Coping During COVID: 5 Key Takeaways from Grief and Resilience Expert Maria Trozzi

(This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research, EXPLO Elevate

On Friday April 24th, EXPLO Elevate hosted grief and resilience expert, Maria Trozzi, to discuss “Building Resilience in a Time of Loss: Strategies for Children, Parents, and Faculty”. Below are five key takeaways from the conversation between Maria and the participant group, which included heads of school, administrators, and faculty at both independent and public schools.  Maria is the co-founder of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center, former Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and author of: Speaking to Children About Loss (Penguin-Putnam). She has worked with schools across the nation.

Takeaway #1: “The biggest grief is the one that people are experiencing” 

For many, grief and guilt are the opposite sides of the same coin right now. Students feel sad about missing school and events, but simultaneously guilty as well. As many of them have expressed to Maria, the loss of not going to prom, say, does not carry the same weight as someone whose family member just passed away from COVID-19. This perpetuating cycle of sadness-guilt-sadness-guilt can be difficult for people to overcome in and of itself. 

Maria urges us to remember that “the biggest grief is the one that people are experiencing”. To that end, it is important for people to have perspective on the broader societal challenges we are all seeing and hearing about, but it is still perfectly alright for these days to feel hard, and to open up about the range of emotions with one another. 

Maria also reminds school leaders, faculty, and students that literally everyone is going through this moment at the exact same time. Therefore, there are a lot of common feelings and experiences in the room. When a high school senior expresses disappointment about missing graduation or a faculty member talks about the day-to-day issues of no longer having reliable childcare for their young children, they will likely find a great deal of camaraderie and understanding amongst their peers. Those conversations allow us to move from being an individual who is feeling demoralized to a participant in a shared group experience, a bond which can serve to better connect us and deepen our relationships. 

Takeaway #2: Now is a time to practice compassionate accountability, while recognizing that leaders don’t always have to start by asking about feelings.

Working remotely has meant that both students and faculty share aspects of their lives that were previously sealed off. One byproduct of this shift, Maria notes, is that we are starting to recognize just how human we all are. Given how strange it might feel to have a school head see a faculty member’s home or hear their children in the other room, what is critical at this time is for leaders to first start with care and understanding in every interaction. 

While this initial response may not come naturally to all administrators, it is possible for them to be compassionate while maintaining expectations of their staff. Some ways that Maria noted that school leaders can balance these goals include:

  • If starting with an emotional connection doesn’t come naturally for a leader or doesn’t feel right, use the cognitive lens to lead into the affective space. This approach might mean asking staff members to answer the question “tell me what happened”, or “tell me about your class yesterday”, or “what is hard about working remotely?”, so they can describe their experiences sequentially. The leader can then move into questions around how that makes the staff member feel, as appropriate.  
  • Create a sense of vulnerability as well as strength. Perhaps run a staff meeting that prioritizes “being real and making it safe to be real”. Leaders sharing their own personal vulnerabilities can go a long way in others feeling comfortable in doing the same. 

Takeaway #3: Even though we are alone, there are ways to feel together. 

There are many ways that schools are trying to help faculty and students overcome loss and feel a sense of community. Maria shared that she ends some of her Zoom calls with faculty at the schools she has worked with by asking them to participate in a “virtual embrace”. This sometimes leads to faculty all saying, “I miss you” in unison, and the energy in the Zoom room is actually palpable. Given that Zoom can often feel like multiple one-on-one interactions, this practice can also change that dynamic to a group experience. 

Other webinar attendees shared that school leadership has spent considerable time sending individual emails to each member of faculty, checking in on their social and emotional health. The staff deeply appreciated the personal check-ins. In another example, some department heads have started meetings by asking faculty to share what their “quarantine name” is as a way to bring levity and build community. To create your name, you combine answers to two questions, such as 1) what color are your sweatpants and 2) what is your favorite quarantine snack. Another option is 1) what’s your mood right now? and 2) what’s the last thing you ate? Questions such as the last example can also serve to get an idea of how people are feeling, in a more low-stakes way. In case you are curious, my answers to both sets are, “Gray Doritos” and “Exhausted Chocolate Covered Almonds”.

Takeaway #4:  Take care of yourself before you tend to others.

Maria noted that “educators tend to be givers”, which is likely an understatement. Her reminder that educators need to prioritize their own mental health first, otherwise they will be unable to help others, is crucial for school leaders and faculty to hear.  

Maria noted that both rest and recreation are critical parts of the successful work equation. In addition to thinking about what school leaders might be doing for others, it is just as important to think about what they are going to do for themselves. 

Takeaway #5: Keep the big picture in mind. 

Maria’s closing remarks on the webinar are those that she recently shared with a group of high school seniors: “Right now you are understandably sad and mad, but at some time in the future, you will reflect on this time as that of shared sacrifice. To save grandparents, to save those who are ill, to save lives. What I do know for sure, there will be a time for you as a senior class for you to say hello to each other again so you can say goodbye again. Ninety people will come together and then say goodbye. I don’t know when and how this will happen, but it will.”

Maria’s final thoughts led me to think about when my neighboring high school’s senior class will have a chance to reunite in person and how joyous of an occasion that will be. Her wise words gave me, just like they likely did for those seniors, some much-needed warmth and the strength to carry on.