Exploring Grief with Ashley Mowrey

Exploring Grief Ashley Mowrey

Exploring Grief

by Ashley Mowrey

No matter your role or title in the dance community...teacher, studio owner, parent, dancer, or fan, you have likely felt a roller coaster of emotions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our world has been turned upside down and the future can often feel daunting. All the closings, cancellations, disappointments, loss, and sickness, coupled with the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and more. It’s devastating. It’s sadness. It’s anger. It’s avoidance. It’s denial. It’s uncomfortable. It’s waking up every day, feeling heavy, disconnected, and anxious.

It’s grief.  

Grief is often thought of as losing a loved one, but we can (and do) experience grief for any loss. Loss of dance classes, Broadway shows, studios, income, employment, graduations, college orientations, performances, Nationals, social interaction, normalcy, loved ones, not wearing favorite dancer socks and health are just a few of the many things we may be grieving right now.

We are also simultaneously experiencing personal grief, collective grief, and anticipatory grief, which can be unbearable. In an article for Harvard Business Review, grief expert David Kessler, explains, “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”

 Kendra Cherry, MS, describes the signs of grief as:

  • Trouble focusing on normal tasks
  • Sleeping much more or less than usual
  • Feelings of anger and irritability
  • Headaches and upset stomach
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Re-experiencing feelings of past grief
  • Engaging in activities such as eating, drinking, or online shopping to cope with anxiety
  • Avoiding thinking or talking about the pandemic (or other triggers of grief)

I can say, personally, I have definitely experienced all of those in the last few months. Most of them on several occasions. So what can we do from here? First step: naming it and understanding the stages of grief. Naming it means, when we are experiencing those symptoms, we stop and acknowledge our feelings. We recognize we are in the middle of grief. From there, we can explore the stages of grief and our own personal journey with it.

In 1969, Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, wrote the book On Death and Dying, where she presented the 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Since then, her colleague and grief expert, David Kessler, has explored a 6th stage of grief: Meaning Making. Before we dive into each stage, let’s look at a few misconceptions on grief and the stages. Here are a few things Kessler says to keep in mind:

  • Grief, and the 6 stages, are not linear. They do not go in order, and you can cycle back and forth between different stages multiple times.
  • Not everyone will go through every stage.
  • The stages are not a map to follow. As Kessler says, “the stages reflect where we are”.
  • There is no hierarchy or comparison of grief and they can all exist together. In the The MindBodyGreen Podcast by Jason Wachob, Kessler explains that we cannot compare our losses. When talking about the grief, a bride feels after canceling her wedding due to COVID versus what he felt after the loss of his son, he says, “I can’t tell her her tears don’t count. My loss of my loved ones stand on their own. And her loss of her wedding stands on her own. The loss of her wedding doesn’t take away from mine and mine doesn’t take away from hers.”
  • Your loss is the worst loss. In this non-comparative, non-hierarchical process of grief, Kessler explains that grief is so individualized and that we will feel that our grief is the worst grief because it is happening to us...and that’s okay. He explains, “And if you’ve got a child that the worst thing that’s happening in their world is they can’t have a playdate with Suzie down the street, and they’re both 6 years old, that is their worst loss right now. When people ask me which is the worst loss I always go, ‘Yours. Whatever you’re dealing with is your worst loss’”.

After naming our experience as grief and understanding the misconceptions, we can then look at the stages to get a sense of where we are. As it pertains to Covid, Kessler describes what each stage could look like: “There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”

In explaining his 6th stage, Meaning Making, he says, “The meanings not in the death (or loss). You know, there’s no meaning in my son dying horribly at 21. Meaning is what I do after. There’s no meaning in this virus. There’s going to be meaning in what we do after this.” Since the stages are not linear, and can reoccur, it is possible, and probable, that we will vacillate between the stages, and their accompanying feelings, several times throughout these days. Name them, acknowledge them, feel them. You may feel broken. But there is nothing to fix in grief.

Naming and acknowledging our grief and feelings can be a very powerful coping skill. More coping skills to try during grief are:

  • Practicing self-care. Self-care doesn’t always mean a massage or bubble bath. It means doing what you need to feel cared for. Maybe that means establishing a new COVID daily routine, eating your favorite foods, or resting.
  • Practicing self-compassion. Your feelings are valid and we all need a whole lot of grace for ourselves right now. Check out these resources from Dr. Kristin Neff, expert on self-compassion.
  • I know we are all over Zoom meetings and classes right now, but we are also still in desperate need of connection right now. Who can you call, text, or Facetime right now? Reach out and stay connected, even when you feel over it.
  • Practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and deep breathing. Here are a few of my favorite resources for each.

For more resources, check out David’s Kessler website grief.com. If you are close to someone currently in the middle of grief, he also has a great list of the best and worst things to say to someone grieving. 

Practicing these coping skills on a daily basis can be, at least for me, overwhelming and intimidating. I’ve found it helpful to start with naming and acknowledging my grief and feelings, every time it comes up. Sometimes that means stopping what I’m doing and letting myself cry. Sometimes that means texting my husband or a friend that I am experiencing deep sadness. Often, that alone is enough. Other times, I pick one thing on the list above and try it. And I try to remember, there is nothing to be fixed. Just experienced and felt.

If you’d like support while you go through this process, or if you’re interested in my work, head to my website to learn more and see how we can work together to build your healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.

Ashley Mowrey is a Performance Mindset Coach and Educator located in Fayetteville, AR. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach through Coach Training World, as well as a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools for a healthy mindset in the dance community. Now, as a Performance Mindset Coach, she is also a dance specialist with Dancers for Doctors. Ashley has also recently been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and will be on an upcoming episode of Dance Boss Podcast.

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