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The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

Demystifying grief: A COVID-19 conversation we need to have

Grief, fear and confusion are universal. They are also difficult to talk about, which creates an unnecessary wedge between people who need each other.
Art by Siobhan Eagen

In the 1101st episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers tells the audience about the death of his childhood dog, Mitzi, and the consequent confusion and sadness he felt.

 “I was very sad when she died, because she and I were good pals,” he said. “When she died, I cried.”

He said he didn’t want to bury his dog and that he hoped he could pretend she was still there. It was a poignant example of how grief disorients our brains. Rogers modeled something else in the segment too. He showed the positive impact having the hard talks and just how doable it is with a little bit of courage and willingness to acknowledge things that make us uncomfortable.

COVID-19 has pushed death into the forefront of minds. With so many Americans dying, even more will be grieving. Society at large and individuals are not prepared to support those who are experiencing loss of loved ones. They also aren’t prepared to evaluate their own grief and losses. It is necessary, now more than ever, to peel back the mystification of death and grief so that we can come out together stronger.

Alex Macy is a Crisis Response Associate at Kara, a Bay Area organization that supports those impacted by grief and loss. She said COVID-19 is rapidly changing the way we respond to grief.  

“Ritual is so important,” she said. “That’s something that’s going to be really difficult right now in COVID, people are not able to have their funerals. … people are really grieving in isolation right now, which is something that we’ve never been challenged with before. … But it’s like baptism by fire, it’s new for all of us. We just don’t know and we’re all kind of figuring it out.”

How not to talk about death

Americans have a habit of using euphemisms to speak about death. This bad habit can have multiple unintended consequences. Euphemisms give a sense of impermanence. They can feel hurtful and reductionist to someone who is grieving – euphemisms just do not match the severity of pain they feel. And for children euphemisms can be confusing.

Macy said it is important to be honest to children about death and to use the correct language even if it feels clinical. She said dishonesty can lead to children feeling betrayed later in life.

 “If they find their parent has lied to them about something or omitted something. It causes a lot of confusion, anger and resentments.”

Macy said she is an advocate of using the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ with everyone but especially with children.

She recalled one instance where a parent told their child that their father went to ‘hospital heaven.’

“And the kid right away said, ‘well then why aren’t we visiting him,’ because the ‘hospital heaven’ is maybe a place that you could go,” she said.

“Or like ‘he’s no longer with us.’ These phrases make it more comfortable for the speaker,” Macy said. “We tell ourselves that we’re making it more comfortable for the listener, when really it can be quite confusing for kids. It’s really important to have set realistic expectation and an understanding of what happened in order to have a trustful secure attachment with whoever’s left.”

Community is key

Forging and solidifying secure attachment after loss is important. But doing so is a struggle in America which operates in an individualistic mindset. Our society places value on “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” This mentality is damaging when it comes to grief especially.

Nathaniel Hinerman teaches in the School of Nursing and Health Professions at USF, serves as a chair of the San Francisco Bay Area Network for End-of-Life Care and has a psychotherapy practice helping people with loss and grief.

 “Everybody needs support,” he said. “Grief is one of those things that can’t privatize. We’ve privatized it in the United States. We’ve made it your problem.”

“You really need a lot of people, the more people that you have around you, the better,” Hinerman said. “But in American society right now with rugged individualism, the expectation is that you’re just supposed to grin and bear it and just plow through it.”

He made a hypothetical example of a sports game.

“’Of course we’re not canceling this football game cause our quarterback died – because he would’ve wanted us to play the game,’” he said. “No, no, no, no. I think it would be great if some teammates made a statement that ‘no, we’re canceling the whole game. Because nothing is the same, this was a big deal and we want to support our family and that includes the family of the guy or the gal that died.’”

When it comes to grief – experts say individualism this is not the way through. But death and grief make people feel awkward and uncomfortable. This discomfort, fear and anxiety of experiencing someone else’s grief, or not being able to help them, often keeps people from reaching out and supporting their friends. Asking questions if the first step to being a better friend and supporter to someone grieving.  It is important to ask questions and give people the opportunity to talk regardless of how uncomfortable it is to witness.

Give death and grief air-time

It’s not uncommon that people think not mentioning someone’s dead loved one is better than risking the griever crying or getting upset. They might become tight-lipped when Mother’s Day comes up in conversation while they are with their friend who has lost their mother, for example.

 “We are burdening grievers with their grief by making them be the ones to bring it up,” Macy said. “It’s further isolating them and it’s burdening them by not talking about it. We need to talk about it.”

Not only do we isolate grievers by not asking questions, we often put them in the position where they have to comfort everyone else because they are uneasy with the topic. The griever might end up saying things like “I’ll be okay,” “it’s okay,” and they might even apologize when they do get visibly emotional.

It is necessary then to ask questions. “How did he/she die?” “What were they like?” “Do you need help with laundry?”

Macy says talking is important to healing because it allows emotions to “live through its whole cycle.”

