CHATS WITH CARA | Connie Palmer on Navigating Grief During a Pandemic

July 16, 2020

Chats With Cara LogoEach week, Family Promise’s Chief Impact Officer, Cara Bradshaw, is joined on Instagram Live by a conversation partner to talk about topics impacting the Family Promise network, our guests, and supporters. Learn more by following Family Promise on Instagram.

In this episode from earlier this spring, Cara talks with Connie Palmer. Connie Palmer is a Clinical Training Director at Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss. Cara spoke with Connie about safeguarding mental health and best practices for navigating grief during the coronavirus health crisis

A full transcript is available below. 

Connie Palmer Talks About Coping With Grief

Cara Bradshaw: For those of you who joined, welcome. I’m joined by Connie Palmer, who’s the clinical training director at Imagine, which is a center for coping with loss.

Imagine provides year-round grief support for children, families, and communities and also provides for education in schools and in workplaces. So we’re really thrilled to have you here and excited for our conversation.

Connie Palmer: Thank you.

Cara: So, I know one thing a lot of people have been doing has been Netflix binging, so I’ve been rewatching The Good Place. I don’t know if you’ve seen that show, but it’s one of my favorites.

Connie: My daughter and I watch them.

Cara: I love The Good Place. I think it’s one of the best modern shows. And I was just watching season one and in episode one, I think it’s like halfway through, Ted Danson’s character, Michael, is having an existential crisis and is freaking out because he’s just realized about mortality and death. And Eleanor says this quote that I wanted to read:

“All humans are aware of death, so we’re all a little bit sad all the time. That’s just the deal.”

And Michael says, “well, that’s a crappy deal.” And she says, “Yeah, well it is, but we don’t get offered any other ones and if you try to ignore your sadness it just ends up leaking out of you anyway. I’ve been there. Everybody’s been there. So, don’t fight it.”

So that quote, to me, makes me really think about how much pent-up grief we have and how it’s kind of leaking out during the health crisis. And for you, as a grief expert, can you tell us a little bit about how you think we deal or don’t deal with grief in America?

Connie: Yeah, I love what that scene tells us. I think it’s like — I’m totally stealing it — it’s such a great way [of explaining it] because I think you know we all have been there. That’s exactly right, but we don’t want to go there.

So if grief and loss and our mortality and all our feelings about that are this way, we all instinctively want to go that way. It’s something that there’s a lot of feelings, there’s a lot of unknown, there’s a lot of powerlessness. And that is something that we understandably, you know, would want to avoid.

But this pandemic and all of the realities of it, have made it much more unavoidable. So, I think there is some opportunity for us to really take Eleanor’s advice, to really deal with it, to — you know– sort of acknowledge the reality of that. And I think the problem is that when we ignore it and we try to pretend that it isn’t happening, it’s not good for us as human beings. One of the things we know at Imagine is that people end up getting depressed or anxious or using substances as a coping [mechanism], you know, acting out their grief. So, we know that it’s so much better if we go that way and in order to go that way, we need to talk openly, like what we’re doing today.

You know, I remember early on at Imagine, I read this book called, and I wrote it down so, No Time for Tears: Surviving America. And that book really helped me get like, this is not just, you know, in my little world, that American culture really is uncomfortable around grief and loss and with all of the feelings that go with that. So, part of Imagine’s mission is getting us comfortable with the uncomfortable and talking about it openly.

Cara: Yeah, that’s great and I know a lot of people are talking about, “I want things to just go back to normal. Why can’t they go back to normal.” And then there’s kind of another camp that’s saying, “Well, look what this pandemic has uncovered. We can’t go back. We can’t go back to normal.”

What are your thoughts on normal?

Connie: Yeah, well, I get that because I’m already like — Last night my husband and I were talking about, like, where do we want to go out for dinner. So, we’re already looking forward to that normalcy of sort of the things we’re missing and having them back and having kind of a more regular rhythm to life again. So, I get what people are saying and I feel that way, too, but I think it depends on how we define what this new normal is.

