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Dealing with overwhelm during grief

As we process our various emotions to the news of the Queen’s death, a few thoughts have surfaced for me since the announcement. Whether you read this from the perspective of helping to process your own response, or to find ways to support colleagues at work, it might be helpful context to help understand our own emotions or help others at this time.

At the moment, one emotion that might be surfacing for a lot of people is sensory overwhelm.

Overwhelm at work:

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Many will already feel bombarded by everyone else’s feelings, thoughts, and experience. So much so that perhaps it has been difficult to even consider their own.

Every single media outlet is flooded with images, stories, comments and emotions. It’s in every conversation, every email and every interaction.

When our grief is personal, we can sometimes distance ourselves from it for a brief moment, which is critical respite to help our ongoing resilience.

When the grief is shared and public, it can feel almost impossible to escape, and this sensory overload can be difficult to deal with.

Remember too that this overwhelming volume of content is a vivid example of one true and constant feature of grief – that the response to grief is unique to each individual. 

Some people will feel very neutral about what’s happened (and that’s ok).  Some will feel deeply affected (and that’s ok too).

Those in the neutral camp may feel empathy towards those who are struggling.  Some, in either camp, may (unhelpfully) try to assert their perspective on others.


My advice?

One key feature of overwhelm is a sense of lost control.

A powerful way to address overwhelm is to identify areas where we can control and put actions in place to get the outcomes we need.

If the volume of content is too much, take steps to carefully and proactively manage your access to it. Limit access to social media. Give yourself a break from tech and tv if necessary, and as regularly as you need.

Turn down the social media noise – all the binary debates of who is right and who is wrong on every aspect of this situation, like whether we should or shouldn’t be cancelling events out of respect. Do what you need in this moment. 

What we know about social media and tech is that the useful, insightful content will still be there to access when you want, so you don’t need to miss out. Instead take control of how and when you are going to access it.  

While grief is typically a very personal matter, when it’s the death of a famous person, especially one so iconic as the Queen, whose presence we have seen or felt every single day, either directly or indirectly, the personal experience grief can feel like it is an unavoidably public experience.

When working with grief I often suggest four distinct lenses to apply to the experience. Take a moment to pause and reflect on how you have been responding in each of these areas or use these as a guide to your conversations with other who may need your support.

  1. Physical – how our body is processing the news and what we can do to support our health and physiology.
  2. Emotional – the wide and often chaotic range of challenging and conflicting emotions
  3. Interpersonal – how we interact with people in our lives – family, friends and at work
  4. Societal – what society tells us we should do, feel and think, and how we choose to respond to that

Everyone I have ever worked with has had a unique range of perspectives and challenges in relation to each of these dimensions. Becoming aware of these and understanding them is the first step in then formulating coping strategies to support ourselves and others.

It’s important to give yourself and others the non-judgemental space, permission and encouragement to explore how we are responding to the news.

Gemma Bullivant is an HR coach and consultant, who provides organisations with grief coaching and awareness training.