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Layers of Loss

Professor Christine Hagedorn MBA, DM and Director of the Counseling Center Kruti Quazi MA LPC NCC CCTP DBTC, - September 24, 2020

an aerial view of Connelley Green with the tent for ourdoor activitiesLayers of Loss Professor Christine Hagedorn, MBA, DM , Business Department Discipline Coordinator and NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative, and Kruti Quazi, MA, LPC, NCC, CCTP, DBTC, Director of the Counseling Center, shared concerns about the emotional challenges caused by this unprecedented year faced by Rosemont students .

Layers of Loss

By Dr. Christine A. Hagedorn

Loss.  It is a rough emotion to cope with. It can feel heavy and it can hurt.  It is fair to say that almost every student in the United States, from kindergarten through college, has experienced various forms of loss since March 2013 when schools changed the way we operate in the face of the global pandemic.  Loss of the daily routine, the bus ride or walk to and from school, lunch and recess with friends, study groups, walking the campus or hallways, even carrying around the backpack have been put on pause. These are the rituals that accompany the school day and often help students to make meaning of the day and of their learning experiences. Having to get through one’s daily life and responsibilities, despite these feelings of loss, this loss of the ritual, adds a bit more of a burden to everyday tasks.  Too, added to that already challenging feeling of loss of the normal school routine is the fear and uncertainty of Covid-19.  And, all of these emotions, the loss and the fear, are present even before we add on the layers of needing to be able to focus and learn new material in an academic setting. 

As a faculty member, I have been thinking about this for all our students and as our Rosemont College NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative, my thoughts have lately turned to our student-athletes and the layers of loss they face. Loss of the spring 2020 season, and now the loss of the fall 2020 season, loss of those rituals that are a significant part of a student-athlete’s personal identity – the daily workout with teammates, practice and drills, anticipation of competition, contests, team travel and meals, study hall, locker room, and the emotions that come with striving to be one’s best on and off the court, field, pitch or turf.  Our student-athletes are experiencing loss on many levels during this time of cancelled or postponed seasons of competition. 

While I am sensitive to the difficult emotions our student athletes may be feeling as they navigate a contest-less season, I am also inspired by the resilience they have shown. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least eight student-athletes who have nurtured new initiatives during this pandemic time. True to our Rosemont mission of ethical leadership and social responsibility, these student-athletes have started businesses, non-profits and podcasts all with a common theme – sending a message of hope. Christina Broccolino, Softball team captain, added a new product to her start-up cosmetic line for which all proceeds went to the Innocence project to support  wrongly incarcerated persons, Tobi Joshuasville and Chris Briner, both Men’s Basketball team members started a podcast and non-profit, respectively,  with goals to share awareness about mental wellness, vulnerability and suicide awareness. Zachary Young of Men’s soccer launched a podcast offers nutrition advice peppered with stories from the global soccer scene and also touches upon the connections between nutrition and mental health. Abigail Brooks of Women’s Volleyball developed an idea for an app that could have profound and positive social justice implication. These are only a few examples of how our students are indeed, experiencing these feeling of loss, but also channeling their energy to create and support the idea of hope.  

Faculty and staff can be a great support to the cultivation of hope in the hearts of our students which is the point of writing this article.  The best place to start to nurture hope is to start where we are - which may be a place of grief. We start by allowing it, recognizing, labeling and naming this sense of loss our students may be carrying with them to academic classes. When we recognize the loss, we begin to fill the void.  From there, new hope, new life, new ideas can grow.    

Students deserve the recognition of what they are coping with if for no other reason than to help them feel seen, heard and understood for what they are going through.  Feelings of loss will be different for each student-athlete because Grief and Loss are like that… they take many forms and go through stages.  There is no doubt that as we enter this fall term, our students may find themselves in one of the stages of grief or loss.  Our counseling services team has expertise on this and can give us some insight. 

 

Stages of Grief and How We Can Help

By Kruti Quazi, MA, LPC, NCC, DBTC, CCTP, CFTP

The COVID-19 pandemic may be an epidemiological crisis, but it is also a psychological one. While our students may all be feeling anxiety, stress, and sadness, as Professor Hagedorn mentioned, they are all feeling a sense of grief/loss, not only individually, but collectively as a community.  As we know, grief is the common, internal feeling one faces when they are reacting to loss and each one of our students may be entering in one or more of these stages of grief throughout the pandemic.  In an Introductory Psychology class, we have all learned about the five stages of grief detailed in the book, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Lossco-authored by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. This book explores the grief process and states that there are five non-linear stages revealed throughout the grief process. Initially, it was thought that when a person grieves, they go through all five stages in a particular order and end at the final stage, which is acceptance.  As research has shown, this is not necessarily the case. Kessler added an additional stage of grief in his book,  Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.  Students will experience one, two or more stages or sometimes ALL of these stages at various times throughout this pandemic, especially if these losses continue through next year. 

