Communicating about grief can be incredibly difficult. As frontline workers, you may be experiencing grief yourself or regularly witnessing others experience grief. Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona, has over 20 years of expertise in understanding grief and complex emotions. In the context of a global pandemic, her field of research is more important and relevant than ever. In this interview, Dr. O’Connor shares her experience and offers resources and advice on what you can do to help.
1. If you could, please share a little background on your research and what “grief” is, especially in the context of a pandemic.
Covid-19 has brought us so many losses. They are losses from the very big to the very, very small. These losses include the death of loved ones who went too soon because of this virus. They include celebrating graduations and weddings together when they were supposed to happen. They include the small loss of picking out fresh vegetables by touching them all and smelling them all and nobody worrying about that at the grocery store.
Grief is the natural human reaction to loss. But since there is a huge range of things that we call loss, what is it exactly that we’ve lost? My research suggests the answer is loss is a part of us that helped us navigate the world. In the most traditional sense, how can I possibly navigate the world without my husband whom I have lost, or my mother whom I’ve lost? In smaller losses, like the loss of in-person teaching—how do I navigate what it means to teach if I can’t connect with my students after class?
2. How has the pandemic particularly affected grieving and the experiences around loss of loved ones?
Grief is lots of different feelings and reactions, all in response to a loss. And grief doesn’t go away. Grief is this natural human experience. We will continue to feel grief over the death of a loved one in a year, in 10 years, in 40 years. Those waves of grief will still roll over us when we remember them. But there is a difference between grief and grieving.
Grieving isn’t just a reaction in the moment. Grieving is a type of learning—learning how to make a meaningful life with the absence of our loved one. It is learning to carry their love for us into the present moment, creating a life that reflects what was important to them and to us.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers us a similar opportunity, as many of us return to day-to-day life. The losses we endured gave us an opportunity to ask: What is important? What is meaningful to you? How will we work and parent differently because we were forced to reflect on what is valuable? Many of my friends have children in school, and they worried: “Are my children learning enough this year? How do we manage that?” They tell me they have learned what their children need and how to fulfill that in very different ways other than just sending them off to school.
3. How can people who are experiencing grief and loss seek help and support?
If you would like more information on grief and grieving, I recommend the following online resources: The Shared Grief Project and What’s Your Grief? I also recommend the book It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine. If you are struggling to function at work or at home, I recommend seeking a counselor for individual therapy.
4. How can people who are not currently grieving better understand and offer support to others who are?
If you care for someone who is grieving, being flexible is key. The challenge for those of us who love a bereaved person is to accept the reality that they are hurting. It is heart-wrenching to watch, but grief is a part of life. Listening and acknowledging what they are going through is vital. Your goal is not to take away their grief, but to provide support, love, and care. It is vital because by listening and acknowledging their pain, they feel love and we feel loving.
5. What is survivor’s guilt, and how is it potentially affecting people during the pandemic?
Survivors’ guilt is felt by those who have lived through an event from which others died. People ask themselves, why did I live when someone else died? In the case of the pandemic, survivor’s guilt is likely to occur more often because of the very high mortality rate, and the way it affected friends and families in close physical proximity. There were many opportunities for different outcomes from the same virus. It is important to remember that there are no answers to the “would’ve/should’ve/could’ve” questions that plague people, and that we find ways to restore life despite these questions.