So, this virus has just shaken up our world and that’s been hard and horrible for so many people because of the losses people have experienced. But it’s not all bad. And what I think it has revealed is some of the systemic problems that we have in our society. This pandemic, people of color are so disproportionately affected by it. And I think that, you know, that it’s also helping us, you know, the families have come to Family Promise that the way that they feel on a regular basis, that sense of uncertainty, perhaps a feeling of vulnerability. We’re all collectively feeling that way all the time. So, perhaps this can give us some empathy, some awareness, and some desire to really not go back to normal in terms of what we’ve learned. So, if a new normal includes that compassion, that action, that awareness, then I’m all for that new normal.

Cara: Yeah, me too. Sign me up for that, right? So, one of the other things I guess I’ve personally been feeling is the constant sense of anticipating something bad is going to happen. We’re in this kind of great pause. We’re all waiting and it can be hard for people who haven’t spent a lot of time, you know, studying or learning about grief. Can you put words to that? What is that feeling of like you’re just kind of waiting for something?

Connie: Yeah. I mean, I was really relieved when I first starting learning about grief and I came across the term anticipatory loss or anticipatory grief because that named some of what I felt in my life and I think it really describes what a lot of people are feeling nowadays — that sense of looming, that sense of what’s coming. And I don’t know that there’s any way to avoid that. I think it’s kind of a, unfortunately a, normal feeling that there’s, you know, will someone I know die? Or even maybe even deeply our own fears of getting it.

So, I think it’s just part of it and then there’s all this unknown about what’s going to happen in the future. When will this be over? When will we get back to that quote-unquote new normal? So that, I think, puts us in this place of powerlessness and vulnerability and uncertainty. So I think that one of the ways that I’ve learned, just my own little personal coping skill is, I, you know, trying to actually make a list in my head of, “what can I control in this moment?” Just this one right now. What can I control and what can’t I? And the reality is that we have a long list of what we can’t control and that’s really hard for us as human beings. But I think if we talk about that, if we’re open about it and then we also can then see places where we can take action and feel powerful. So, sort of that space for both parts of really who we are as human beings right now.

Cara: I like that focusing on what in this moment you can control, even if the only thing you can control is your emotional response to uncertainty.

Connie: Right here I’m having feelings right now. It’s just part of how we’re wired as human beings.

Cara: Yeah and you mentioned empathy before. We just did, over the summer, we did a project on identifying our core values of Family Promise and empathy was one of the core ones that I think we share with Imagine. And I think the storytelling component and the, you know, being willing to be vulnerable with your story is something that has been so great in the partnership between Family Promise and Imagine in the curriculum we created, Living With Loss, Healing From Homelessness.

So, through your work with Family Promise, what are some things you think people might not realize about a family that’s experiencing the loss of a home and what other things might be compounding there?

Connie: Yeah, well I want to give a shout out to Geleen Donovan who really gave birth to this program, the Executive Director of the Union County Affiliate here in New Jersey. And we were on the phone talking about planning support for grieving children that were a part of families they were finding shelter for. And then she said, “well, hey, what do you do to support people who’ve lost a home? Do you do anything about that?” And I was like, “No, but we should.” And that was really the birth of the Living With Loss, Healing From Homelessness program.

So, in terms of how that creates empathy, I think, and that’s definitely one of the things that I hope gets shaken up and changed, is that sometimes people, you know, don’t really understand the impact of that loss and what it’s like for people who’ve experienced the loss of a home. And so I think the goal of the program is to, first of all, create that sense of empathy, to listen to that story of the person who’s lost their home, and realize that we’ve had very similar losses. We haven’t lost our home, but we’ve had loss. We’ve had, just like Eleanor said, death. We’ve had things that we couldn’t control, illnesses. So, when we can connect our own experience and relate it to those of others, it really helps us to grow in that empathy and to truly imagine, “what would it be like to lose your home?” and to recognize and normalize that grief that goes with it.

