense of the world.
Last week, masked and robed and with an iPad in hand so the family could join the conversation, I was talking to Ms. B who is hospitalized with COVID-19. She said, “I just keep thinking, ‘Why is this happening to me? To all of us?’ And then I realized that it is a message from God that we need to do a better job of taking care of each other, and I suddenly felt a little better. What do you think, Dr. Hass?”
“Wow,” I said. “Thank you for sharing that. There is definitely some truth there. There is a lot to learn from the pandemic about how we care for each other. I need to keep that in mind when I start feeling down.”
So much is going on now: climate change, racial violence, frightening political dysfunction, and a global pandemic that has upended our daily routines and the economy. It is hard to keep track of all the loss and uncertainty. We might not know why feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety come on, but if we can meet these emotions with mindful equanimity, see them as part of our intrinsic healing process and keep in mind that our path will likely be towards one of wisdom and sense-making, we can better navigate these profoundly unsettling times.
Just as sadness is not grief, joy alone does not lead to happiness. A happy life comes as much from meaning as joy. While unbridled joy might be in short supply, our grief, our work as hospitalists with the suffering, and confronting the many problems our world faces gives us the opportunity to lead a meaningful life. If we couple this search for meaning with healthy habits that promote wellbeing, such as hugs, investing in relationships, and moving our body in the natural world, we can survive these crazy times and be wiser beings as a result of our experiences.
Dr. Hass is a hospitalist at Sutter East Bay Medical Group in Oakland, Calif. He is a member of the clinical faculty at the University of California, Berkeley-UC San Francisco joint medical program, and an adviser on health and health care at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
1. Bonanno GA, and Boerner K. The stage theory of grief. JAMA. 2007;297(24):2692-2694. doi:10.1001/jama.297.24.2693-a.