Members in the Media
From: The Atlantic

All the Things We Have to Mourn Now

As of this writing, the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 50,000 people in the United States and more than 200,000 people worldwide. These deaths’ inevitable companion is grief, but the turmoil of the pandemic is altering and interrupting the normal course of mourning. People are experiencing many different kinds of loss simultaneously—some of them unique to or changed by this moment in history.

Because of the risk of viral transmission, many people are dying apart from their loved ones, and many others are mourning apart from theirs. Meanwhile, those who haven’t lost someone personally are surrounded by daily reminders of death, and are mourning their lost routines, jobs, and plans for the future, all while fearing for their health and that of their friends and family.

“I think that this situation is very, very difficult for people,” says George Bonanno, a researcher who studies grief. “But by the same token, people will get through it, probably the same way that people have gotten through other kinds of losses. They’ll just need to be a little more creative about it.” Based on decades of research, Bonanno calls grief a “natural adaptive reaction”—a painful but necessary mental recalibration to accommodate a new absence.

Bonanno was one of half a dozen experts I consulted in an attempt to catalog how mourning is changing in the coronavirus era. These six, whose fields span academic research and clinical psychology, were not in conversation with one another, but they addressed many of the same themes. Their comments below have been edited for length and clarity.

George Bonanno, a clinical-psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After LossCultures all over the world have these rituals where people take care of a bereaved person, and one thing these rituals do is connect the people who are present—the person they’re mourning may be gone, but they see that others are still here. People who come to your wedding are in your life forever, in a strange way, and it’s sort of the same thing with funerals. These people came together around a death in your life, which is really a powerful thing. That’s the way it works normally.

Bonanno: When we gather to mourn, we tell stories about the person who died and make little speeches about them, which helps build an image of the person that you take with you: They may be gone, but this is who they were. I think people have to do their best to find ways to do that while apart. You can create Facebook pages or email people or send letters and ask people if they have stories to share. I’ve participated in a few of those kinds of things with friends of mine who have lost loved ones, and I think they’re quite powerful. Not everyone is as comfortable doing that as [they would be doing] a memorial service, but that’s what we have right now.

Bonanno: When we lose a loved one, we struggle a lot more if we imagine them in pain at the end of their lives. It’s harder to grieve those kinds of losses, because you picture your loved one suffering, and in the case of a death in a hospital, there’s a sense of fear and loneliness that you can imagine them having experienced.

Bonanno: One former student of mine showed that you can actually have a grief reaction for anything that’s really a part of your identity. And people are losing their identities right now: Someone opened a bookstore a couple months ago and now the bookstore is going to go under. That was their dream, and it’s gone. All the seniors graduating from college, they’re not going to have a ceremony, and they’re finishing online classes. People can grieve for that. If they feel grief, they should let themselves feel it.

Bonanno: I did research about 9/11, and one way a national tragedy makes grieving even harder is there’s so much pain right now. There’s this amplified sadness. But I think in the long run, it may actually be—helpful is not the right word—but it may give people something to hold on to in a strange way. After 9/11, I interviewed a lot of people who were in the towers but got out and survived. Some of them were traumatized by it, but there was a sense that you had this story that you could tell people and they immediately knew some of what you went through without knowing your particular story. People reference your story to this historical event, and this might help you reach a shared understanding.

Read the whole story (subscription may be required): The Atlantic

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