When we traditionally think about the act of mourning, it’s usually connected to the death of a loved one. However, anything that is valuable in our life can be missed, including almost intangible notions, like freedom or routine. Though some have been impacted more gravely than others, everyone has experienced frustration, fear, and disappointments in 2020. For some, it was the difficult decision of postponing their wedding—an event they’ve looked forward to since childhood. For others, it was watching their newborn turn into a toddler without ever introducing him or her to their grandparents. For many, it was an unexpected period of unemployment and the financial struggle that followed. 

To put it bluntly, it’s been a lot—and those experiences won’t leave our psyche instantly when we are vaccinated, or we no longer have to wear a mask to venture outdoors. It will take time—and the use of powerful coping mechanisms. That’s why psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. says it’s paramount to mourn 2020 and all of the trials it forced us to face. Here, a deep dive into why we mourn and ultimately, how it benefits us to process these negative emotions so we can move forward in 2021 and beyond.

We mourn because when we are emotionally invested. 

According to Dr. Thomas, humans mourn when we lose something or someone we are emotionally invested in or connected to in an innate, powerful way. Everyone expresses these feelings differently: some may cry; others may become angry, and so on. In some cases, these reactions can be confusing, especially if we feel relief, which can stir up guilt. In terms of the pandemic, you may feel empathy for a friend who lost a loved one to COVID-19 but also comforted that no one in your personal circle has tested positive. You probably took a ride on this rollercoaster many times throughout the year, as cases grew and more people faced the reality of the virus. This can create an emotional residue and one that mourning can help you clear up.

Mourning allows us to feel and express the effects of a loss. 

We’ve all been there before: you are upset at your partner, and he or she keeps asking you why, but you can’t explain the specifics. Or, you’re scared to be completely honest or vulnerable. Whatever the case, those feelings don’t just disappear—instead, they bottle up. And eventually, they will erupt when you let your guard down (or perhaps, after a few glasses of wine). All of those complicated feelings from 2020 are likely bottled up inside you, and they need a way to release. That’s where mourning becomes a useful tool since it helps you to feel and express the effects of your loss, according to Dr. Thomas. 

“You can be negatively impacted emotionally, physically, and cognitively by not mourning. Living like this can be chronically energy-draining, can come out physically with body tenseness, gastrointestinal problems, and headaches, and can diminish your motivation and mood,” she warns. 

Mourning allows us to process trauma—big and small.

In 2020, we have lost many things, even if some of them, we willingly gave up to help and protect our family, neighbors and loved ones. It’s been a year where we have very little control or freedom for many people and one where we have lived in a heightened state of fear: for our health, our jobs, our community, our world. These compounded on one another can leave us feeling heavy and weighed down by our emotions. “Generally, it’s hard enough to deal with one major loss, let alone multiple ones that are coinciding where there is not enough time to mourn each individually,” Dr. Thomas says. “Mourning 2020 can help you process some of the trauma you have experienced this year.”

One exercise to consider is writing down your grief of the year. In a column next to it, write how it’s made you feel or how you are currently feeling. Then, in the third and last column, write down how you will work to process these emotions. It may look like this:

– Postponed our wedding/Angry, sad, jealous of others who had a wedding/Planning a special date with my partner and saving up for a bigger wedding down the road.

– Lost my job due to the pandemic/Scared, anxious, nervous/Applying for one job per day starting in the New Year, but taking a week to decompress my feelings first. 

– Haven’t seen my parents all year and I live alone/Lonely, sad, stressed/I will make plans for mid-2021, when hopefully it’s safe to see my loved ones. 

Mourning allows us to move forward. 

As defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief that many people experience after a loss are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The goal, of course, is to get to the point where you accept 2020 for what it was (and perhaps more poignantly: what it wasn’t), so you can release the grief and move ahead to 2021. You can’t skip any of these steps since they are all critical to your healing process. “If you have not mourned healthily, it is difficult to reach acceptance since you will get stuck in one of the previous stages,” Dr. Thomas explains. “The bottom line is that mourning if allowed, can help heal the wound and offer some closure and comfort.”

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