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Grief in the holidays: Managing loss during COVID-19

By Guest Columnist GIL FRANK, grief educator

At the start of the traditional holiday season, the total number of people who had died from COVID-19 in the United States exceeded 768,000, according to the Nov. 19 report from Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gil Frank

Gil Frank

Can you imagine how many families will have a missing loved one this season, how many children will not have a Christmas gift under the tree. COVID deaths leave thousands of U.S. kids grieving parents or primary caregivers. The latest estimate was 175,000 youngsters had lost a parent or secondary caregiving grandparent, according to a figure cited in an NPR story and based on a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Those horrific characters on paper also hide another reality: Grief unattended, unwitnessed; pain not shared in a society too busy to halt and see.

During COVID, I lost my wife from another beast: breast cancer. I experienced grief and was able to be educated and witnessed through the work of David Kessler, made available on his website. Sharing my feelings and witnessing the pain and healing from others were among the lessons. The most important thing to understand is that we don’t grieve alone. Hopefully. But those numbers above let me think of the lack of grief literacy that we face as a society.

As the previous executive director of Historic Westside Gardens, I am involved with the stakeholders advisory board of the Hercules Community Engagement Core at Emory University. We deal with environmental health. The massive numbers I cite above drove me to think of the consequences for public health. All of us will experience grief in our lifetime, at the loss of parents, friends, colleagues, leaders. Many of us might have experienced the lack of grief literacy, at a personal level. Friends or even family who cease to be in touch, uncomfortable with our pain or our need to bring the loved ones names or even stories into our day to day life, people who do not understand how long pain lingers and inadvertently tell us to move on, etc.

Grief is personified in this monument on a private grave in Historic Oakland Cemetery. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

This pressure is not without consequences. Feeling is healing and, if our feelings are locked into the need to please a rushing society, our unattended pain or unwitnessed need to express our sadness will catch up later. Some will find refuge in self-pleasing themselves with mini-addictions: alcohol, food, etc. Some will suffer of more direct and brutal affliction such as depression. There is also the risk of a trans-generational impact. This concern involves looking at what will happen to those children.

We know from other catastrophes that the impact will not stop at this time and this place. It is transmissible and will affect society. Think how we looked at the great influenza disaster 100 years ago. However, at that time grief was more a collective, community-based challenge, as it is in societies that are les individualized and isolated than we.

In brief, a public health crisis is quietly developing and we will need to do several things:

  • First, as always, be aware and recognize;
  • Second, educate the health community about grief. I was amazed that when David Kessler opened the grief educator certification program, so many therapists joined, a huge majority among the 1,200 participants. They learned and often shared their own need to have their grief witnessed by their fellow students.
  • Third, educate ourselves but, more importantly, show compassion, respect and kindness.

The most important things are to witness the grief of the people you know and love, or share a work experience and understand that each individual grieves differently. Each one has his or her own pace to grieve.

Gil Frank

Gil Frank became a grief educator after serving as founding executive director of Historic Westside Gardens


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