As I approached the sidewalk outside the White House in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the white glow of street lamps lit the faces of people milling around, awaiting the final call. When I got closer, I spotted a cluster of the unmistakable red hats—“Make America Great Again” emblazoned on the front—perched on the heads of young white men moving jubilantly to “Jump Around.” House of Pain, indeed.
Weaving through the crowd, I clung to my final shred of hope for the successful election of our first woman president, even as my heart beat out of my chest and I feared these men could turn violent at any moment in animalistic triumph. Moments later, I would read on my phone that the Associated Press called the presidential race for Donald Trump—and in an instant, hope gave way to grief. How will we ever get through this? I wondered. How will I get through this?
As night turned to day, I found myself repeating the same four words: “I am profoundly sad.”
This was all I could muster as friends and loved ones reached out to see how I was grappling with the reality that Hillary Clinton would not be the next president of the United States. They knew I was in Washington, DC, to cover what (in my mind) was supposed to be a night of celebration for the first woman president. Within a matter of hours, my thoughts turned from the future to figuring out how to lift my head off the pillow. I was experiencing, and continue to experience, classic symptoms of grief—and I know millions of others are right there with me.
And so, with the hope of shoring up my own mental health and helping others feeling the same way I do, I spoke with New York City-based grief counselor R. Benyamin Cirlin of the Center for Loss and Renewal. Cirlin both helped me to better understand my feelings of grief and offered a few mental health hacks.
To begin, he assured me that it makes perfect sense for Hillary supporters to feel a sense of loss, and explained that we, as humans, naturally get attached to people and to ideas. These attachments lead to assumptions, and we make connections to these assumptions. When those connections are severed, grief floods in.
“Most of us—with the hope of media and polls—assumed Hillary was going to win. That assumption was broken,” Cirlin told me via phone. “There’s a huge sense of disbelief. ‘How and why did this happen?’” He said people don’t have the “cognitive capabilities to take it in so quickly,” and that’s what accounts for the feelings of shock and sadness.
When it comes to processing grief, we often hear about the “five stages” popularized by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her stages—denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—primarily dealt with grieving death, but are applicable to anyone feeling a loss. Cirlin shared a different set of tools for dealing with immense loss that are non-sequential—these “tasks” account for the fact that the process of healing isn’t usually orderly and often quite messy.
The first task he shared is coming to terms with reality—one with which I must admit I’m really struggling. “When we lose something, we feel out of control—particularly when there’s no warning. We want to do things to give us control. There’s a psychological dynamic of protest, ‘It can’t be true,’” we tell ourselves. He pointed to the reaction of many who say Trump is “Not my president.” While these protesters don’t identify with Trump or support his policies, in time, he said, they must begin to accept that he was elected to the position.
Another task is to simply recognize and deal with your feelings. Whether it be anger with the outcome, guilt about not being active enough in the days leading up to the election, or anxiety about how his proposed policies will personally impact you—deportation, lack of healthcare, the list goes on—Cirlin stressed how it’s important to identify and put a name to these feelings.
It can also be helpful to figure out how your role in the world needs to change to account for a seismic shift (like the last person you’d ever want as president being elected). “It’s really about figuring out your new identity and realizing, ‘I’m not that same person anymore,’” Cirlin said. “When assumptions are changed or shattered, and you base your life on your relationship with them, you have to ask ‘Who am I now? Who am I going to be in this new world with Trump? Who am I as an American?’”
And finally, we have to ask ourselves, “How do I create meaning in my life knowing that a major loss occurred?”
These are tasks that I’m stumbling through. And yet, I’ve also begun to remember what it felt like be 17-years-old, lying on my bed despondent after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. I knew that it meant more war and less human rights. The world seemed to pause on its axis as the reality set in, and I wondered how life would go on. But it did.
“It’s really about honoring your grief,” Cirlin said. “Loss does not heal quickly. In American culture, we like to get through things very quickly. This has been a two-year process…it’s only when the disbelief wears off you get some sense of what it means.”
The thing is, many of us already have a sense of what this all means. And that’s why we’re so very scared. No one can tell you exactly how to cope with this unprecedented source of grief, but may you take some comfort in knowing you’re not grieving alone.