As the country nears a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss, stress and uncertainty caused by the virus have taken its toll on many Americans. And while some people are getting the aid they need, not everybody is able to articulate that they’re not OK.
“I think we’ve made some progress,” psychotherapist Megan Devine said. “But I certainly don’t think we’ve turned the ship around quite yet.”
Devine is the author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand,” and is the host of “Here After With Megan Devine,” a podcast looking at the experience of mental health professionals.
Last December, Devine spoke with “Marketplace” host Kimberly Adams about the way grief was manifesting in the economy. “Marketplace” checked in with Devine again to see how that manifestation has changed after another year. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kimberly Adams: When we spoke a year ago, you said that we, as a country, were getting better at acknowledging loss. But you stopped short of saying that we were better at grieving. Where do you think we are now?
Megan Devine: I think the acknowledgment wave is spreading. [As for] dealing with it, I think we’ve made some progress. But I certainly don’t think we’ve turned the ship around quite yet.
Adams: And what are the consequences of not having made it to that next step?
Devine: Oh, that’s a good one. This sort of aversion to telling the truth about grief shows up in suicidality, addiction, loneliness, depression. It shows up in pretty much every social work or cultural sphere, so many things will start to improve when we start to really tell the truth about grief and what helps and what doesn’t.
Adams: You mentioned that it shows up in our social and cultural interactions, but it’s also showing up at work.
Devine: Yeah, [they’re] the impacts of not just grief related to death, but sort of that broad sweep of how hard it is to be human in a lot of different ways. I mean, we’ve got morale issues, certainly huge morale issues in certain industries. Also, you know, sick days or the economic toll of depression. I was thinking about how that sort of flips the script on how we think about the impacts of mental health and wellness in the economy or in the business world. We think we need people to be happy, healthy, productive members of society to improve the bottom line, and actually the reverse is true in my experience. The more we allow the full breadth of human emotionality — and so not just happy and productive — [then] the more that we apply skill to human interpersonal relationships and grief and loss. The ramifications of overhauling the way that we understand human emotional reality and how we deal with it, the ripple effects of doing that better and more correctly are just immeasurable.
Adams: Speaking of ripple effects, when we do think of the sheer number of people who have died in the pandemic — COVID-19 deaths, those who died because they couldn’t access care when hospitals were full, substance abuse-related deaths — that has the ripple effect of just a huge part of the country actively grieving the loss of friends and family. What has that meant for the grief counseling industry?
Devine: Oh, that’s such a good question. I can say that therapists, social workers and mental health providers are swamped and overwhelmed. There is huge pressure and huge demand for mental health support at a time when we’ve got people leaving the industry because of multiple reasons. And they’re also swimming in the same sea [so to speak] and living through all of these losses. And then I think we’re running up against the unfortunate reality that most clinicians are not trained in really skillful, insightful ways to deal with grief, and certainly not grief on this scale. It’s a really tricky moment for this industry.
Adams: When we talked before, we discussed grieving the old economy, and then we never anticipated that we’d still be here. And I wonder what the consequences are of that, particularly as it relates to how well we are as a country, processing that we probably aren’t going back to the way things were?
Devine: Yeah. If we look at what very often happens for people grieving a death, the second year is when it starts to sort of settle in that, oh, this isn’t changing. And it’s about that time that the people around that grieving person start to sort of move on with their own lives. They get back to things and they think that their grieving friend or family member should be all better by now. I think we’re living in that as a culture. We can’t tell ourselves in six months it’s going to be better. We don’t know that. And so it becomes more about how do we live with uncertainty in a way that feels connecting, and what do we want to do to help ourselves live what we are being asked to live?
Adams: What are some strategies for that?
Devine: Well, I think the very first thing — and it sort of covers everything we’ve been talking about — is telling the truth. I think that my biggest problem with the ways that we’ve dealt with grief for decades is lying about it, right? Pretending we’re OK when we’re not, and it seems counterproductive or counterintuitive. Like, “Wait a minute, I’m just supposed to say that things suck and then things will get better?” Well, in a way, yes. Right? Telling the truth about what we’re struggling with lets us, one, feel like we can connect with other people because we’re not pretending to be something else, and two, when we know what’s difficult, we can more accurately assess what can be changed, where we need more support and where we need more connection.
Here are some grief resources provided by Megan Devine.
The Mighty website has several communities organized by different kinds of loss.
The Dinner Party offers support and community for grieving people, typically under 35.
Grief Coach is text-based support created by grief experts that provides support for people grieving a loss, as well as strategies for family members and friends of a grieving person.
Speaking Grief is home to the PBS documentary of the same name, which can be streamed for free on the website.
Free Mom Hugs provides support for the LBGTQ community, especially those wrestling with unsupportive families.
Therapy for Black Girls promotes mental wellness for Black girls and women. There is a tool to find therapists in your area and a podcast hosted by psychologist Joy Harden Bradford.
The Safe Place is a mental health app focused on the Black community.
Latinx Therapy has a directory for therapists and speakers, as well as a podcast hosted by Adriana Alejandre, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Being Here, Human, co-founded by two women of color, focuses on grief in the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, anxiety or depression, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Here’s how to find help outside the U.S.