Healthy Living

Your Post-Election Pain Is Real Grief

It's OK if you're not ready to fight yet. Psychologists recommend giving yourself time to mourn.
11/10/2016 02:03pm ET | Updated November 14, 2016
KENA BETANCUR via Getty Images
A Hillary Clinton supporter breaks down in tears at the end of election night at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.

For more than half the nation and much of the world, we are in a period of mourning. After waking up to President-elect Donald J. Trump ― what many can only describe as a nightmare ― Americans face emotionally charged weeks and months ahead.

For those wondering how to face the oncoming days, it’s important to stop and acknowledge that this is an event that signifies a monumental loss. That post-election grief you’re feeling is real, and it’s every bit as legitimate as the pain that stems from a difficult breakup or the loss of a loved one.

And that pain is certainly not something to be pushed away, minimized or rushed through, according to grief experts. Although we usually think of grieving ― defined as the psychological process of reacting to a loss ― as applying only to personal circumstances, it extends to many other types of loss. For many, this election is a good example.

“Many people think of grief as specific to a death, but it’s much broader, and we grieve for all sorts of things,” Robert Zucker, a social worker, grief expert and author of The Journey Through Grief And Loss, told The Huffington Post.

“There’s one definition of what we often grieve for, which seems to capture what a lot of us are feeling now: It’s a loss of hope, of expectation, illusions, what we projected would be the path we’d be on.”

Grieving a collective loss is personal.

Many Americans are experiencing a sense of loss on multiple levels. Some feel that they have lost the country they knew and loved, and perhaps have even lost their sense of optimism about the future. For groups that have been targeted and marginalized by the election ― including women, Muslims, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, young people and environmentalists ― the sense of grief and loss may be particularly strong, and may take longer to sort through.

“There is sadness and anger over the multiple losses associated with the unexpected election results,” said Nancy Boyd Webb, a bereavement expert and professor of social work at Fordham University.

“These losses relate to an uncertain future, the expectation and hope for a female president, and the climate of fear over the unknown future with the possibility of deportation of refugees, the future loss of Obamacare, and the loss of an environment of respect and civility.”

““The unfulfilled potentials, the dreams, the values that we hold ― those are the things that people can feel a sense of loss for."”

Any national or public loss can be as painful as a personal loss, added Marcia Lattanzi-Licht, psychotherapist and co-editor of Living with Grief: Coping with Public Tragedy.

“Any loss depends upon the importance of that relationship or that experience to you,” Lattanzi-Licht said. “The unfulfilled potentials, the dreams, the values that people hold ― those are the things that people can feel a sense of loss for, and wonder how they can be restored, if at all. There’s high emotion around that.”

There are actually three stages of grieving.

Based on the popular five-stage model of grief created by the late psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, grief is said to follow five predictable stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But another model of grief, outlined by Zucker, takes on three predictable phases.

Phase one is characterized by initial reactions like anxiety, numbness and what he calls “denial of fact” ― the sense that this can’t be real, it’s impossible, it’s unbelievable. Even when we anticipate a loss, we can still be caught in this type of denial, Zucker explains.

This denial might seem unproductive, but it actually acts as a kind of “buffer,” allowing the psyche to take stock of what’s happened and adjust to this new reality, according to Zucker.

“There’s a gift in this kind of denial, even if we might find it troubling,” Zucker said. “We need to allow ourselves to feel a kind of disbelief.”

““We need to allow ourselves to feel a kind of disbelief.””

The second phase ― or as Zucker puts it, the “second storm” ― is characterized by an upsurge of intense emotions like anger, fear, sadness and deep anxiety. Here, it’s important to clearly identify the thoughts and feelings and let them out in a safe space, like through physical activity or by speaking to a therapist.

“What we do as communities to grapple with the intense emotions of the second storm is going to be important,” Zucker said. “It’s going to require a lot of support of communities to help people appropriately express themselves and maintain safety.”

At the third phase, we reach a point of acceptance and meaning-making, in which there is an assimilation of the loss into our overall cognitive framework. It’s at this point that we find a way to live within the new reality.

Skipping the grieving process may only draw it out longer.

In the wake of a tragedy, mourning might seem like a waste of time. You may feel pressured (particularly if you’re spending a lot of time on social media) to immediately process things or jump to action. While taking action can certainly be healing in and of itself, don’t forget to allow yourself the time to mourn first.

Problem-solving and meaning-making emerge naturally when a person is ready and has done what they need to process their emotions and to mourn, Zucker explains.

Indeed, attempting to skip over the grieving process may only draw it out longer. According to Lattanzi-Licht, emotions that are glossed over or dismissed will tend to show up in other, potentially more unhealthy ways.

“There’s an old psychological adage, ‘What we resist, persists,’” Lattanzi-Licht said. “We have to come together and talk with people and look at our experience and see what it means to us.”

It’s important to remember that healing is a long-term process. As you move through the stages of grief, Lattanzi-Licht and Zucker recommend taking extra time for self-care, confiding in loved ones and focusing more on what you can control rather than what you can’t.

Coming together with community and friends to take stock of what’s happened can be a helpful way of moving through emotions, rather than getting stuck there. “We gather with people who love us, and we help each other through these times,” Zucker said.

When you’re ready, you can start to turn your focus to what type of person you want to be in the face of this new reality.

“One of the most powerful things about coping with loss is making commitments to ourselves about how we want to be in the world,” Lattanzi-Licht said. “We can say ‘OK, this is the reality. We can’t choose our circumstances, but how can we best respond?’”

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