 

What are these stages and what do they mean?
  • Denial – This stage deals with mourning, sadness, and the feeling of disbelief for the situation that has occurred/is occurring.  “I can’t understand how this is happening in our modern society.”  “There’s absolutely no way this is going on right now.”
  • Anger - In this stage, individuals find something or someone that they can blame. Questions of fairness arise. “Really? Are you serious? I am not allowed to go out? I not allowed to do things? I’m so mad about that.”
  • Bargaining -This stage is known as the trade-off stage. During this stage, the individual tends to make a deal with fate or destiny trying to find more moments of time with what they have lost. “Okay, let me get this straight, if I stay home for two weeks, then everything will go back to the way it was.  We will have a normal life again, right?”
  • Depression – This stage propels individuals into a deep sadness and helplessness. “Wait, this is going to continue? This could go on longer? Are you kidding me? How much more do I have to put up with? This is so sad…I’m not sure I can take any more of this”
  • Acceptance – In this stage, individuals feel a sense of understanding and the ability to continue through their grief journey. “Okay, fine, this is our new normal, our new reality. What can I do to make this work for me?”
  • Meaning: Finding, naming, and creating meaningful moments despite the situation. “Name them and be appreciative of them! What we are dealing with is horrendous, short-term, and will end at some point. We can learn and grow from this.”

So many of our students may be facing individual losses such as illness and/or death of a loved one, or loss of employment, losing their home and losing their daily routine due to COVID-19.  But many in our community who may not have lost something so concrete as a job or a loved one are still grieving. The communal grief we feel as we see our education, employment, economic systems, and healthcare, everything we depend on, begin to destabilize is beyond our understanding of what is happening in the world around us.  We have lost our sense of predictability, lost control of our situation, and we are feeling a sense of insecurity in being able to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Ambiguity about what the future holds is where anticipatory grief — the fear of what might happen — can come into play. Anticipatory grief is related to anxiety and the fear of “what comes next.”  The anxiety can take over and the person will continue to have racing thoughts, disturbing their everyday routine, including sleep.  It is important to find a balance in the way you are thinking. As worst-case scenarios try to take over the brain, it is important to try to shift the mindset to one of positive thoughts. “We may all get a little sick, but the world will continue.  Not everyone I love will die. Many will survive because we are taking the right steps.”  Help our students to understand that they should not ignore the scenario and taking precautions such as wearing a mask and social distancing will help to keep our community safe.

Complicated grief focuses on the feelings of loss that are persistent and they interrupt your ability to do day-to-day activities. For instance, this type of grief can show up as being unable to even get up off the couch day after day, even to get onto a zoom call for class. Some other possible indicators of this grief are anger and irritability towards others and oneself. Complicated grief reminds us that being stuck in quarantine may not be the only reason why you are fighting with your parents, siblings or significant other. This type of grief can be compared to a student athlete who may be injured and is out for the rest of the season.  But in this case, it may feel more overwhelming for them because they may be in great physical health but due to the pandemic, their season was cancelled. 

Cumulative grief suggests that the feeling of loss one experiences is a chain of adverse events one after the other following an initial loss. A person experiences this type of grief when a second loss appears while you are still grieving over the first. One major aspect of this pandemic is the slow cancellation of one event after the other on our campus. For example, beginning in March, the Spring 2020 sports season, then for some, senior formal and graduation, then summer plans with friends or family, etc. being cancelled.  Now it continues to creep into our Fall and now possibly Winter season.  For most students, it probably feels like their life is being taken away one moment at a time.  That intense feeling of loss is considered cumulative grief.

What can we do about it?

Grief is completely natural, and most people are quite resilient.  Grief is about being able to reflect, looking inward, rethinking the situation, and starting to contemplate what is within our control and what is not in our control.  It is natural to grieve over what we are losing and when we let grief do what it is supposed to do, we are eventually able to bounce back and move on. George Bonanno, PhD is a psychologist who heads the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University and his research suggests that “grief is also transient, even when we’re in the midst of its clutches. People should expect to fluctuate between moments of sadness and mourning, and moments of acceptance or even happiness.” It’s OK to allow yourself to be distracted and entertained, and even to laugh.”  The coronavirus is a threat we cannot see, something we have never experienced before, so we have a very difficult time as to predicting what will happen next and what we should do about it. 

With the entire world around us encountering these losses (great and small), how do we begin to help our students (and ourselves) cope?

 “Name and Claim” Our Grief

It is very helpful to “name and claim” our grief.  By asking our students to consider what they are losing in the context of this pandemic, we can also ask them what is in their control to strengthen those ties.  This can help to organize thoughts, what next steps to take and to help them cope with their cumulative losses.  One suggestion to give them is to keep a journal, helping to put words to the losses they are experiencing, but also identifying ways of moving forward.  Research has shown that “writing about emotional upheavals can improve both physical and mental health (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2018).  Have them write down what they are losing individually and collectively.  Encourage them to write down their personal strengths and what coping skills they have used in the past to get through previous transitions and challenges in life.

