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The Death of the American Dream? Grieving the 2016 Election

By Jonathan TranPham, reflect founder


Earlier in the week, I wrote a post with advice on how to deal with the anxiety caused by this long and tense presidential election. I assumed if we could just make it through, there would be light at the end of this Shawshank-esque tunnel of crap.


Boy, was I wrong. Instead of electing our first female President, America made history in an entirely unexpected way. Our nation got hit by a bus on Tuesday night, a bus that Donald Trump drove all the way to the White House.


Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Even as I type those words, I can’t muster the strength to say them outloud. Is this real life?


Given our reader demographic and location, I assume most of you were with me in being #withher. And you were probably with me this week in asking yourself these questions:


How did a man whose most notable foreign policy stance was a wall become President?

How did someone endorsed by the KKK and Putin rise to our highest office?

How did a man who’s unapologetically sexist and racist become the Leader of the Free World?


Then it hit me. Amidst my shock, I realized something: I was grieving.



What is grief?


While we think of grief as being associated with the loss of a person, it’s much more than that. Grief can be caused by the loss of a lot of things: a job, a friendship, a romantic relationship, a personal dream. Or in this case, a collective dream.


For some, Trump’s victory represents the death of what it means to be American: one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.


For others, it feels like the loss of faith in our fellow man (and woman) to stand up for their neighbor and maybe even the loss of our personal safety.


And for many, it embodies the loss of the dream of finally shattering the highest glass ceiling -- a dream we shared with generations of women (and men) before us. And this defeat can make it feel like we’re losing them all over again.


It feels like something very dear to us has been taken away.



How grief manifests


Regardless of your political party, each of us has experienced the loss of an election before. We usually chalk it up to the will of the people and move on. I volunteered for Al Gore in 2000 and found losing by 537 votes in Florida a very bitter pill to swallow. But I did, and I moved on.


This one feels different. This election is deeply personal -- for those on both sides of the ticket.


I’ve never seen the reactions we’ve witnessed this week. San Francisco feels hushed. I’ve seen people dressed in black and even crying publicly. Some walk around numb, while others filled with anger protest across the country. My Canadian friend visiting Boston likened the mood to a collective hangover. We are mourning.


Joan Didion in her book The Year of Magical Thinking said, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” In many ways that’s exactly how we feel, even if we don’t exactly know how or why we are feeling it. For many, including myself, this was an unexpected loss and therefore an unexpected grief.



How grief manifests


Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying described the stages of grief and mourning that are universally experienced by people all over the world. She didn’t have a national election in mind when writing, but her findings are surprisingly applicable.


1. Denial -- The first stage of grief is disbelief, as our brains try to rationalize and buffer the immediate shock of a loss. It’s a defense mechanism to get through the initial pain. No, this can’t be happening, right? There must be a mistake in the vote count.


2. Anger -- As denial fades, reality starts to sink in. We react with anger and lash out at anyone in our wake. When my grandmother died when I was 9 years old, I yelled at the doctor operating on her heart. In this case, many of us are targeting our fellow Americans, the media, or some even Hillary herself for losing. This stage is important, but staying in it will further divide us as a nation.


3. Bargaining -- Next, we try to problem-solve our way out of our current situation. Secretly, we make pacts with a higher being or ourselves to try and change an inevitable outcome. I promise to volunteer more if there’s a recount. These thoughts help us feel like we have control in an uncontrollable situation.


4. Depression -- This is the ugly stage of grief. For some, this manifests through tears and emotions such as sadness, worry, and fear. For others, it’s an empty numbness. With this election, I think I’m still here. I can hardly scroll through my Facebook feed without feeling a tightness in my chest, and I cried watching Hillary’s concession speech as I would a eulogy.


5. Acceptance -- Over time, we come to terms and accept the fact that the loss has occurred. According to Kubler-Ross, “Healing can begin once the loss becomes integrated into the individual's set of life experiences.” We get out of bed, shower again, and go back to work. With the election, acceptance means encouraging reconciliation as a nation and finding ways to continue fighting.


These five stages don’t always occur in a linear order, and the pace with which we go through them varies. We may find ourselves moving from one stage to the next and even back to a previous one, until we ultimately to come to terms with our new reality. Processing happens most healthily if we can acknowledge and understand the meaning of those feelings.



What now?


Mourning is completely natural and necessary, but you can also take small steps to deal with grief -- whether about the death of a loved one, a breakup, or a national election.


Dr. Sadie Phillips, reflect’s head of therapy, has compiled some useful advice to help you move through the stages of grief in a healthy way:


1. Allow yourself time to grieve -- It’s part of understanding yourself and your relationship to the world around you. Ignoring your feelings won’t make them go away. Grief often just gets bottled up and presents even more severely later. Instead, give yourself permission to explore your feelings and how you’re thinking about your life and the lives of those around you in a meaningful way.


2. Watch out for triggers (in this case, get off social media!) -- Grief can be triggered by many things that remind us of our loss. With the election, it can be a friend’s rant on Facebook or a thumbnail of a stump speech on YouTube. Turn off social media at least temporarily to save yourself the pain of reigniting these feelings and behavior.


3. Support one another -- Grief can be a very lonely feeling that causes us to pull away from others. Studies show social support is essential to healing. In this case, half of this country is grieving, so talk about the election with someone you trust. And given the tip above, this is best done in person, when real support and empathy can occur.


4. Don’t only focus on the negative -- Mourning serves a purpose and shouldn’t be rushed, but remember the ultimate goal is to heal. By only focusing on the negative, we trap ourselves in stages like anger and depression. Even though grief can cause us to feel a loss of control, we can still choose what we will and won’t engage with. Try to find opportunity to see the good in life -- what lessons can we learn and how can we use that energy to propel us forward?


5. Take action -- As with anxiety, taking action can help those feelings of powerlessness associated with grief. Make a donation to your favorite charity or sign up to volunteer with a political cause you care about. Channel your hurt into something productive.


Ultimately, grief leads us to a place of healing where we’re able to internalize the loss and move on. As much as we’re hurting now, I know we, as a nation, will endure. The American spirit is resilient and strong -- even in the face of hate. We overcame a Civil War and two World Wars. I am sure we will find a way to learn from this hard chapter in our history and improve America for everyone.



What if we can't move on quite yet?


Grief -- whether about a death or an election -- can linger unexpected and start to hinder other aspects of our life. This can manifest in loss of appetite or sleep or social isolation and can have a major impact on our health and wellbeing. If you feel like you’re having trouble moving through grief despite these tactics, talking it out with someone can help you understand and process your feelings in a healthy way.


If you’re interested in starting the conversation about the election, other grief you may be experiencing, or any other changes in your life, click below to get matched to one of our experienced practitioners and try three for free.