I had the honor of sitting down to a (Zoom) conversation with Jill Johnson-Young, a grief therapist, to hear about her important work and how it has been affected by the pandemic and the current world as we know it. I also got to sit down with Frank, Jill’s poodle, who didn’t have much to say in the conversation but was a delight to meet.
In talking with Jill, I realized that my graduate program did not specifically prepare me with skills for how to talk to people specifically about loss and grief, especially traumatic grief. Jill has been widowed twice, and she shared that a therapist she saw after her second spouse’s death asked her why she hadn’t checked her partner’s health prior to the marriage! Who requires their partner to get a physical before getting married? A common question therapists ask in treatment planning is the “miracle question”: “If you were to wake up tomorrow, and everything were better, what would have changed to get you there?” While this can be helpful when crafting SMART goals, when you’re talking to someone whose spouse just died, this question is almost laughable. When someone has lost a loved one, the only thing they want is that person, alive and healthy. It can be perceived as condescending to ask a question with an obvious answer.
Humans in general have difficulty responding to grief. We do not like to sit with “bad” feelings, which is why you hear platitudes like, “They’re in a better place!” or “At least they aren’t suffering anymore.” Jill points out that people need space to have their feelings rather than immediately being reassured: “Do more of the holding space and less of the talking.” They need to know that the person sitting with them can witness their grief without being burdened so that they can walk through it without repressing or getting stuck. Grief is also exhausting! Someone who is grieving might not have the energy to advocate for themselves when people say unintentionally hurtful things or “therapist shop” for the right fit.
Like many mental health professionals, Jill has seen an uptick in need since the pandemic started. She compares our experience with COVID-19 to other large-scale losses and disasters, like the AIDS crisis or 9/11, where we “share a common loss.” But one of the challenges of the ongoing pandemic is that we aren’t able to come together physically and hold memorials or funerals. Jill encourages those who have lost loved ones during this time to hold an in-person funeral when it is safe to do so, regardless of how long it has been since the death. That act of comforting each other and getting to say goodbye is essential in our collective moving forward.
Some might feel strange holding a memorial more than a year after the death, but grief does not have a set timeline. It’s not about when the death occurred because your feelings are happening right now; it’s about “marking the loss.” There is a tendency to compare our pain to others’, so one might think that those who have experienced more recent loss are more deserving, but there is no hierarchy or competition for who gets to have feelings. In a way, planning for these memorials can be a source of hope because it means we know one day we will be able to come together physically one day, not just to mourn what we have lost but to celebrate things to come.