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Psychologist On Why Funerals Are Fundamental To Processing Grief


The nation's death toll from the coronavirus now stands at 300,000, each one someone who belonged to a family, who was loved by their parents or children, by brothers, by sisters, by friends. Because of the nature of the pandemic, those survivors, the people left behind to mourn, have in many instances been unable to gather in person to share grief and share celebrations of their loved one's life. The inability to grieve as a community is yet another indignity brought on by this virus. Here to talk about the impact is Christy Denckla. She's a research associate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief. Christy Denckla, welcome.

CHRISTY DENCKLA: Thank you. It's great to be here.

KELLY: You know, it's so basic. But would you speak to what it is that we get from a funeral in more normal times - how they help us grieve, how they help us heal?

DENCKLA: Yes. Funerals and the rituals that go along with mourning that loss are really fundamental to a number of processes. So they're fundamental to how we mourn, to how we grieve, to how we reinforce social ties, to how we expand the social safety net in times of vulnerability and loss. And more fundamentally, they reflect what it means for us to be human and for us to love and for us to connect. And there are cultural practices for these that vary widely across the world, but in each of these, they share a common infrastructure of bonding and gathering collectively.

KELLY: And I'm thinking about in this case, we're not able to do, you know, family ceremonies, family funerals, also just the collective national process of knowing, as awful as this is, we're in it together. But I'm thinking of other times of great loss like 9/11, or I was thinking about the Sandy Hook school shooting because that was eight years ago today. And, you know, families mourned together, but the whole country did as well. What is lost when we can't do that?

DENCKLA: What is lost? Well, that's an excellent question, and I'm not sure we fully know the scope of that yet. The pandemic is a bit different now in the sense that it is ongoing. And because it is ongoing, the scope of the loss is hard to appreciate in the moment. It will take time, and there will be ripple effects for years after this as we grapple with the full scope of this loss.

KELLY: Yeah. And the consequences of not being able to mourn as we usually are - is that something you are studying? Can you give me any specifics as you speak to people and - who are trying to work through this?

DENCKLA: So one of the things that we're observing or that we know about COVID so far is that the typical ways that people begin to grapple with the death of loved ones is being lost. People can't be at the bedside. People can't say goodbye to their loved ones. And often the loss comes unexpectedly. And so we do know that there are multiple sort of steps involved in coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, and one of those is seeing the physical body. And people now cannot see the physical body because of the requirements of social distancing to prevent the spread. This concerns me. This is a troubling consequence. And we don't know how that will play out over time, but we can expect that there will be potential difficulties really grappling with the loss as people mourn and grieve.

KELLY: As a psychologist specializing in grief, for those among us who are grieving right now and having to do so alone, do you have any advice?

DENCKLA: My best advice would be to connect. There are aspects of grieving that are done alone, but there are also aspects of grieving that are done in community and groups. And we must connect. We must connect to friends. We must connect to social support. We must connect. And this can be done virtually. It can be done by phone calls. It can be done through social media. The sort of bereavement community has mounted a formidable response to provide online support services for people who are facing grief.

KELLY: Yeah. And what about not online? I'm wondering if the value of a plain, old-fashioned handwritten note of sympathy takes on even more meaning and comfort in this moment where we don't have all of the other support structures in place.

DENCKLA: Absolutely. Written notes, deliveries, offering tangible support, little things, going to the grocery store, helping to deal with the many things that are left undone in mourning and grieving loved ones - there are ways to offer tangible and emotional support to this time to those who are bereaved right now.

KELLY: Christy Denckla, research associate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a clinical psychologist specializing in grief speaking with us as the U.S. toll stands at 300,000 dead. Christy Denckla, thank you.

DENCKLA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.