The other piece to that, I think, is that so much of the grief, especially around the loss of a home, but even just generally grief in America, is that there is a sort of disenfranchised grief or a grief that just isn’t recognized.

So that’s what causes that, I think, it is very much disenfranchised, that people don’t see. Like, okay, well, you just have to get a home. And that’s absolutely what Family Promise exists for, but that there’s also these feelings related to that loss. We don’t think of grief when you lose a home. We only think of grief when it comes to death, but absolutely you will. And I think that, you know, many families have come to Family Promise have had other losses and traumas as they arrive to hopefully get assistance in getting housing.

So, you know, we created this program, not just for the guests, but you know, to offer it to volunteers, to the staff, to community partners, and to really create this opportunity for sharing and being able to know how to support people when we are kind of lost. Because, I think, so often people — what one of the grief researchers out there talks about is this suffocating grief, which means that I’m holding it in. I can’t talk about it because I’ve had experiences where, when I have, it hasn’t gone well in the workplace or in school just in my conversation with friends. If I openly about that grief, that it doesn’t always go well.

So, Imagine really is about, you know, helping people gain more empathy and actually know who and how to support people when they go through the losses.

Cara: So, the topic of grief can seem like a bad and a hard and not popular topic, but what is some of the good news about grief in terms of what you’re seeing in peoples response and their kind of collective vulnerability and wanting to understand more about it during this time?

Connie: Yeah, I think you just said what it is, you know. So, we’re talking about it, like we’re doing this Instagram, like we’re seeing out in the internet. And it’s just even in conversations that people are talking about grief and that’s awful because of the reason, but wonderful because when we can talk about grief, everyone does better.

So, at Imagine if you come and go to our website or, you know, come visit us if you’re near Mountainside, what you’ll see is elephants everywhere and that’s really intentional. And the reason for that is that we talk about the elephant in the room at Imagine. We talk about that grief that is often something people don’t feel safe to talk about outside of Imagine. So, at Imagine, we want to make that feel safe and we want to make it so that no matter where a grieving person turns, they can talk about that elephant and they can be open about it and the people around them know how to support them.

So, I feel like that’s this wonderful opportunity is to bring grief out of the shadows, to talk about it openly. And when we can talk about it, we know that we’re all going to do better as human beings because the world is driven by unresolved and unexpressed grief. So, when we don’t mourn, right, it’s not good for us individually or collectively as a society.

Cara: And as one kind of key takeaway to close, what would you say if there’s someone watching who’s either dealing with grief or has someone, a member of their household, who’s grieving a loss? It might be a graduation. It might be, you know, not necessarily a death, with something was a rite of passage. What would be something that you would say as a piece of advice or help to them?

Connie: Gosh, I know when I have a loss, what I need is the people who I can just go to them and talk and they don’t try to fix me. They don’t try to minimize it by telling me how I should feel or, you know, to focus on the positive or how strong I am.

So, you know, I think that’s what most people, when their grieving, want. They want someone who’s going to be with them, not just for that moment, but they’re going to be with them long term; someone who’s going to walk with them through that time and to follow my lead.

So when we are grieving sometimes we’re good or sometimes we don’t want to talk or sometimes we just need some time to think or work. Sometimes we’re having a good day. So when we follow the grieving person’s lead, a lot of times that takes away some of that anxiety of us having to figure anything out. What we have to do is show up and be present and then, you know, check-in with the person and invite. You know, how are you doing today; how are things going? Invite those conversations, but follow their lead. Whatever they want to talk about or not.

Cara: Great. Really great advice.

Well, thank you so much, Connie, for joining, for sharing with us.

You brought all your wisdom to Instagram.

Connie: Yes, exactly. Grateful to be here and for the opportunity to talk with you today. Thank you so much.

Cara: Thanks, Connie. And thanks, everybody.

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