Follow a Schedule

As we began the quarantine and our students’ normal routine was disrupted – not going to classes or work, not socializing, sleeping in more, it is quite important for them to maintain a routine.  Writing out a schedule is helpful, even writing out the most minute detail of their day such as brushing their teeth, taking a shower, finishing a puzzle, reading a book, or even calling a friend.  If they have a visual schedule of their day in front of them, they will be more apt to continue that routine and look forward to what they will be doing next.  This again is something that they can control in a world that is out of our control.

Create an area in your home or residence hall if you will be working remotely

Working from home or on campus remotely may be new to our students and may have its own challenges, especially when the space is not sufficient or private. We can’t expect to have the same type of productivity from our students as usual. We are all distracted and needing to cope with a different daily life now, while helping others. Here are some recommendations on how our students can stay focused and productive during school and work hours:

    • Confine your workspace to a specific clear area in your home/residence hall so your job doesn’t take over your personal needs. Use this same space regularly to work. This will focus your mind and increase your workflow.
    • Control the sound around you if you can. Use noise cancelling headphones or earbuds or use music or fans to create white noise.
    • End the school or workday with clear boundaries. Put away electronic devices, finished schoolwork and work tools at the end of your workday and set clear hours in the day for work.
    • Have a morning or evening check-in with a friend, colleague or supervisor to reduce social isolation and provide structure to your day. Use video communications when you can. Seeing faces provides more social connection and information than just talking.
    • Be sure to get enough sleep. This one is probably the most challenging for college students, but by creating and maintaining a daily schedule, they will be able to control their environment.

Come into the Present

Helping shift our students thinking to the present will help to reduce some of the anxiety.  Some suggestions are slow breathing and counting your breaths, counting backwards from 100 to 0, by threes, using your five senses – name 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Meditation and Mindfulness can be a wonderful tool to help students cope.  The Counseling Center has many more coping skills they can teach you to help bring you back to the present.

Find ways of expressing kindness, patience, and compassion

Be extra kind to yourself and others. This is a hard time for everyone. The entire world is sharing this pandemic experience right now.  Remember to tell our students that we are all in this together and we may all emerge with a renewed appreciation for our interconnectedness. To survive this pandemic, it is critical to help others in need.  This creates a purpose for us and our students and it helps to increase our well-being.

Social Connections  

Research has shown that social support can be crucial in moving forward from grief rather than being “stuck in it.”  But with the quarantine and social distancing. it can be difficult to connect easily with others.  Students may feel isolated from family and friends, so it is vital for them to stay connected through social support networks including phone calls, texts, video chats and social media. Be sure to encourage them to check in on their friends and family and continue to do so even after the pandemic ends.

Cognitive and somatic coping

Physiological stress responses are shaped by our thoughts and patterns of thinking.  Acute, short-term stress is not necessarily bad, and may in fact be beneficial for us. We can approach stressors with a positive mental view that we can cope well, that we have the resources. We can also view the physical stress response as one that helps us perform better, such as increasing oxygen to the brain. These are both types of “cognitive reappraisal.” UCSF professor Wendy Mendes, PhD, has shown that teaching students a positive way to view acute stress led to better performance on tests.

Be realistic and base how you react on facts. Since the COVID-19 pandemic will likely go on for months, we need to make sure we are creating breaks and coping well with the stressful events that arise each day. It is our natural response to think of the worst scenarios, things which may seem catastrophic, but that creates unnecessary stress arousal and suffering. According to positive psychologist Martin Seligman, think of the worst-case scenarios and the best case scenarios and try to come up with a happy medium.

 Reach Out to a Professional

Sometimes the trauma and the stress of everything going on around us can be quite overwhelming and students may need to reach out to a counselor who can help process the grief they are experiencing and can help come up with coping mechanisms to deal with the stress and loss of “normal” life.  The Rosemont College Counseling Center is here to help!  Our virtual office hours are Monday through Friday 9am to 4pm.  There is always a counselor available if you need to talk or want to make an appointment.  Our daily Zoom link for office hours, as well as programming is: https://zoom.us/j/92221144825  Please come say hello – we are here to support you.  You may also follow us on Facebook and Instagram!

 

Our current culture has often made grief felt by educators and students insignificant. If we are unable to acknowledge this grief and/or validate what our students are experiencing, then sadness, anger, and feelings of loss will continue to rise, and these feelings may be mistaken for other situations going on in our students’ lives.  This will continue to feed the cycle of grief.  We need to validate these layers of loss, unpeeling each layer to understand our students, the environment they live in and the issues they are dealing with. We have to help them remember that sometimes the only way out of grief is through it, even though this process can be intense and at times overwhelming.  We are here to guide them.

Educators must become aware of what our students are feeling and experiencing.  We need to help them remain focused in the present and help them to control what they can control.  We should focus on this sixth stage of grief, giving meaning and purpose to the grief they are experiencing.  Only then will we be able to help our students (and ourselves) come out of this unprecedented time stronger and more resilient. In the words of Vicki Harrison: Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”