Students have sacrificed a lot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Young adults are resilient. But that does not minimize the strain this past year has put on everyone. Seniors especially have lost a great deal. Their last chance to connect in person with professors. Their final year of attending football games in the student section. No longer can they bike to class, run into an acquaintance on Trousdale, or end up having plans that night from their brief conversation.
Sophomores, who went into online school a freshman, will—if they’re lucky—return to campus a junior. These students don’t even know what a spring semester looks like on campus—the cherry blossoms outside Widney Alumni House, or Springfest in McCarthy Quad.
Everyone has lost something.
One year into lockdown, Annenberg Media spoke with licensed clinical social worker and grief psychotherapist Melissa Matugas about how to process the evaporated time, experiences, “could have beens,” and the loved ones many of us have lost. Matugas well understands the serial losses of Trojans: she received her Masters Degree in Social Work from USC in 2012.
Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.
What’s something that you think the general population should know about grief that maybe is underrepresented?
We still have this perception in society that grief is just associated with death. We’re getting a little bit better about recognizing chronic medical conditions with grief, but I think that there’s been less talk about the different types of losses. That’s coming to light a little bit more, considering all of the different things that we’ve had to give up.
For those who have lost someone in the pandemic this past year how do you advise beginning that grieving process?
That’s the other thing that can be misconceived about grief is that there’s no particular way to do it. Everybody has their own way of grieving loss. If it’s the death of a loved one, the person that has just experienced a loss may be dealing with it in a way that we don’t know.
People think that with loss and with death that a person that has lost somebody or something needs your words of wisdom or encouragement. What’s (often more) helpful is just being there and asking, “What is it that you need from me?” or just “How are you doing?”
Those two questions go a long way.
Is there a right way to grieve, and is there a right time?
I wouldn’t say that there’s a right way, or wrong way. I certainly do think that there is normal grief, which can look so different depending on who you are and your background and your culture, versus complicated grief.
What is complicated grief?
Complicated grief in the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual for mental health disorders, is called persistent complex bereavement disorder.
If somebody is past a certain amount of time, a year, then this person can’t move on and is still like so emotional and is having thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of despair. That’s going to look concerning, and you know that person is going to need to get professional help.
What are some of the signs or symptoms that someone who is maybe at that point where they feel like they aren’t able to just “move on” from something can look for in themselves or with their friends?
Anybody could really benefit from grief therapy. So, whatever type of stage you are, whether that’s the grieving symptoms seem normal or they’re on the other end of the spectrum. It would be really helpful to have somebody to talk to. That can be a loved one too, but talking to a grief therapist is really helpful because that person specializes in grief.
If we’re talking about the other end of the spectrum, things that may be very alarming may be (when someone is) thinking about death all the time, wanting to die, making statements like “I wish that I would have been taken instead of the loved one.” Those are probably signs that a person is definitely going to need to reach out for additional support.
What words do you have for students who are anxious about life just returning to normal and people not acknowledging that we’ve just been through a worldwide pandemic?
Any sort of avoidance is, in the long run, not going to be helpful. As humans, we want to avoid feeling any sort of discomfort. As a result, we will go out of our way to repress feelings or to not talk about things that really (we) should talk about. In terms of needing to process what we’ve all gone through and how challenging the world has been, it’s so important to have those conversations.
(If you have a) friend who experienced loss, asking those same questions to each other, like “How are you? What can I do to support you? It’s been a really tough time.” A little bit of validation and normalizing goes a long way.
How do you make sense of the grief someone feels over lost time and the simultaneous guilt for their grieving knowing they, themself and their loved ones, are still alive and healthy?
We all experience that sometimes. But if we minimize our experiences (by telling ourselves) “it’s not as bad as something that happened to somebody else,” then that goes back to suppressing emotion and minimizing. And again, going back to avoidance. See how kind of everything we’re talking about is connecting?
What I would say to that person is that it’s all very relative, and what’s really sad and true to you is really sad and true to you. And that’s okay, and we can acknowledge that. And you can talk about that.
Response you can try with a friend or say to yourself:
“Yeah, there’s been a lot of other things that have happened in the world and to other people that you may know, but it sounds like you’re having a hard time, too.”
What is important for a population of young adults—including a significant portion of out-of-state students whose USC time will be their only California experience—to understand or hear about this topic from your perspective?
This specific age group, especially like an undergrad, have definitely been stripped of the full college experience. We don’t want to minimize those experiences.
Core college experiences are those that you have in person in the dorms when you meet fellow dormmates, when you go out and you are able to walk Greek Row together, or sit in the quad to eat lunch.
When I went to undergrad I was able to do the dorm experience. I was able to go to parties. I was able to do student organizations and walk to class.
It is important to process what that loss means to that student. Although nothing can replace that experience, reaching out to others that are also dealing with the loss of not having the chance to live that “California lifestyle” before transitioning to the workforce or real adulthood may be important to express the frustrations and connect on those similar feelings of missing out. Grief support groups are therapeutic because you are able to connect to someone with a shared experience or loss. Finding other students with that same grieving experience may be helpful to feel like you have the sense of support and feel understood by others in this pandemic.
You mentioned recommending speaking to a professional as a very positive thing. Are there any other supplementary things that you think are helpful to help process grief?
Definitely opening up and letting people know that you’re having a hard time or asking questions about something that’s affecting [your peers] because it’s affecting [you]. That way, people know what’s going on. You’re not being left alone in the dark because isolation is a real thing right now. Social distancing is sometimes mistaken as social isolation. So, we need to make sure that we know that we acknowledge that social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation.