The year of canceled plans
Coping with loss as disappointment
It seems incredible that it’s been a year since people were first struggling with how to handle missed proms and graduations and praying that they could still have their weddings in August. One by one, important events were erased from calendars. Birthday parties, reunion barbecues, vacations, visits with new babies and beloved elders—all canceled.
Some down-in-the-dumps feelings were to be expected through the shutdown of 2020. But now, as there’s no exhilarating grand re-opening but instead an excruciatingly slow restoration of normal life, people are experiencing negative moods they may not fully understand. Many of my clients are asking, “Why am I so down when it seems the end is in sight?”
I point out to clients that as we’re smelling the blossoming flowers and feeling the warm air of spring, we’re also passing the markers of the initial days of COVID-19 lockdowns and losses of communal events like graduations, weddings, and championship games. That means that alongside our hopes of COVID recovery are anniversary reactions—the reemergence of grief we feel around the anniversaries of past losses.
The validity of disappointment
I’m a therapist who focuses on helping clients become more resilient and less anxious or depressed by engendering positive attitudes about going forward from the present moment and developing a capacity for a positive outlook. Over the years, however, I’ve learned that there are times when optimism is not the right note to strike—and that’s true when I’m talking with clients about the anniversaries of losses.
It’s so important to treat clients’ disappointments as valid before they can go forward. I know many people (including therapists) want to tell a disappointed person to get hopeful. When we send the message to re-focus on hope without acknowledging loss, we can disrespect clients’ emotional reactions, and they’ll internalize messages like, “It wasn’t that bad. It could’ve been worse. I should just move on already.” If disappointed emotions get shoved down as clients try not to feel or express self-pity, the disappointment can achieve monumental importance, looming over their futures as the all-important and unrecoverable loss from which they can never heal. Such a loss can become a permanent raincloud overshadowing any joy in a client’s life.
It’s possible that as we work through such events with our clients, our own unprocessed losses will be magnified. If we can spot those, it’ll benefit us and our clients to acknowledge our sadness too.
My client Anton, a music professor whose long-anticipated 2020 sabbatical was snatched away by COVID, is a perfect example of a client mired in anniversary-reaction disappointment. A week after he arrived in Italy, the rapidly developing COVID crisis forced him to return to the US. He called me recently and told me that he was feeling depressed, and though his life is ostensibly fine, he was in such a funk that small things are becoming too much for him. He’s going back to teaching in person soon and wants to buy a new car for the commute, but he can’t muster the energy to shop for it.
Anton told me how lucky he is. He still has his salary and time left on his sabbatical. But he hasn’t done much with his sabbatical year because he’d felt so deflated over losing out on his plans. Now, during the time when he was supposed to have come home with loads of new experiences under his belt, he was having trouble leaving the house.
Anton also told me that he has no right to be upset because, unlike so many others in this country and across the world, he’s kept his job. Many people I work with who are healthy and comfortable feel similarly guilty about their disappointment right now, and they are judging their emotions as wrong.
When I ask these clients to talk about what they too might have lost, I suggest they also tell me about the emotions the losses evoke. Part of this work is learning to suspend judgment of their feelings. That’s because unless people have a chance to feel anger, guilt, bitterness and hopelessness judgement free, they’ll ultimately have trouble rising above their disappointment.
I asked Anton to tell me what he would’ve done with his sabbatical, and he recounted at length his original plans to attend operas in Milan and Vienna, pursue a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live on a Native American reservation to record and transcribe the tribe’s chants, and more. All of it had been cancelled.
Shaking his head, he said, “I lost everything I wanted for that time, and I’ll never get it back.”
While he called this loss depression, I asked him to pause and relabel it a disappointment. This is because I believe that if we therapists take disappointment seriously without framing it as depression, we offer clients the perspective that their losses are both important and manageable.
Anton was at first miffed at this distinction, since what he was feeling seemed much bigger than disappointment. But I begged to differ. Disappointments are very real losses, and because they’re often magnified by the reality that in our minds we’ve lost something perfect, they can be particularly hard to get over.
