Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Whether it be the loss of a loved one, a job, or a lifestyle, grief can impact every individual in a different way. The universal aspect of grief is that it, at some point, is part of the human experience for everyone. Finding innovative ways to process grief is the founding princple behind companies like Eterneva.
In recent times, we are experiencing a new kind of grief that is associated with the lifestyle changes that are being forced on us by a worldwide pandemic. During these times, people are being challenged with learning how to navigate their emotions through so much uncertainty, and they are learning to cope with the loss of normalcy. Furthermore, those who are experiencing loss of loved ones are being forced to recondition themselves on how to mourn for their loved ones due to the restrictions that are being set in place by governments. The changes in how we mourn that have been brought on by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely mold the new normal of our future and will restructure how workplaces deal with the grieving process.
In a recent interview hosted by Eterneva’s Tracey Wallace on the SAP Platform, Dr. Candi Cann and Lisa Keefauver, MSW, explored the various aspects of navigating grief during COVID-19 in their discussion titled “Collective Grief and the Employee Experience.” Tracey Wallace is the head of marketing at Eterneva. Co-founded by Adelle Archer, Eterneva is an Austin-based company that provides the service of turning ashes into diamonds. The two participants, Cann and Keefauver, are both professionals in the field.
Cann is an associate professor of religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University. She received both her Master of Arts and doctoral degrees in comparative religion from Harvard University, a Master of Arts in Asian religions from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and a Bachelor of Arts in Asian studies and English from St. Andrews in North Carolina. Her research focuses on death and dying and the impact that memory has on shaping how lives are recalled, evoked, and celebrated. She also teaches World Cultures, World Religions, Death and Dying in World Religions, and Buddhism at Baylor.
Keefauver is the founder and CEO of Reimagining Grief, the creator and host of the podcast Grief is a Sneaky B****, and a VIP contributor to Thrive Global. She received her Master of Social Work from the University of Vermont and her Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Boston University. She focuses on educating others on grief and empathy; giving inspiring and informational talks; supporting companies and organizations who want to do better in supporting their grieving employees and customers; hosting a conversation-style podcast; and writing authentic empathy cards, daily invitations, and articles.
Understanding Grief Models: Assumptions and Truths
Grief can come in all forms. It can be personal, anticipatory, and collective, to name a few. What matters is understanding that all grief does not look the same. However, historically speaking, we have been educated to believe that the process of coping with grief is always done through predictable stages. However, Cann challenges this notion and argues that this is one of the biggest myths that we, as an American society, believe. She says that there is a misconception that once you get through the stages, you will come out on the other side okay. Cann discussed the new theories of grief, stating that “grief theory now has developed several different models in which really healthy grieving is constantly oscillating various feelings and extremes. And really, healthy grieving is learning how to live in spite of and with your grief.”
With the new models that help us understand grief, new truths have been revealed as well. Grief is not the same between all people, for example, and there is no correct avenue through which someone must cope with their grief. Their emotions may oscillate, depending on the individual and the situations surrounding the loss. Keefauver reports that “brain fog, fatigue, distraction, irritation, and anger, for instance, are some of the many experiences of grief.” Additionally, gender does not dictate how one responds to grief, and there should be no expectations that it is not masculine to respond with sadness to grief because it’s completely normal.
Furthermore, grief does not always manifest as negativity; a lack of negativity does not mean that an individual is not feeling loss. Some people work through grief with the mindset that they will get through it and manage it. Some even lean toward staying busy to help cope with their emotions. They may overwork and attempt to pass the time until normalcy returns. The truth is that grief is about control. When you lose someone or something, you experience an event that you cannot possibly control. The human response is to regain control and attempt to return to a reality in which you know what to expect. Keefauver defined it as “our attempt to control or comprehend the uncontrollable.”
