Grief is not always tied to death or loss of a person. It’s simply and significantly tied to loss. As a Black Athlete, oftentimes, Black is the first aspect noted and recognized, and how others develop a narrative for or against the individual or team of athletes in question. The narrative of our Blackness is overlooked. Our stories and experiences of grief are not honored readily by society. Over the course of facing dual pandemics---the COVID-19 health crisis, as well as the magnification of racial and systemic biases, trauma is complicated and our grief is taking a similar hit. With being quarantined, we are grieving normalcy, rituals, routines, etc. With the normalization, gaslighting, denying, dismissal of care for black bodies, we are grieving the reality that "there are two different Americas." We are grieving the experience, safety, security, freedom, and privilege that is disconnected from our racial identity and background.
I believe winning is tied to what we can gain from the experience. Winning is also tied to what we are willing and prepared to confront. Here are ways to Win While Grieving:
1. Compartmentalizing: meaning taking timeouts or breaks from grieving when necessary. If you stay in or dwell in anything for too long, it can be unhealthy. Compartmentalizing is like hanging something up in your locker and intentionally going back to it. Avoidance looks like putting something in your locker and acting as if it’s not there or not bothering you. It's purposefully out of sight and out of mind, but grief will come back up if not attended to.
2. Creating space to intentionally grieve: What this looks like is not suppressing your cry or holding back the tears when they can be free, or in other words not suppressing your emotions or holding back your emotional expression when it can be released. Grieving can look like laughing, looking at photos, sharing memories, celebrating, honoring, crying tears of sadness and/or tears of happiness, smiling, creating special traditions, or experiencing anger and using it as fuel to create change. Grief can also look like expressing anger in other ways, experiencing depressive symptoms including isolation, creating chaos, or overcompensating. Grief has to be released. To be intentional about grieving, means to be intentional about processing and releasing what’s underneath grief, which is most often pain, and not projecting or being managed by your grief. Any emotional experience that doesn’t have room to be attended to will eventually show up sometimes unexpected wanting more attention. For example, when I suppress my grief, it can come out as irritability. In sports, it could come out during the game as damaging property or hitting an opponent in a way that is Ill-intended in the moment as a reaction, creating a technical or flagrant foul and more consequences. Even though, we experience hurt in different ways, we still have a responsibility to not hurt others.
3. Processing underlying thoughts regarding who or what you lost with a trusted support, like a therapist: Sometimes grief is complicated. For example, the loss of a person who hurt you may bring up complicated emotions that are linked to thoughts that may be shamed by others. Grieving an abusive relationship or an abusive ex-partner or family member may not be received well by others, and that can reinforce suppression of emotions and thoughts that (again) need to be free. Carrying the thoughts, emotions, and shame makes the experience heavier. Shame can also be presented regarding how the lost occurred. For example, if a big championship game was lost by a team who did not play their best, there maybe shame connected to even grieving the lost. Another unfortunate example is the shame that surrounds death by suicide. The people close to the individual who died by suicide may feel limited in how they process the death due to not wanting to expose the nature and not fully sharing the trauma connected to that type of loss. Sometimes others just simply don't understand. For many reasons, we have learned to grieve in isolation, yet healthy grief can produce intimacy and healing. If you think of the rituals that come in the form of divorce parties, funerals, vigils, or gatherings, experiencing these events can validate the feelings connected to the loss experienced.
4. Creating a plan for anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and other special days that serve as huge reminders of who or what was loss—which are more sensitive times. Preplanning what to do can help to aid in what you experience on that day. During my maternal grandmother's birthday week, I am intentional about looking for ways in which 'she is still looking out for me' during that week. It makes the positive moments experienced that week sweeter and my gratitude is on a whole 'nother level. If the first holiday season after divorce is approaching, being mindful to prioritize self-care or relational care on those holidays can create a different experience. Creating new traditions can be a goal to set the tone for new experiences.
5. Setting healthy boundaries with people, places, events that may be triggering: Placing healthy limits around visiting certain places or people that provoke triggers that produce overwhelming emotions may not be beneficial until you gain some traction in your healing process. Some triggers become more manageable after some healing as taken place. Some people, places, and events may require more long-term boundaries. You get to decide which and how long boundaries need to be in place.
6. Working through those triggers in therapy: Triggers reveal areas or wounds that still need to be addressed. They reveal unattended emotions, fears, insecurities, pain, and limited beliefs. Therapy can aid in shining a light on the dark areas that are hidden beneath your triggers. Learning how to manage your triggers and move further along in your healing can help improve your relationships. For example, an athlete experiencing grief as they watch their sibling progress and achieve sports goals in the same sport (ie. making it to the pros or Olympics, winning a championship, etc.), may produce feelings of jealousy or envy, which if not recognized as grief, can trigger the athlete to create misery instead of support for the sibling.
7. Remembering the grief cycle is not linear: If you've heard of or looked into the stages of grief, you will find parts of the grief process (shock, denial, anger, depression, negotiation, acceptance (stages developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross)), but unlike the sequence of how the season goes (ie. Preseason, regular season, playoffs, division playoffs, finals championship) or competition goes (ie. 1st quarter, 2nd quarter, 3rd quarter, 4th quarter), grief isn't an exact sequence, it isn't like a to do list, it doesn't have a time stamp or a buzzer or finish line. You can also repeat certain stages more than once and not in the exact order.
8. Remembering Your grief process is your grief process: When we have experienced loss, we experience something that we couldn’t have controlled. A season ending injury or passing of a loved one; These are not planned and expected occasions. We don’t get to pick the date or hour. So that control has to go somewhere. Tapping into the above strategies can help you to tap into power, so you don’t try to control in areas you have no control over. Your grief may not look like the next person and your experience of the loss may not mimic another person impacted by it. It’s your process; if you need time off, if you need to engage and be around ppl, if you need to take care of yourself differently or do more of a healthy something, incorporate that intentionally. Release the shame or criticism connected to making choices to take care of you.
9. Identifying and reflecting on lessons: When we experience loss, it is often connected to something we can remember and apply. We can remember one's legacy, messages they often shared, values they prioritized, or we can reflect on what we can do different next time we are presented with the opportunity to play in the big game or compete. We can absorb and apply the lesson in order to grow and become better and therefore honor what or who we lost.
On the other side of each of these strategies is a deeper connection with yourself, which is one of the biggest trophies in life, because out of your connection with yourself flows your connection with others. Grief can heighten the pressure to build walls and disconnect from ourselves and others to protect our vulnerable parts, instead of empowering us to dig deep, expose, and heal our tender, internal parts. If you're so focused on exerting energy to build walls and keep others out, you won't have the capacity to dig deeper.
How are you grieving?
Which strategize to address and confront grief comes more natural to you?
Which is most challenging for you?