Good Grief: Processing Loss in a Pandemic

It can be hard to find time and energy to grieve properly, especially right now, but it is possible–and essential–to do so.

By Sylvia Ebenbach

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic about a year ago, grief from the tragic loss of life has been widespread and ever-present. During this crisis, everyone has been impacted by loss, either directly or as part of a larger community. At the beginning of this quarter, our very community was devastated by the sudden loss of a student. As school and work continue, students in the UChicago community have little time in their demanding schedules to understand loss and to heal properly. But grief is an essential part of healing, and there are ways to facilitate the process despite the other obligations facing college students.

Aside from a lack of time, the restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19 make it more difficult to rely on traditional means of grieving. Funerals, religious services, and visits to loved ones in the hospital are far more difficult, if not impossible. Without in-person support from family and a community, people may feel like they have to face their pain alone. The sense of isolation that may have existed prior to the loss is likely intensified. On top of that, UChicago’s mental health resources have not always provided enough help to students. To make up for that lack of support, students have had to fill the gap with independent research and projects. UChicago should provide resources to help with the grieving process that are more attuned to student needs and schedules.

Even so, there are ways to seek out support despite the loneliness of the pandemic. For students experiencing grief or mental health issues, there are some good places to start. Student Counseling Services has a variety of options depending on specific needs and preferences. Let’s Talk is an informal drop-in service (now held virtually) for students unsure about regular therapy sessions. There are also resources at UChicago Spiritual Life for students who have experienced loss. For more options, this article gives a run-down of UChicago’s offerings.

While the topic often feels uncomfortable, delaying or avoiding the anguish following a hardship prevents long-term healing and growth. Given the stigma within the United States surrounding conversations about mental health, it is not surprising that we feel discomfort discussing emotions after a loss. We need to include grief when we normalize discussions on mental health. Although individuals may experience it in slightly different ways, grief is a natural process that affects everyone, and it should be treated as such.

One helpful framework through which grief can be understood is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stage theory,” which she first developed while working as an assistant professor of psychiatry at UChicago. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. While not everyone may experience all the stages, or experience them in that order, understanding that individual responses to grief are normal and change over time helps to conceptualize it as a healing process rather than as a weakness or an obstacle. David Kessler, a grief expert, adds a sixth stage called “meaning.” After undergoing acceptance, the process of “meaning” includes continuing with life and finding happiness after loss. As far as an approach to the process, Kessler recommends, “Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.”

In addition to this general framework, there are other specific, meaningful ways to create space for mourning while still going on with our lives. According to Jessica Jacoby, Director of Clinical Social Work at UChicago Medicine, it’s important to engage in self-care, such as going on a walk, journaling, and other relaxing activities. When the distress becomes overwhelming, she recommends naming those feelings and practicing mindful breathing. Other ideas include honoring the memory of loved ones with virtual gatherings and reaching out for help when needed. In order to find time in a busy schedule for these practices, it may be helpful to schedule a specific time during the day dedicated to those activities.

There are many ways to understand grief through a psychological lens, but that should not distract from the reality that it is utterly difficult. Mourning a loved one while navigating sadness, anger, confusion, and even guilt is not easy to manage for anyone. There is no reason to downplay its intensity and impact on everyday life. While the inclination at a rigorous college may be to push through the pain, it’s beyond important to acknowledge how hard it is not only for personal well-being but for the benefit of our community and society, which is now experiencing loss all the time.

It’s important to know how to support friends and loved ones who are experiencing grief. Since everyone processes loss differently, the main goal should be to respond to their comfort level rather than to project personal opinions onto the situation. For instance, instead of trying to find the silver lining of the situation, acknowledge how they feel about it and accept the reality that it is a difficult situation. Giving people the space to talk about how they feel or just letting them know that they are cared for can help with the grieving process.

A good way to begin normalizing and understanding the complexity of feelings surrounding grief is to seek out what is already out there. Terrible, Thanks For Asking is a podcast hosted by Nora McInerny that explores topics of grief and loss. She shares stories from her own life and invites guests on to the show to share their experiences. Another resource is The Midnight Gospel, a show on Netflix based on Duncan Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. The Midnight Gospel features a similarly weird and colorful artistic style to its co-creator Pendleton Ward’s show Adventure Time while exploring topics such as love, life, and death. There are also books like Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner and Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss by Patrick O’Malley and Tim Madigan.

While the time and thought required to grieve may seem daunting, it is necessary for mental and emotional health. Although the context of the pandemic often feels uncontrollable on an individual level, the manner in which each of us responds to loss can be hugely beneficial to ourselves and our loved ones. As busy as UChicago students are, we shouldn’t hesitate to seek support and take the time to grieve.

Sylvia Ebenbach is a third-year in the College