One unexpected reaction to grief that many have is guilt, which is extremely common in American society. Employers, for example, only provide a specific number of days that an employee can take off for the loss of a loved one, and they define who an employee must lose to qualify for this excused time. This creates a timeline by which individuals are expected to return to normal, and it is a timeline that does not match human psychology. Many people who continue to feel grief for days, weeks, or even years, often feel ashamed about their inability “to get over it.” According to the panel, quickly moving past grief is not normal for most people. Hopefully, increased awareness of this reality, brought on by the current pandemic, will help shift western culture so that it embraces a new response to grief.
Grief and COVID-19: Changing Traditions and Rituals
When a collective experience is broad enough to be shared by the whole world, there often results enormous cultural shifts. Sometimes, a crisis does not allow society to continue to ignore truths that they have been turning a blind eye to for a long time. In today’s case, the pandemic has brought the whole world to a feeling of grief. This is not the kind of grief associated with the loss of a loved one; instead, it’s the result of a loss of normalcy. We are grieving economic security, job security, changes in relationships, and work structure. We are going through collective grief and personal grief at the same time. We are learning to care for ourselves while simultaneously trying to care for others from afar. The result has been a change in the traditions and rituals that we previously associated with grief.
We, as a society, are now providing more compassion for ourselves and others. We are letting go of the “shoulds,” giving permission, and not judging, allowing people to adapt. We are implementing new technologies to help cope with the ongoing changes, both in our personal and work lives. Around the world, people are being forced to get up to speed with these technologies.
For example, due to the pandemic, traditional funerals are no longer permitted, and people are faced with the challenges of honoring and mourning their loved ones without the ability to come together. Companies such as Eterneva are offering new services to help advance the technologies of funeral homes, providing free digital arrangement setup tools.
Another example is that people have been forced to learn to work from home. Work calls and meetings are moving online, and workplaces are becoming workspaces. The shift here is an actual example of the kind of structural changes that are expected to have a long-term impact on brick-and-mortar work locations because employers are learning how much overhead they can save by changing their business models and allowing more employees to work from home.
The Future: Changes in How We Will Cope With Grief
The events of 2020 have impacted the lives of people all around the world. The pandemic has created unity because we are all fighting for the same cause, and the changes in traditions and how we deal with loss have been brought to the attention of Western culture. With this awareness, there is hope for change in the future.
Since most adults spend a majority of their time in the workplace, Keefauver and Cann share their insights on how making changes in company policies can help create pathways for a new way to approach grief.
Keefauver has outlined a four-phase model that leaders and managers can use to handle grief:
- Phase 1: Name it. Companies need to understand and identify that employees are experiencing grief in the wake of the pandemic and that it is normal. They need to adapt to the idea that loss compounds; recovery is not linear.
- Phase 2: Model it. Companies should have services in place that they encourage workers to use. It will be crucial that leaders do not dismiss the services and beliefs themselves but instead model using those services to process. They should show their employees that they are focusing on self-care and that it is okay for their employees to do the same.
- Phase 3: Remember that you cannot fix it. Loss is not something to be fixed. We live in a society where we are focused on fixing existing problems, so when faced with the uncomfortable emotions associated with loss, our instinct is often to fix the problem. This is not the right move; instead, we need to recognize the problem and provide support.
- Phase 4:Be flexible. Again, the stages of grief are not linear, and triggers that may be okay one day may present emotional trouble the next. No one can anticipate how long their grief will last or how they will respond to different triggers in the future; therefore, workers need flexibility in their recovery processes.
Although the year has been filled with discomfort, uncertainty, and pain, bringing with it an unanticipated wave of grief across the world, there is hope for positive change in the future. The awareness that the pandemic has brought to how humans respond to global crises and how that has been implemented to help all people adapt has shed light on the changes that we need to make in how we approach grief and compassion in the workplace and elsewhere. Grief should not be condemned and shamed; instead, it should be understood and supported. The reality is that if we can alter our beliefs to understand that concept, the world around us will drastically improve, both in terms of workplace efficiency and personal gratification.