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Holding Space

The isolation of shelter in place offers relationship challenges and opportunities.

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Clinical psychologist Alexandra SolomonImage: Marita Poll

By Alexandra Solomon
June 26, 2020
Online Exclusives

We were only 15 minutes into our lab meeting when my single tear became what Oprah calls “the ugly cry.” My graduate students are therapists in training at the Family Institute at Northwestern, so they met my wave of emotion with empathy. I felt embarrassed, nonetheless.

After several weeks of sheltering in place, I was hosting my first Relational Self-Awareness Lab meeting on Zoom. Our main goal was to brainstorm virtual offerings we could create to help people cope with the challenges of living and loving during a global pandemic.

Our conversation triggered a tender memory. When I was in junior high, I would do my homework and then do additional reading and note-taking to cover anything that might come up the next day. My “preventative homework” was an example of what I call a “both/and” — a time when two things are true at the same time. I was both deeply invested in my nerdiness and desperately trying to contain my anxiety by controlling one little corner of what felt like an otherwise out-of-control world. 

What became clear during the meeting with my graduate students was that my effort to design a webinar series during a crisis was a midlife variation on an adolescent theme. I both wanted to be of service, providing emotional first aid during a time of need, and found that creating order from this collective trauma is my coping strategy.

To be in the world during this pandemic is to grieve. Some grief is immediate — losing loved ones to the virus, working on the front lines, facing financial ruin. Other grief is ambiguous — canceled plans, changes in the daily rhythms of life, loss of the world we thought we lived in. Although the grief may be universal, our coping strategies are idiosyncratic. My home is a case study. My husband, our two teenagers and I demonstrate the different textures and tones of both grief and coping. Some of us crave closeness and conversation, others crave space and quiet. I suspect your home is similar.

My academic and clinical work centers on helping people improve their relationships by practicing relational self-awareness, defined as an ongoing commitment to taking responsibility for what our relationships awaken in us. This pandemic can expand our relational self-awareness if we meet our waves of emotion with compassion and curiosity. (I have included a few reflection questions to the right.)

“This pandemic can expand our relational self-awareness if we meet our waves of emotion with compassion and curiosity.”

Our relationships are powerful teachers, because in order to love, we must forever bridge the gap between self and other. One of my favorite relationship quotes is: “The first thing you should know about me is that I am not you. A lot more will make sense after that.” When faced with grief — our own or others’ — our best and bravest work is to hold space for it. Holding space means that we simply stay present to the emotions, exactly as they are, without rushing to convince, or shift, or minimize or distract. I may always want to cope with grief by adding structure, but I want to remember that I am a human being, not a human doing. The gentler I can be with my own grief, the gentler I can be with the people around me, whose grief manifests in all kinds of ways. I hope this crisis teaches us all how to hold space for the people we love.

Crises tend to be turning points, dividing life into the time before and the time after, ushering in clarity about what is to be cultivated and what is to be surrendered. Let your grief be your guide. Let it turn you toward your past so that you can attend to old pains that are awakened in the here and now. Invite it to show you what you value so that your path forward is founded in what matters most.

Alexandra Solomon ’98 MA, ’02 PhD is a clinical assistant professor of psychology and clinical psychologist at the Family Institute on the Evanston campus.

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