Category: General Information

Understanding Grief and Loss in the Midst of a Pandemic

By: Kerri Gilbertson

Grief and loss are a normal part of life, but 2020 seems to have brought on a tsunami wave of losses. Grief is traditionally associated with the death of a loved one, which may be part of your grief, but grief can be broadened to encompass all losses someone may experience. At the start of 2020, people wrote out New Year’s resolutions and had expectations of what the year would look like. Unfortunately, many of those hopes have been sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic and focus has turned toward survival rather than personal growth. 

Now is the time to explore and understand how the current situation may actually be triggering feelings of grief and loss. The grief experience is more complex than the widely known 5-stages of grief and is actually a unique, non-linear experience. Common signs of grief may include, but are not limited to: sadness, difficulty concentrating, guilt, anxiety, numbness, loss of control over thoughts and feelings, fatigue, aimlessness, a desire for social isolation, and irritability. 

Grief is not just about death, but also the loss of something. There are many losses happening right now, such as; loss of social support (the ability to physically socialize with friends); not completing the semester like planned (for some, their final semester at MTU); not attending a graduation to celebrate years of hard work; packing and moving out with no closure; potential financial or health loss; and in general, the loss of the assumptive world we live in. Everything we thought was a safety net feels like it isn’t there to catch us. 

Although it may be scary and overwhelming to think about loss, it is important to recognize that these feelings are okay, you are not facing this alone. Even though it does not feel good, grief is normal and healthy, especially during this time. If you are struggling with any of these signs of grief, I want to give some tips on how to handle your experience: 

  1. Acknowledging or recognizing that you are grieving is an important first step.
  2. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to what you are feeling, so be patient with yourself as things may be a little overwhelming for the time being. 
  3. Connect with your social supports through video chats, phone calls or other physically distancing activities. Hearing another person’s voice is important and not just the communication, so make sure you are actually talking with someone else. 
  4. If you are struggling and it is impacting your day-to-day life you may want to consider professional support, either through Counseling Services or a counselor near you. 

Finally, I want to leave you with hope and a reminder of how resilient you are and can be when faced with all these losses. As you have adapted to your new normal, you have demonstrated your personal ability for resilience. Resilience is the ability to face adversity and do your best to adapt and move forward. It can show through in the midst of the chaos and when the dust has settled. It may be a challenge right now, but taking one step at a time and doing what you can is all that you can do and all that you need to do for the time being. As a last reminder of the power of human resilience, I will leave you with this quote by Bernard Williams:  “Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.”

10 Tips for Faculty on Helping with Students’ Mental Health & Well-being

Captain’s Log, Stardate 3192020, it’s been 48 days hours of working at home. My visions of baking bread, getting all the laundry done and crushing online work have been abandoned. An alien race composed of toddlers, teenagers, and a baby have taken over. As I’m writing this, my 3-year-old interrupts “DO YOU TRUST ME?” I glance up and nod, not knowing what I’m agreeing to, as he continues to ride his Strider bike faster and faster through the kitchen, living room and dining room; the baby continues to splash the water out of the dog bowl. It’s only a matter of time before something breaks. 

I plaster a smile on and muscle through my assignment… sharing tips on how to ensure student wellbeing during this time. We must forge on. 

I’m dealing with a little more than normal. I bet you are too. It’s daunting to switch from in-person to online teaching even when you have plenty of time for planning, an IT support person sitting next to you teaching you how to use Zoom and other online tools, and weeks or months to plan out how to translate your material into an online format. Doing this in just a few days is nothing short of amazing. 

Now, more than ever, it’s important to check in on your self-care and make sure others are doing okay too. It’s a huge responsibility to play such an important role in your students’ lives right now – they need you to set the precedent for ensuring self-care, mental health, and establishing a routine for success at home. 

As much as I’d like a home office with no distractions, I won’t have that luxury for the next few weeks, and I know many of our students are also stuck at home with younger siblings, well-meaning but sometimes annoying parents, faulty internet connections and a lack of experience in establishing a routine in an unstructured environment. 

