Modern Day Loss: The Vast Impact of Grief
Author and grief advocate Rebecca Soffer joins Capital One for an open conversation around modern day loss
There’s no vaccine for mental well-being.
The early stages of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns were hard on all of us in different ways. Isolation, unemployment, childcare, sickness and death, and many other challenges severely affected the mental well-being of many people around the world. Yet here we are, a year later. How are we coping?
According to author, Modern Loss cofounder and grief advocate Rebecca Soffer, we’re all suffering from modern day loss. Soffer recently joined Capital One to unpack this topic, explaining how people experience grief, why it's integral to acknowledge it in order to begin the healing process, and how we can cope with it. Read on to hear her perspective.
Defining Grief During a Pandemic
When I was 30-years-old, my mother was killed in a car accident. Four years later, my father died. My world was turned upside down in a matter of seconds. My exploration of modern loss was born out of the enormous well of grief I was experiencing.
Most people primarily associate grief with death. And over the past year, indeed many people have experienced death loss. In the United States alone, around 600,000 people have died from COVID-19 so far.
What’s mind boggling is, there’s something called a bereavement multiplier which suggests that for every person who dies there are nine people who are directly affected by that death – emotionally, psychologically, physically, economically and/or financially. So when you do the math, in the United States, that's nearly 6 million people who are being impacted by grief, and just from COVID-19 deaths alone. It's quite overwhelming. Just think about all the other deaths that have happened from other reasons, both in this country and around the world, and the nearly unimaginable scale of that grief.
Grief is a universal experience. It’s the feeling of deep sorrow or suffering in the wake of an extremely unfortunate outcome. And it touches every single aspect of our lives – our careers, our friendships, our intimate relationships, how we spend our money, and so much more.
So yes, there is a lot of grief stemming from death during the pandemic, but also, if you’ve lost someone or even something that was important to you, chances are, you’ve experienced (or are experiencing) grief. In this vein, it is one of the threads that connected us all throughout the pandemic. For example, let’s say you lost your job during Covid-19. That loss then has a ripple effect – loss of routine, loss of income, loss of identity. And then, on top of that loss, you’re also trying to navigate new ‘normals’ and new roles – filing for unemployment, becoming a kitchen table teacher, caring for elderly family members, or not being able to fuel or act on your passions. There’s obviously sadness and/or suffering that accompanies these things, and also grief over the loss of perceived control over our lives, which every single one of us has experienced over the last year.
Now imagine all the additional suffering the world has endured over the past year – mass shootings, violence against people of color and of various religious beliefs, women being forced to leave the workplace – you’ll realize just how many people are in pain. It looks like a lot when you see it all in writing, doesn’t it?
I believe this is a critical moment in time with regard to how we can make active moves to care for each other and ourselves in a myriad of ways. Because while we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, the grief pandemic that is growing will far outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normalizing the Conversation Around Grief
As a society, we don’t do a good job of normalizing the conversation around grief.
We understand when something feels like grief to us, but we often compare our grief against how we envision others’ suffering, and sometimes refrain from talking about our grief. We think, oh well, my mom died, but parents are supposed to die, right, and this person lost a child. Or, I’m really struggling because I’m a single mom with a newborn baby trying to work during the pandemic, but my friend's mom is terminally ill in the hospital and the only form of communication she’s had with her is through an iPad. We really get tripped up on this kind of comparative thinking. But we have to recognize that our realities – our individual grief experiences – are our own, and while it is awful to witness someone else’s suffering, it’s okay to acknowledge ours, too, without feeling guilty. There is room enough in the world for everyone’s grief.
It’s incredibly important to talk about our grief because it has such a notable impact on our mental health. Since the pandemic began, the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed, with a 93 percent increase of people suffering from anxiety and a 62 percent increase of people suffering from depression. And the people who are at the highest risk for mental health conditions are those struggling with loneliness or isolation.
We owe ourselves, our families, our friends, and our coworkers the space to examine and reflect upon all the loss that was forced upon us over the last year. We owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that even if that loss wasn’t related to death, it was real loss. We have to normalize this conversation for our mental well-being. It is integral to the healing process.
Empathy in the Workplace
Western culture doesn’t necessarily value vulnerable conversations. We’re expected to be tough as nails – where the hoped-for response to, “How’s everything going?” is “Couldn’t be better!” Where it’s more convenient for everyone if you have all the answers, all the time — and if you don’t, you’d better make it look like you do. But the truth is, sometimes, things could be better. Sometimes things are downright awful. And there’s not a single person on this planet — including the most successful executives in the world — that have all the answers, all the time. Vulnerability has traditionally been viewed as a weakness in the workplace, and the thought of being exposed — flaws, imperfections, challenges, and all — is, for most people, completely terrifying. But the conversation about vulnerability in our culture is starting to change. AndI think people are starting to realize being vulnerable at work isn’t a liability — it’s an asset.
We can’t turn our grief off from 9:00 a.m. — 5:00 p.m. when we log on for work; sadly, grief doesn’t seem to respect business hours. But, the beauty in being vulnerable is, when we start talking about what we're going through, we’re able to ask for support.
For instance, if you’re experiencing loss, you might need time to speak to a grief counselor (a lot of companies have started including this into benefit plans). You might need 30 minutes each day to meditate (I know under normal working conditions Capital One has meditation rooms, which is amazing). Or you might need a more flexible work schedule for a week or two in order to deal with some of the logistics associated with whatever loss you’re going through.
There are so many different things that people experience in the wake of loss. It’s incredibly important for companies to foster a work environment that allows employees the time and space to manage the logistical, emotional and psychological aspects of this journey.
And if you’re a manager or leader within your company, hold open conversations about mental health on a regular basis so that folks know they have a safe place to talk about these things. When companies are willing to have conversations on mental health and grief in the workplace, their employees feel valued, heard and ultimately more invested in their companies.
As human beings, we all have a deep capacity for empathy. Even if you think you haven’t faced extreme adversity, think about a time in your life where things were uncertain, where you felt heartbroken or defeated, where you experienced fear around a decision. If you can think back on a really tough situation, you can empathize with what somebody else is going through, even if you haven’t experienced the same thing. And, in turn, if others are able to practice that trick, they’ll be better set up to support you whenever you go through something hard.