“Tears for instance, if your eyes are crying because you’re cutting an onion or, you know, pollen or something is in your eyes, they’re made of about 90% water,” Macy said. “But emotional tears are made of far more carcinogens and stress hormones. The body is literally ridding your body of stress from through tears. So it’s important to cry in those ways. It’s important to live out the emotion.”

“Not facing those emotions has negative consequences for your health,” Macy said.

 “If you suppress the emotion, then you have increasing levels of cortisol. You’re building an inability to kind of recognize and tolerate emotion. … Oftentimes you’re isolating yourself from people, and so then you’re building insecure attachments. Your emotional resources are being completely taken up by this internal turmoil that you’re unable to focus on the outside world.”

Being uncomfortable is okay

Witnessing grief is comfortable. Grieving is more uncomfortable, especially alone. Perspective and looking at the situation in a more simplified way can help prepare yourself to support a grieving person. There are generally two essential truths that are important to remember:

The only way you could take away someone’s grief is to bring their loved one back from the dead, healthy.

You cannot bring someone’s loved one back from the dead.

There is nothing you can do to take away their pain – what you can do is acknowledge it. This is why Macy says it is important to teach, encourage and empower people to support grievers.

“That doesn’t mean that you need to do anything,” she said. “It just means that you need to acknowledge the grief that’s happening. Just sit, as I say with some of my patients, to sit in the shit.”

“‘I’ll sit in the shit with you,’ you know,” she said. “Just acknowledging that ‘this is horrible and I can handle it and I’m not going anywhere.’”

Hinerman gave similar sentiments.

“It’s the communications that are important in grief,” he said.

He gave examples of phrases that might be helpful when speaking to someone grieving.

“’Hey, I’m here for you,’ ‘I don’t know what to say, but I really wish I could say something that would be helpful – I don’t know what that is,’ or ‘teach me what it’s like to be you right now.’”

We need to have empathy and awareness for ourselves too.

Attending our own grief

Rabbi Natan Fenner works at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. He says spiritual healing-work had always interested him, which is what drew him to rabbinical school in the first place and then further into grief and trauma related work. He said grief is profoundly impacting people in less obvious ways as well.

Any of the “massive adjustments” we’ve made to our lives can cause grief, Fenner said.

“Any kind of adjustment involves some loss and some dislocation,” he said. “People have lost homes and jobs and incomes and modes of social engagement, modes of professional engagement, being able to touch one another – being the same place. So even without somebody dying, there’s all that, there all those levels of layers of grief.”

Not only that, but fear for our own safety and health can preoccupy our minds – causing us to act from a fearful and anxious mindset. The amygdala is part of the temporal lobe of the brain and it controls our reactions to fear and trauma. A hypervigilant state, also described as an exaggerated startle response, is just one impact of an amygdala that is being frequently activated by persistent trauma and fear.

People who are hypervigilant become fixated on perceiving, preparing or ignoring a looming threat. Reactions to the threats, real or perceived, can be tricky and sometimes hard to recognize – especially in ourselves. Fear responses aren’t restricted to fight or flight either according to Bay Area trauma expert Pete Walker. They come in a range of “freeze,” “fight,” “flight” and the lesser known reaction “fawn” which is a reaction of codependency.   

Fenner said people are experiencing an amplified hypervigilance due to the ways COVID-19 has changed our daily lives. The threat can seem mysterious and inescapable.

“Because people are concerned for their health and their loved ones too, but also for their own health and safety, on some level that fear operates throughout the day,” Fenner said. “Because we’re washing hands extra, because we’re standing in line somewhere, because we’re not going out. Every change in our home and work routines is, on some level, out of precaution and there’s some you know, a potential threat or fear that underlies that.”

 It’s important not to beat yourself up if you’re having trouble showing up for other people. Fenner said this overwhelming sense of fear can impact how “how much we can pay attention to one another” and how we can show up for and register our own grief.

No one can avoid learning 

At some point, everyone must learn to navigate death and grief. Death will show up for all of us. Grief will too, in all of its flavors. They are the great equalizers of the universe. Rogers reminds us that bad times end and how important it is to be, and have, good neighbors.

He closed the episode about death with a song.

“The very same people who are sad sometimes are the very same people who are glad sometimes,” Rogers said. “It’s funny, but it’s true. It’s the same isn’t it, for me? Isn’t it the same for you?”




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About the Contributor
Siobhan Eagen
Siobhan Eagen is a storyteller based in San Francisco, California. Siobhan began reporting as a staff member at the Southwestern College Sun newspaper in Chula Vista, CA. During their time at The Sun they were editor of the opinions section and news section. They have written about politics, elections, police brutality, district attorneys, and much more. Siobhan has two San Diego Press Club awards for editorial cartoons, the Best Enterprise News Series award from JACC for coverage of a campus race scandal, Third Place Column Writing from JACC SoCal and an SPJ Finalist for a Sex and Relationship Column. Siobhan was grateful to be part of the staff which saw The Sun inducted into the ACP hall of fame and win the SPLC 2017 Reveille Seven College Press Freedom Award.

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Demystifying grief: A COVID-19 conversation we need to have