Grief is often a misunderstood emotion. It is described as a strong emotion that is experienced when there is a loss of a person or thing. Although we all experience it, we do not experience it the same way. Because grief is such a common emotion, many have developed rote responses such as “I am sorry for your loss,” “My heart goes out to you,” “You have my deepest condolences,” or “This too will pass.” These responses when given from the heart are important, but they do not always go to the depth of the feeling and pain that is being experienced because of the loss.
The coronavirus brings with it multiple layers of grief and loss for families and communities. Every day the news reports on lives that were lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes the death of a loved one more painful during this pandemic is the inability to offer closure through memorial services or other family traditions. Some families are personally affected by a family loss while others experience the loss vicariously or indirectly from exposure to the loss of others. While death is the ultimate loss, there are other losses as well that we are experiencing individually and collectively. The grief that we experience with these losses is sometimes minimized because of the number of deaths globally as well as the local deaths in the District of Columbia and the metropolitan area.
Whether the grief is associated with the death of a person, the loss of freedom, or loss of an event, special care is needed to support the individuals or communities who are experiencing it. When thinking about grief, one size does not fit all. For example, the loss of a pet for some is the equivalent to the loss of a family member. For others, the loss of a job is as devastating to them as other losses. And for students about to graduate virtually, the loss of the ceremony, the photographs, farewell hugs and best wishes are broken memories. While wanting the celebration and mourning their loss of it, they simultaneously feel uncomfortable that their loss is of an event and not a loved one (some have both). And in trying to console them, sometimes they are reminded that their loss is not as great as others who have experienced the ultimate loss of life. This is a mistake. Comparing and ranking losses does not usually help. In fact, it makes the struggle harder because the individual feels that their feelings are not understood.
When reaching out to persons experiencing losses of traditions, we must exercise care in not minimizing their grief and their feelings of disappointment. It is a time of celebration. While the celebration is perhaps different than what they have worked for, planned for, or dreamed about, it is still a celebration. While acknowledging their loss, we should focus on the celebration. Although physical distancing changes the how, celebrations are still possible. Although on a smaller or different scale, they can take place. Although there is a sense of loss, here is the opportunity to create “new” memorable and meaningful traditions that sometimes will be integrated into future traditions.
Let’s all work to ensure that the memory is more about their day. Yes, they will always remember that the day was changed because of the pandemic, but what should also stand out is how they were celebrated. Will it be a time captured by zoom and shred with family members/networks across the globe? Will it be a time for private time and reflection about the milestone they are achieving? Will there be a list of 20 things that make you smile about the person? As we collectively experience what Pauline Boss refers to as ambiguous losses (losses that occur without closure or understanding), let us make room for celebrations that are memorable and enduring. The poet Maya Angelou reminded us, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
While we may be powerless over many things today, we still have the power to make someone feel good.
Sandra Edmonds Crewe is dean and professor of the Howard University School of Social Work.