The Bereavement Multiplier

I recently read an opinion piece in the New York Times that talked about the coming “grief crisis.” The basis for the piece makes sense — if we are losing more people due to COVID-19 then there will be more grieving people than normal. In fact, one sociologist has created a “COVID-19 Bereavement Multiplier” that estimates nine people grieve for everyone who dies from COVID-19. By the math, this means about 5 million more family members are in grief than normal.

Of course, numbers are just guesses. Some of those people are suffering multiple losses, some have lost friends that were close (friends are not included in the “multiplier”), and, honestly, some people are not particularly grieved by the loss of a family member. Bereavement organizations (there are several) have called on President Biden to set up a governmental office to provide support.

I’m not opposed to the government providing support to the grieving or, as in the U.K., the lonely. In part, a national office can bring attention to an important topic. The challenge with addressing grief at a national level is that grief is like cancer — there is no one type and there is no one solution. Scientists have known for a long time there is no single cure for cancer, no silver bullet that will eradicate the multitude of ways our body can be taught to attack itself. Where there are national efforts for cancer, it makes cancer a political pawn with well-positioned groups gathering the majority of resources and creating tensions among cancer organizations. Really? Like we should pit cancer groups against one another?

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.

Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam

The same holds for grief. There is no cure for grief and there is no one type of grief. The “bereavement multiplier” estimates that 37,000 “children” have lost a parent to COVID-19. “Children” as in the child of a parent, but the word conjures up young children. Grief for the 50-year-old who lost an 80-year-old father is different than for a 14-year-old who loses a mother. Both are experiencing grief but in radically different ways. And for the youngest one, especially, that grief will change as he/she ages and reexperience that grief in new ways. Add in cultural differences in how we grieve, and your multiplier machine will crash.

Even those of us who share the grief of losing a child differ in our grief. Did your child die suddenly in an accident or slowly due to a disease? Did they commit suicide? Are there other siblings to deal with or are you left completely alone? Were they alive for a few years or for many years? 

Try fitting all that into a “bereavement multiplier.” As a society, we want to understand things because if we understand them, we can control them. If we can understand grief, put numbers behind it, we can address this problem and solve it. It is the American feeling of “we can solve anything.” Put enough resources behind it, and we can get rid of it. That might work for polio and I pray it someday works for the multiple varieties of cancer, but it does not work for grief. As long as people die we will have grief. We can’t cure it.

Grief is messy and unpredictable. There are no steps you can go do to get through it. No religious faith provides easy answers. There are too many variables, meaning we need to do the hard work of addressing grief at the individual level. As a society, we need to reach out to those in grief to offer support as we acknowledge that no pill can make it go away. It can be a long-term process for some and I truly believe we are called to reach out to one another — it is the good side of our humanity. Sometimes we needed to be reminded we can be bearers of goodness.

Consider yourself reminded.

Categories Cancer, death, griefTags

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