Social Work Intern: “Hey! How are you doing?”
A pause, a deeply resonant sigh,
Student: “I’m okay. There’s a lot going on but it’s fine.”
Part of my role as a social work intern at the Women’s Center is to do check-ins with adult learners and provide support for our student community. Last semester, in conversations with both students and staff there was an ongoing theme of unspoken grief; this touching on grief but then skirting away from it because it was too heavy to hold in a passing “how are you?”.
My fellow student staff was sharing with me how, during an event, the facilitator made space for checking in with how everyone was doing, and given the opportunity to share in a safe community space, each person readily named how it was still really hard living in and adjusting to this pandemic. We’ve adjusted but we also haven’t. It’s become our reality but many of us are still struggling to grapple with what that means. On top of that, there has been a huge loss of life in the midst of a tremendous whirlwind of changes, a blanket of isolation, and an anxiety about what is to come and what the world holds for us.
Over the fall 2021 semester, I put together a proposal of a group intervention for students experiencing grief and loss, open to both death-related and non-death related grief. I asked my co-intern if she would be interested in co-facilitating the group with me and she eagerly agreed. At the beginning of January 2022, we worked together to formulate this three week grief-based discussion group, taking care to create a safe and brave space for intentional listening, for sharing each other’s stories around grief, to hold the heaviness with each other, and to provide validation and support. This group became the Pandemic Grief Processing Group.
[Image Description: Image contains a faded white rose in the center over a solid black background with the text over it reading, “Women’s Center Presents Pandemic Grief Processing Group”. On the bottom left is the Women’s Center logo of the white tree and on the bottom right corner is a list of the session topics: “Session 1: What are you grieving? Session 2: How are you grieving, Session 3: How can we hold our grief together?”]
We wanted to go beyond “How are you?” so we approached it differently.
At the beginning of each session, we started with naming our Brave Space Guidelines, challenging others to be reflective on the ways they take up space or don’t take up enough space, and encouraging the group to be present with each other.
For the first session, we met online and asked the question What are you grieving? Marybeth shared a few different types of grief to lend some language for what participants might be experiencing. Then we spent the majority of our time broken into small groups, giving each person time to share the grief that they have been holding.
During the second session, we met online once again and in small groups asked the question How are you grieving? Participants shared what their grief looked like in light of the pandemic and the struggles that complicated their grief. When we came back together, I shared some mindfulness techniques outlined in this article, including mindful breathing (i.e. 4-count or box breathing), mindful walking, and compassionate self-talk.
Our final session we met in-person at the Women’s Center on UMBC’s Main Campus and we asked the question: how can we hold our grief together? We took some time for quiet reflection and when we came back, we got to share what we had written. And for our final activity, after these three weeks of hearing each other’s journeys, we wrote affirmations for each other, and each person got to plant one of their affirmations under their own little succulent that they could take home. The affirmation would be the soil for continued growth around their grief.
Part of the Women’s Center’s mission is to support student success and well-being for marginalized identities, foster a sense of belonging, and build community. We know that grief doesn’t just affect our personal lives but can have a real impact on our role as students as well. And this can be further impacted by our different intersecting identities, whether race, gender identity, mental health, or chronic illness.
Making space for people to name these heavy things they are holding and that are impacting them emotionally, physically, and consequently, academically, is crucially important. And in academic settings and higher education institutions where the pressure to keep going, to push ourselves beyond our capacity to get the grade, is heavily felt, it is even more so important to have spaces like this that help students feel seen and heard and supported. There is something incredibly validating about being able to share what you are going through, and witnessing others in their struggles that affirms it is okay to not be okay.
[Image description: A vibrant sunset background with yellow text over it that says “To wholeheartedly grapple with grief is to come fact to face with the deep meaning of whatever it is that we’ve lost. It is brave work…” – Marybeth Mareski, quoted from PGPG Session 1]
Of those participating in our Pandemic Grief Processing Group, it was about half and half of those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, and those who are dealing with non-death related grief such as the compounding effects of the pandemic on mental health, isolation, relationships, and chronic illness. While these equally valid types of grief (that you can read more about in this article from What’s Your Grief) can at times feel less visible, all losses and grief experiences are real and valid and they demand to be felt.
Getting to co-facilitate this group and support these students was an especially meaningful experience for me. It was an honor to walk with these people and hold the heaviness with them. And while I hoped it would fulfill a need in our student community, I did not anticipate how much it would be helpful for me to be a part of. These are some of the takeaways that I am going to continue to carry with me as I deal with my own grief.
- Name and validate your emotions
Your grief is real and valid because it is. It’s what you’re experiencing. And it’s important to give yourself non judgemental and compassionate space to feel what you are going to feel.
We do not help ourselves by denying what we are feeling. The only way to move through grief is to get closer to it. One exercise that can be helpful is to take a pause, and think about the things that you are feeling at this moment. You can use an emotions wheel (pictured below) to help figure out what some of those feelings are and what they might be related to. By doing this, naming our feelings, we honor our feelings.
- Find people you trust to hold your grief with you
Whether it’s meeting for a 1-1 with a professional counselor or having an intentional conversation with a friend, make space for yourself to share what you are feeling and express what you need: be it quiet support, vocal affirmations, or help in other areas. Know that when you choose to share your grief story, that grief is not linear. It is messy and complicated and it’s okay to not have it in a nicely outlined story. Tell your story in the way that feels good for you. And sometimes, there will be people you don’t expect to hold your grief with, let those experiences be what they will be.
- Take care of yourself
Did I eat today? Have I drunk water? Do I need to shower? Can I go for a short walk? Self-care is often talked about as face masks and a shopping spree, but there are so many ways that you can take care of yourself and different areas that you can focus on; mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual. We used this Self-care checklist to help reflect on areas that we were doing well in and to identify areas that we needed to put more care and thought into.
Especially at times when it feels like every single person is going through it, it can be hard to admit how we are struggling and to do what we need to in order to take care of ourselves. Brene Brown talks about this in her podcast on Comparative Suffering. You can acknowledge that others have it hard AND you can acknowledge that what YOU are going through is hard too. You are worth of care and rest. So rather than falling into that comparison, we can choose to be empathetic and self-compassionate instead. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself.
- Honor your grief
Honoring your grief will look different person to person. And how you honor your grief as time goes on will also shift and change. Wherever you are in your grief, let yourself be there. Give yourself grace and compassion. Grief is complicated. It is not linear. You can go through the stages forwards, backwards and sideways and still have more to process. You are not behind or ahead. You are where you need to be.
[Image description: Image of a slide used during the third session of PGPG,a background of an evening sky with soft clouds and in the foreground a listing of the reflection prompts that participants could choose from during the free-write portion of the session. Some of the prompts include: “What do you want to honor about your loved ones and what do you want to continue to carry with you?” and “Write a gentle letter to yourself expressing kindness and forgiveness towards your past self.”]
Do you need someone to talk to? The women’s center provides 1-1 support to connect students with resources; additionally the counseling center provides both individual counseling and counseling within a group setting.
We drew a lot of our material for PGPG from this book: Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation by adrienne maree brown
Here is a list of other grief-related articles mentioned in this blog post and that we referenced during PGPG:
Posted: May 18, 2022, 10:00 AM