(Captain’s log update: the 3-year old and spouse are now having a living room dance party “Alexa, volume 8, play Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” … at least I’m smiling and humming now.)

In all seriousness, we’d like to offer you some tips on how to connect with your students, check in on their wellbeing, and help set them up for a successful finish to their semester. 

  1. Be real. Humanize yourself. We may be a STEM school, but we’re not robots. Show them you’re a real person experiencing a vast range of emotions about adjusting to this new lifestyle. A minute or two sharing your work-from-home experience, perhaps with a little humor sprinkled in, can go a long way. 
  2. Check in. Recent NIA-supported research has shown that long-term social isolation and loneliness have an impact on cognitive abilities and other health issues. Send individual emails opening a line of conversation, and conduct extra office hours via Zoom.
  3. Encourage students to spend time reflecting on their needs for a few minutes each day. Offer extra credit or praise for students who post or share a to-do list or schedule. Share examples of how your own routine has changed since the shift to online. 
  4. Use hopeful and optimistic language. Instead of commiserating over how much it sucks to revamp your class mid-semester, frame the change in words like “we have the opportunity to learn together/try online learning/undergo new challenges.” Use forward-thinking language like, “In the fall, when we’re back on campus…” or “In your job/internship/co-op, these adaptive skills will be valuable.”
  5. Create ways for students to connect with each other. Remember, they may have left behind their roommates, friends, study spaces, church groups and student orgs. That’s a lot to give up all at once. Encourage students in your class to connect using Slack or WhatsApp. It can be nerve-wracking to ask someone for their phone number, help students make the jump by leading the way for these kinds of connections.  
  6. Don’t forget that students learn in many different ways. Ask for regular student feedback on how well they’re learning and what resources they need. Don’t forget, we have a vast range of learners, from those who have excelled at online learning in the past, to students with a learning disability who might struggle reading a webpage that’s not user-friendly. Check in with the CTL to get ideas on how to make your content accessible to students of all learning abilities. #UniversalDesign
  7. Tell students mental health is key. Connect students with resources to help support them. Counseling Services is now offering telecounseling for in-state students, and case management (help finding a new provider) for out-of-state students. Wellness is offering daily tips and suggestions on how to maintain a balanced life through the rest of this semester (@mtu_wellness). Report a Concern to the Dean of Students Office if you notice students struggling academically or emotionally. 
  8. Don’t ignore why we’re all in this boat. Take a few moments to acknowledge the mental health landscape we’re in; there’s a lot of fear and anxiety about COVID-19. Remind your students to check to connect to reliable resources.
  9. Continue to challenge and support your students. Let’s face it, even the most motivated students are likely to struggle with online learning. Keep lessons simple, refer back to lessons that you shared together in class earlier this semester. 
  10. Most importantly, ASK THEM what they need. Now’s the time to open those lines of communication. Students are often afraid to ask, or don’t even realize that they should ask for help in times of need. After years of establishing independence as a teenager, they need help with the transition to adulthood and building a support network. When you can, offer choices to your students: flexible deadlines, multiple options for demonstrating mastery of material (test, slideshow, video, etc.). 

As much as this has become a wrinkle in our plans for this semester, inevitably, we’ll remember how we persevered through a difficult time, systems will become more efficient and new technologies and ways of life will be invented. Let’s be the people who pull together and support each other, remembering our core values of #tenacity and #community, during this unprecedented time. 

Instructor Check-List

_ Email students to connect “I’m here for you”

_ Set up ways for students to connect with each other using Canvas, WhatsApp, Slack or other

_ Ask students what they need for success (do this now and again in 2 weeks)

_ Share resources for help (Counseling Services, Wellness social media, Learning Centers, Dean of Students)

_ Be human. Share stories about your transition to online. 

_ Use positive language (avoid lamenting about the current situation) 

_ Point out student/class successes – i.e. all assignments turned in on time, successful first Zoom lecture, etc.

_ Give students flexibility and choice when you’re able – due dates, type of assignment, etc.

_ Acknowledge increased stress and anxiety (and redirect students to helpful resources)

_ Assume students won’t always have access to reliable internet for streaming video, provide text options and   slide notes whenever possible