By Nafeesa Arshad
s a young ‘griefster’ who lost my sister Saima Thompson in June 2020 to Stage 4 Lung Cancer at the age of 31, I have a lot to say about grief in isolation during the multiple lockdowns but in summary - it has been horrendous.
We live in a fast-paced culture that rewards climbing the career ladder, and making plans for the next 5, 10, 15 years. We are a goal-setting generation who largely misunderstand concepts such as manifestation and intention setting. So it can be pretty hard to grasp that even the most concisely formulated life plan can fall through in an instant.
This is directly parallel to what happened to all of us during the last two years because of you know what. During a period where inequalities have been exaggerated yet, communities have come together to support each other during difficult times, it is clear that life is ultimately outside of your control. It’s about how you react and adapt to these hurdles whilst managing the expectations of yourself and those around you.
“The losses we all share are valid and you have the right to grieve and feel the feelings.”
When someone dies unexpectedly there will never be a clear cut plan and everyone will be scrambling around in the dark trying to make sense of it all. Societally, losing a sibling at a young age is much less common, so at times it can be hard to know how to process this grief I am left with.
However, I have come to realise that despite morbid misconceptions of what grief feels like, it can also charge you up with a desire to connect with others in meaningful ways whilst also working on yourself. With no sign of further lockdowns and life seemingly moving on despite the odd variant of covid popping up, it feels relevant to explore the parallels of our collective experiential grief and my journey with relationship-based grief.
So what even is grief? Grief is typically associated with the loss of a person but it can be used to describe what we experience following all types of losses; job loss, divorce, pet loss etc. In the context of the past 2 years, it also covers the loss of safety, financial anxiety, uncertainty around when we can see loved ones, the loss of social plans and normality, a sense of deep sadness about the future of the world and also the general loss of routine.
Grief for me is a full-body experience; from fatigue and sleeping longer than normal, to insomnia, jumpiness and palpitations to irrational thoughts, irritability and weight fluctuation.
"When someone dies unexpectedly there will never be a clear cut plan and everyone will be scrambling around in the dark trying to make sense of it all."
A lot of this can stem from anxiety which is an integral part of grief and so for those of us who had to grieve against the context and the absurdity of the pandemic we were confronted with processing loss during the most anxious of times. But this is why there are many parallels across the spectrum of grief that we have all experienced collectively.
It almost felt like the world had turned upside down both internally and externally as everyone was suffering alongside my own pain. On top of this collective loss, the shitshow of the last 2 years has had all of us questioning our own sense of identity. Who am I? What am I without my “normal” hobbies? How can I be there for others? Is anyone there for me?
It’s clear that as much as the spotlight was on covid, another crisis hit centre stage; mental health with many people particularly women reporting worsened mental health and the government choosing to overlook the crushing statistics that were regularly released.
This may continue to remain outside of our control but it’s our duty to acknowledge that mental health is equally as important as physical health and the two actually have a symbiotic relationship.
“Through hitting an absolute rock bottom with my mental health … it’s clear that reconnecting with your own authentic self is the most powerful form of self-love.”
I found exercise and creativity as my own significant means of release, control and expression. Pre-pandemic I had been introduced to indoor bouldering by a friend which was vital for my own wellbeing whilst navigating my sister’s diagnosis, and taking on a family business at the age of 22.
Climbing is one of the most mindful sports as you really have to trust yourself and be in sync with every movement you choose on the wall as you work out the ”problems'' at hand. But when the pandemic forced the closure of all gyms, I had to find something that would trigger similar levels of focus and for me, that was walking and cycling.
I am lucky to find this but also it took a lot of encouragement from my partner during my deep, dark and raw days of loss, the days where I couldn’t even get out of bed. For me, this serves as a longstanding reminder that gentle encouragement from your loved ones, where appropriate, could go a long way when they are grappling with their darkest days of mental health.
As a huge empath, I spent most of 2020 holding onto the pain that other people were feeling and trying to limit the stresses of others by taking on many duties myself on top of a full-time job.
Through hitting an absolute rock bottom with my mental health and my multitudinous cycles of burnout it’s clear that reconnecting with your own authentic self is the most powerful form of self-love and is essential in order to develop or further meaningful connections in your life.
“It’s about how you react and adapt to these hurdles whilst managing the expectations of yourself and those around you.”
In short, putting yourself first is not egocentric - it’s the opposite. Since doing some of my own “inner work” and also a few doses of therapy, I have been able to work with and not against my brain and I find myself expressing myself in a more self-assured manner.
I feel secure and certain in my career path as I am no longer being steered by what is expected, but rather what I expect from a workplace and colleagues. I am respected by my closest friends now that I understand quality is what matters most - rather than quantity. I am being more considerate to myself and my own needs.
When I spend time ruminating on what my passions and values are in life, I feel like I have been set free. Being authentic is a balance of cultivating a sense of vulnerability and imperfection. We have to believe that we are inherently worthy of love and acceptance just the way we are.
In the long run, implementing authenticity invites the joy and gratitude we all yearn for into our lives. When practised in conjunction with the fact that it’s okay to slow down and check in with your own physical and mental needs, you will then be able to deeply tune in with how you’re feeling.
As a result, getting into the habit of questioning yourself when things feel unsettling can help save you from future stresses or burnout. Why are you doing certain things? Is this for yourself or others? Is this for your sense of fulfilment or the expectations and opinions of others?
“Gentle encouragement from your loved ones, where appropriate, could go a long way when they are grappling with their darkest days of mental health.”
Evidently, there are significant parallels and similarities across our shared experiences of grief and the learnings we can take on board. It’s important to remember you don’t owe anyone ANYTHING.
There is no right or wrong way to feel or behave and no particular sequential timeline to any of this. Even if you have not personally experienced a loss during the pandemic, do not dismiss what you are feeling. The losses we all share are valid and you have the right to grieve and feel the feelings.
Ultimately, this is the year of you and the year of living. Let’s take these lessons forward with us throughout 2022 and cultivate a thriving social ecosystem of people that we care about deeply, people that care about us deeply and also life experiences that matter to us most.
”There is no right or wrong way to feel or behave and no particular sequential timeline to any of this” – one woman shares her journey of loss and self-authenticity.
By Nafeesa Arshad
The ‘Pure O’ or ‘purely obsessional’ type of OCD is characterised by distressing, intrusive thoughts and mental rituals to cope with them. Rae Elliman shares her experience of living with – and learning to manage – these hidden compulsions