“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”
― Vicki Harrison
If I hear the word “unprecedented,” one more time, I may scream. This may be new territory for many of us, but our emotions and response are similar to any loss. Whether your collegiate season ended abruptly, or you had a spring race that got cancelled or you’re in limbo wondering if your event will be cancelled, you are grieving a loss. Most people have heard about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief (which originally referred to the person who was actually dying but can also apply to survivors). It would be nice if we progressed through these stages in an orderly serial fashion, but we don’t. We ricochet back and forth between the stages, but eventually we move through it. Not move on, but move through.
Denial: No freakin’ way, nuh uh. This can’t be happening. I’ll be returning to school in a couple of weeks and will play out the remainder of the season. Or there’s no way in hell they’ll cancel this race. Just a couple of weeks and we’ll be back on track.
Anger: NO FREAKIN’ WAY! Why now? It’s my senior year and now everything is ruined. Or I’ve been training for this race for the past 9 months, giving up every aspect of my social life. All that hard work and it’s gone. I can’t believe the organizer or school is over-reacting like this. Re-open the damn gym, I need to get in my strength work.
Bargaining: No freakin’ way?? Or is there a way? Maybe if we all wear masks and stay 6 feet (not 5 or 7), away from each other we can still play out the season. Maybe they’ll just reschedule the event a couple of months late; I can deal with that.
Depression: Nooooo (sigh) freakin’ way. You start the true grieving process. You start to grieve the loss of this season, this point in time. It’s so important, as in any grieving process to name what you’re feeling. There will never be another 2020 spring season. When an athlete is injured, there can be a profound sense of loneliness—no one understands what I’m going through, everyone is just going on with their training season. And here is one of the ways the present situation is different—other people, teammates, training partners, coaches, fans, do feel the loss right along with you. As athletes, our sport is a huge part of our identity. You may feel that sense of identity as an athlete is gone right now. And a lack of control. And on top of it, we can’t hang out in person with our teammates and training partners and friends. Do not deny yourself these feelings. As difficult as they are to sit with, the psychological literature shows the only way to make it through pain and grief, is to sit with it. No, you can’t just “move on.” Again, we don’t ever really get over loss, but we do find a way to get through it.
Acceptance: No freakin’ way….this year. There will never be another 2020 season, just like there will never be an exact replica of a loved one or beloved pet who died. Eventually, and I mean eventually (and this differs for everyone), we start to radically accept the circumstances. We may not like them, but we accept that all the worry and sadness in the world will not bring this season back. This is where we may practice dialectical thinking, where we experience two seemingly incompatible thoughts and feelings at the same time. It sucks that there will never be another 2020 season and there will be more seasons.
So yes, there are words for what you may be feeling right now. Here are some tips to make it through:
- Allow yourself to feel. As I mentioned earlier, allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions that you feel. Name what you feel, write about it. The literature shows that writing about difficult emotions like grief, trauma, or stress actually helps us to put structure to these feelings swirling around in our head untethered. And we find naming or writing these words will not destroy us.
- Remind yourself that you are still an athlete.Joel Osteen has written about the power of “I am” statements. What comes after “I am” are beliefs you program yourself to think. And what we think leads to what we feel. Think of Mohammad Ali, “Ima show you how great I am.” “I am still an athlete” “I am not alone in this.”
- Remember we are athletes, wired to overcome adversity and work through the pain. We are mentally tough. This is how we make it through a race or a game. We feel physical pain, the burning in our legs, the exhaustion in our arms, feeling like our heart is going to beat out of our chest, and still move forward in spite of it. When I would feel like I couldn’t swim another stroke, pedal another rep or run another foot, I would think, just move forward, baby steps, but forward motion. That applies to our mental fitness too. Keep moving forward mentally.
- I reiterate, you are not alone. Reach out to teammates, training partners, coaches, and others who understand what you’re feeling. And if you find yourself sinking and not able to recover, seek professional assistance. I watched and listened to a clip from the Rotterdam Philharmonic playing “Ode to Joy” remotely, individually, but all together. Each musician was playing their instrument and was able to see and hear fellow musicians. The result was watching a screen that reminded me of the beginning of the Brady Bunch, thumbnails in a grid, but yet perfect execution of playing together as an orchestra: https://www.rotterdamsphilharmonisch.nl/en/pQlJNt2/rpho-online.
Separate and together.
- Take care of yourself. And last there is thestuff we are reading on every online “tips to cope” list. Eat, drink and sleep well….exercise (preaching to the choir), reach out. meditate, take one day, one hour and sometimes one breath at a time…You can visit my website at: https://www.aimforchange.com