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Experiencing Grief During COVID-19 with Jacqueline Brown, PhD, NCSP

In the latest episode of IB Voices, Jacqueline Brown PhD, NCSP, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Montana, and the director of the Grief & Resilience Among Youth Research Lab joined us to talk about experiencing grief during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also gives advice on how to personally cope with grief, and how to be a support to others.

You can listen to this episode by subscribing to IB Voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

Listen to the full interview on the IB Voices podcast

What might be unique in experiencing grief while social distancing?

Jacqueline: One thing that is unique is that there may be the shock of not expecting somebody to die. Grief is very difficult in general, and it’s often harder to come to terms with the death when it isn’t expected. There may be an increased desire to question if there is anything they could have done to prevent the passing. Or they may be experiencing survivors’ guilt.

Another consideration may be that they may be simultaneously experiencing other types of grief as well. For example, maybe they’ve lost their job, or they’re without income for now. Perhaps they are grieving the loss of the ability to connect in-person with key social supports outside of their home. Or maybe even just grieving the loss of what life used to be before COVID-19. When people die, people grieve for the loss of their connection to and time with that person. So, it’s important to remember the complexities of experiencing multiple types of grief, in addition to the death of a loved one.

Thirdly, people may not be able to connect with others that would help normalize what they are going through due to physical distancing, such as being able to attend grief groups, provided by hospices or churches, that may help ease some anxiety. Also, it is much more difficult now to have and attend funerals. This could potentially result in feelings of further grief and regret – especially if you live far away from the deceased. Also, it’s possible that someone may feel guilt not being able to celebrate or mourn a loved one in a large group, especially if having this celebration would have been important to the person who died.

My last consideration to take into account is that people may not want to deal with their grief right now. Maybe they just want to push it away because of the other responsibilities or concerns that they have, such as working from home, homeschooling a child, or making sure everyone in their family stays healthy. So maybe processing grief is something that they’ve pushed away for now. Typically, it is best to work through feelings of grief and not push them away, but that may not be possible right now given everything that is going on.

These are all important considerations to keep in mind.

“People may not be able to connect with others that would help normalize what they are going through due to physical distancing”

For somebody who is in a place where they feel like they are ready or comfortable working through their grief, how can they do that during these times of self-quarantines or mandatory lock-downs?

Jacqueline: Considering the IB community, let’s first think about parents and primary caregivers. It’s often that parents want to hide their emotions in front of their children, because they don’t want them to be upset, or burdened. However, I do think it’s important to model how to work through grief. One way to do this is through reading books that can help children work through their own emotions and normalize their feelings. This way, parents can ask their children questions about how they can relate to the characters in the book, and they can talk about their own experiences through that lens, as well.

Four books I recommend for children are:

  • Tear Soup by Chuck DeKlyen and Pat Schwiebert
  • I Remember Miss Perry by Pat Brisson (about the death of a teacher)
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (about the death of a friend)
  • The Memory String by Eve Bunting (about the death of a parent)

And there are helpful books for adults, as well. And what’s great about reading, is that it’s something you can do right now while at home.

Four books I recommend for adults are:

  • A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
  • Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief by Joanne Cacciatore
  • Permission to Mourn: A New Way to Do Grief by Tom Zuba
  • Transforming Traumatic Grief by Courtney Armstrong

Additionally, it’s important to give oneself permission to grieve and try to take a bit of time out of each day, or every few days, to take care of yourself, or just to remember the deceased loved one. This can be done by talking to someone, writing your thoughts in a journal, or even by doing a self-care activity.

And if even this feels like too much, that’s okay. Death can have a long-term impact on one’s physical and mental health. So, it’s understandable if somebody has to push it aside temporarily. But, in the long run, really looking after yourself and finding ways to understand your grief will be really helpful. And, if possible, seeking out support from a counselor or psychologist can be helpful. It may not be as feasible right now, given the current circumstances, but there’s a lot more tele-health available these days.

Zach: You mentioned before about people wanting to go out and provide support. One of the IB Learner Profile traits is Caring. And I find that it is embodied in not just the students, but also the teachers. So, I think there’s a natural inclination from the IB community to want to support and provide care to others.

What advice would you give to those who would like to go out and provide support during this difficult time?

Jacqueline: First. I would suggest reaching out to the person. I think oftentimes it’s common for people to say things like, “Let me know if you need help,” or “I’m here for help, to help you.” But what people don’t always understand is when somebody is grieving, they’re exhausted. They don’t really have the time to think about asking for support, even if they need it. So, reaching out to them is really important, even just to tell them that you’re available to listen and provide support. And keep reaching out to them, if they show interest and appreciation in receiving the support. Don’t wait for them to tell you that they need the support.

And when reaching out to them: listen to them. Really listen. I think this is more important than feeling like you need to provide advice, because often with grief, people are scared of saying the wrong thing. Just listen, let them talk through their feelings, and validate what they’re going through. Let them tell stories about their dead loved one. Be understanding, even when they tell you the same thing repeatedly. Sometimes it may feel repetitive, but by telling a story or sharing these difficult feelings over and over can really help people work through their grief by coming to terms with, and better understanding, their feelings and emotions.

And, as I mentioned before, if they don’t ask for advice, it’s better actually not to give them any, and to just to listen and validate their feelings. It’s very easy to feel misunderstood, especially if the individual that they’re talking to hasn’t experienced the death of a loved one themselves. And then, even if they have, these circumstances with COVID-19 are unique. Therefore, individuals may feel less understood and less like people can relate to what they’re going through.

Also, back to what I mentioned before, parents giving children the opportunity to grieve and mourn is important and they should make time to support their children. It’s really important to emphasize that as a parent, you’re there for your child and to carve out time each day to provide grief support. So whether it be through reading, doing an activity that may encourage children to talk and express emotions, or spending a time outside (if feasible), these activities can be really helpful.

And one last thing, with respect to teachers supporting students, it’s really important to be understanding of the impact grief has on an individual and how this can affect their daily functioning.  When somebody grieves, their ability to focus changes. It’s a lot harder to focus. They’re more tired. They’re exhausted. Kids may even be more reactive due to the intense feelings of grief that they may be experiencing – and this may already be the case during the pandemic. So feelings of anxiety and sadness may be even more intense than they may have otherwise. So, if teachers are providing remote instruction, for example, I would recommend that they be patient and flexible with the students in terms of completing assignments. I would also recommend that they reach out to students, let them know that they’re thinking of them, and that they are there for support or to listen

“Really listen. I think this is more important than feeling like you need to provide advice, because often with grief, people are scared of saying the wrong thing. Just listen, let them talk through their feelings, and validate what they’re going through. “

Zach: Thank you so much for this advice and insight. It’s so helpful.

And in addition to your tips, your expertise and your reading list, are there any other places where our readers and listeners can find resources online?

Jacqueline: Yes, there’s a few organizations that I recommend that are founded or based in the United States that would be relevant to the IB audience:

  1. Coalition to Support Grieving Students
  2. National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
  3. The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children & Families
  4. Journey of Hope Grief Support Center

To find out more about the work Jacqueline Brown, PhD, NCSP does at the GRAY Research Lab at the University of Montana College of Humanities and Sciences, click here.

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This interview was conducted by Zachary Fernebok, Product Marketing Manager for the Diploma Programme and Career-related Programme at the International Baccalaureate, and one of the hosts of IB Voices. Listen to more stories from students, schools, educators and more on the IB Voices podcast.

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