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Covid-19: A grief expert explains how to process the “unfathomable amount of loss”

Camille Wortman is an emeritus professor of psychology at Stony Brook University and an award-winning expert on grief and bereavement. Her work includes the authoring of five books, hundreds of articles, and, in response to the events of 9/11, the creation of a training program for therapists on how to treat traumatic bereavement.

Nineteen years after 9/11, the United States is once again experiencing a time of grief. More than 100,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, a number eloquently described by The New York Times as “an incalculable loss.” It’s a loss so great that some have called for a national day of mourning — a time to pause and remember. Remember both who are gone, and remember so we can take the steps to avoid this level of devastation in the future.

Necessary to this is an understanding of grief, and how to grieve in a way that leads to healing. Presently, grief is being experienced on both an individual and a collective level. In the conversation below, Wortman offers guidance.

How would you define grief?

Grief is the emotional reaction we experience when something that we love and care about is taken away from us.

What would you say is the most common misconception associated with grief?

There are a lot. The most common is that people go through a series of stages as they attempt to cope with the death of their loved one. That is definitely a myth. Everyone goes through grief in their own way. There’s no set pattern whatsoever.

We typically think of grief as an experience when someone we know dies. What other situations can ignite grief?

Any type of loss of something that we value. One of the hardest things about the time we’re in right now is that people are experiencing so many layers of grief for so many losses that they’re trying to deal with at once.

For example, suppose we have a 60-year-old couple and the husband dies. That’s never easy, but in addition to experiencing the loss of her husband, the wife is also in such a different situation than she would be if there wasn’t Covid-19.

She very likely was not able to see her husband for days; not able to be there when he died. She is in such a vulnerable state, and then she’s dealing with the additional stressors associated with the pandemic — financial insecurity, the inability to mourn in person with others. It’s almost too much for anyone.

If you look at the literature on grief, the main thing that’s helpful is physical presence. Psychologists know that physical connection — a touch, a hug — has a healing power. Many people are not able to have that, of course, with the coronavirus. People also do better if they have some certainty regarding what they are dealing with. So we are also experiencing the loss of certainty with the ambiguity of this situation.

The New York Times article on the 100,000 lives loss ignited a sense of grief for many, even if they don’t know someone personally who died of Covid-19. How would you define collective grief, and how does it affect us?

Collective grief is experiencing grief in the context of knowing many others are experiencing that grief as well. It’s experiencing grief even if you didn’t lose a loved one. It’s experiencing grief along with, or in honor of, people who have lost a loved one.

I think it is remarkable that The New York Times put that information together and, certainly, you can’t look down that list without getting a sense of the unfathomable amount of loss that we are experiencing.

"We're beginning to recognize the real human toll of this pandemic."

I think at the beginning, we were able to hear about the number of deaths and it didn’t really penetrate. It didn’t really reach us. But as there have been more deaths, it’s drawing in closer, and we’re beginning to recognize the real human toll of this pandemic.

Personally, I have a very, very close colleague and friend who has had all of the Covid-19 symptoms and was taken to the hospital where she still remains. It’s horrifying to think what will happen to her family if something happens. So, here I am looking at this one family, and you think, my God, there are 100,000 families just like this.

I think that’s what collective griefing is. It’s being able to connect with other people who share some of the same horror you do going through this epidemic.

What are some ways that people process grief?

There are certainly very different ways people deal with grief — I think that’s one of the most interesting things about it. One way many, at least initially, try to cope is by trying to block out everything. They don’t want to be reminded; they don’t take out pictures. You don’t want the people in your network to talk about the person who died. They really try to use a denial and avoidance type of strategy, powerfully so.

Now, for most people, that gives way over time because they simply have to begin to accept some aspects of the loss. But not everyone goes into a period of denial. Some people accept the loss at the very beginning; some people may want to learn everything they can about the pandemic because they think that will help them.

There’s some very interesting research in response to 9/11 that’s not about people who’ve lost a loved one but about members of the public. There’s a strong correlation between watching the news and mental health symptoms, and a strong conclusion that watching a lot of news might not be the best thing. When you’re grieving and you’re watching it, chances are it’s not going to make you feel better. It’s quite the contrary because you’ll see all of the negatives — the fact that it didn’t really need to happen; the frustration that people in charge politically aren’t handling it better.

[In response to the pandemic, Dr. Wortman and her team created a comprehensive list of internet resources to assist people who are currently coping with the deal of a loved one. To access it, click here.]

Are there healthy ways to process grief? After the period of denial is done, and the television is turned off, what comes next?

Most people have to gradually try to get in touch with what they’ve lost without getting overwhelmed with it all at once. Most people benefit if they have people in their social environment who can share that process with them and help them feel supported and understood.

It’s always hard for other people to support a person who’s bereaved, but with the pandemic, it’s especially hard. There’s an interesting article in HuffPost that talks about how, when you’re talking to someone who has lost a loved one right now, you’re likely to say things like, “Where do you suppose he got it?’ or “Did he wear a mask?” or “You should feel lucky that other people are dying of Covid-19 because at least you’re not alone.”

I think there is something unique about Covid-19 that makes people say even more insensitive things than they would otherwise.

When it comes to being a positive support system to someone who’s grieving, are there certain strategies that you would recommend?

The main thing is to just be there. It’s best if you can actually physically be there, but if not, you can still convey to the person that you are there for them. Don’t preach to the person, do not give them advice, don’t tell them that their loss is not really so bad.

It’s about saying, “I’m here for you,” and “How do you want to spend this time?” You could simply offer to watch a movie together or to FaceTime. The point is that you’re available.

What can also be very helpful is offering tangible support. Again, it’s harder with the pandemic, but it’s not impossible. This could be offering to cut a person’s grass if their husband died or offering to pick up groceries or send food to the house. Many people are so overwhelmed with the loss that they are unable to do those things.

What no one should say is “If you need anything, let me know.” That is one of the worst things you can say to a bereaved person because it’s hollow. They don’t know what they need and they’re too wounded most of the time to tell you so.

Some argue that there’s been a lack of conversation about death during Covid-19. Would you say that acknowledging death, and speaking about specific losses, helps people mourn and heal?

That is such a good question. I wish, but I’m not sure. For a lot of us, this pulls at our heartstrings and our most altruistic feelings. We want to help people heal, and in doing that, we want to heal. One thing that psychologists know is that the best way to help yourself is to help others.

If there’s anything you can do for someone who is grieving, that will help you — it will heal a little piece inside of you. To that extent, we can create momentum for more of that to happen. We can create more opportunities for people to help one another. I think that would be very, very valuable.

This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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