Rethinking what might’ve been
What Anton lost by not completing his sabbatical trips was an imagined series of perfect experiences. None were marred by bad weather, misplaced tickets, or music that was badly played. Anton never had to contend with uncomfortable cultural disagreements about what he wanted to produce from Native American chants.
If your clients have missed out on important events like weddings and proms and championship games and graduations, they too suffered not just a loss but the loss of something “perfect.” As the anniversary of this loss comes around, they’re grieving their perfect event. Each remains pristine in their imaginations precisely because it didn’t happen.
To help my clients become aware of their lingering grief, I might briefly summarize the loss, especially if their disappointment is arising around an anniversary. For example, I said to Anton, “You must be so sad that you had to leave Italy without hearing that glorious music.”
I want clients to feel like they have permission to be as sad and mad as they want to about losing out. I’ll listen to all that they hoped their experience would be, grieve with them about everything in all its imagined perfection. On the first anniversary of the loss, I’ll encourage them to journal about it so the two of us together can better visualize what they missed.
Next, I’ll delicately ask if they truly believe it would’ve been as perfect as they dreamed. Is there a chance there might’ve been glitches?
I’ll underline this by asking if they’ve ever achieved a goal that turned out to be less magical than they expected, then explain that the challenge of letting go lies in the tendency to rarely imagine that what we’re mourning might’ve turned out badly. Because in the end, they’ll never really know if they’ve missed out on perfection, or would’ve struck out at the championship game, tripped onstage during the play, or gotten food poisoning at their wedding reception.
Events like graduations, weddings, and retirement parties, are all transition rituals that allow us to look back at how we got to where we are—and forward to the life ahead. I point out how meaningful they are so clients recognize that disappointment over a lost event should be significant.
This understanding allows clients to distinguish between their state of mourning and full-fledged depression. Once a client can frame their loss as disappointment, it’s then time to remember that they haven’t missed out on the life before or after the event. To cope, they can reflect with me on their life history, and what they’re anticipating for the future. They might also reenvision ways of celebrating their accomplishments with their communities.
I often also suggest some sort of artistic expression, matching a clients’ talents or interests, that brings together the ideal of what was lost and what kind of a transition it marked. Perhaps they can perform a ceremony with a friend or family member, or journal about their imagined perfect outcome, and then create a picture of how it really would’ve looked, potential disasters and all. I encourage therapists to take session time to help clients with these expressions.
“Where would you be today if you’d gotten what you wanted?”
As your clients work through their disappointments, they might recognize that they’re exactly where they would’ve been had the event taken place: finishing their first year of university, married for a year, or back on the job after the sabbatical. What they’re missing is not their life, but the memory of a wonderful experience.
Some mindful awareness to stay in the present can help cement this understanding. You might ask, “What is good about where you are in life today? Was this somehow changed by missing the ceremony?” Then focus on a way to celebrate where they are.
After working through the losses of his sabbatical, Anton was ready to look for that car, but he thought his colleagues would think him selfish for spending money on himself at this time. He’d also excluded his community from his loss, fearing that “whining” about a lost sabbatical would seem self-involved when other people had suffered so much more.
He ultimately decided to try and share some of his sadness with a few colleagues and was surprised to see how much lighter he felt after acknowledging his grief and receiving their sympathy. He then talked about the car purchase with them and found they were happy to talk about good things that were happening for him. Some even weighed in with car choices and asked to see photos of his choice on Facebook. Having them understand his loss and celebrate something fun with him helped Anton feel like he was moving on from his loss.
As all of us in the United States move into the coming months, a full year into COVID life, our personal losses will come into focus. If we don’t process them, they’ll be magnified. As therapists, we can be on the lookout for symptoms of anniversary reactions in our clients, and with our help, our clients can both recognize what they’ve lost and what they can still share with their friends and family.
Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist, author, and international trainer. She blogs about depression and anxiety for Psychology Today, and she has written nine books on the topics of managing anxiety and depression. Her most recent book is Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times.
For nearly 50 years, the Psychotherapy Networker magazine has been celebrated for its incisive and heartfelt articles on the challenges of clinical practice, the therapeutic innovations shaping the field, and the extraordinary experience of being a therapist.
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