In the past three weeks, the experience of grief has become public in a way that it has never before in the 36 years since the fateful day I lost my 25-year-old wife to a cardiac arrhythmia. I notice grief bursting into our consciousness from local to national stories.
Here in Southeast Michigan, sports fans were stunned to learn of the death of a local sports talk radio host (Jamie Samuelsen, on air for 20+ years) due to stage IV colon cancer. The reactions of his colleagues displayed the wide variety of feelings that occur after a death.
First, his co-host Michael Stone was shocked. He had “just spoken” with his partner and did not realize that death was so imminent. Someone less close to Jamie, the afternoon host (Mike Valenti), told listeners, “I’m angry.” Jamie was only 48—and he took such good care of himself. Finally, his closest friend at the station, Bob Wojnowski, was simply saddened. The world was an emptier and less affirming place. These are such wonderful examples of the different ways acute grief can strike others—from a close friend to a colleague who wasn’t even a friend to the deceased. In the context of a pandemic where, in six months, Covid-19 has become the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S., the listening audience responded to this grief with an outpouring of support and sharing.
Around the same time, a psychologist colleague of mine posted her experience of trauma; the trauma of losing so many older clients in the long-term care facilities where she practices. This is another aspect of grief in the time of Covid. Decline and death is often very rapid due to the virus. Sudden, unexpected deaths, especially at a volume never experienced before, produce trauma that attacks one’s sense of security, and often produces feelings of helplessness in a dangerous world. What a brave colleague. I had never seen anyone share so openly her experience of trauma in her current work. I was heartened that her colleagues responded so supportively. As I shared in an earlier blog, with Becky’s death I experienced trauma and traumatic reactions—invasive dreams, vivid memories of the morning of her death, seeing her dead body in the ER and later how different she looked in the morgue.
The most public grief outpouring recently was by Presidential candidate Joe Biden at the National Democratic Convention. His losses are unimaginable to most people: a wife and infant daughter in a car accident (leaving 2 young sons to bring up) and later the death of his adult son. Candidate Biden shared two messages about healing; both of which I agree with 100%. First, your loved one is always with you and second, you need to find purpose. I could not survive if I did not carry Becky and Susan’s voices with me. They gave me so much and I gave them all I had with love and joy. A sense of purpose was especially consoling after Susan’s death 6 ½ years ago. I set out on the personal mission to bring up my children. In my career I focused on tackling older adult financial exploitation, to understand and reduce it while helping victims recover from it.
What can we learn from all of this? First and foremost, don’t be afraid to talk about grief and let the people most closely affected know they have your support. Don’t just write one note. Keep in touch. After Susan’s death, I had much support from family, colleagues and friends, yet only one of our neighbors ever asked me how I was or made the effort to check in—despite almost a decade of us hosting holiday parties for the entire neighborhood. Second, understand and accept that grief is complex and changing; one size does not fit all. Be patient and withhold judgment. Stay compassionate and connected without assuming you have the answers for someone else’s healing.