I am sorry for your loss: Athlete Grief during COVID-19 (By: Jai Combest)
In my lifetime I have never experienced anything as uncertain as COVID-19. A lot has happened since the first suspected COVID-19 transmission in the United States on February 26, 2020 and the first death report just three days later. Schools are closed. People are quarantined. And to top it off, sports events are cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The world is simultaneously at a loss right now. We all have a shared bond that is, unfortunately, COVID-19. Most people by now have found ways to begin coping with the new normal of social distancing, wearing masks, and rigorously washing hands and disinfecting. While focusing on what can be done people are also grieving those things outside of their control. As we enter this new way of living where we are surround by safety protocols, stipulations, regulations, and constant uncertainty, it is important that we acknowledge the grief we are all experiencing as well.
As social workers we deal with a variety of issues daily but for some the subject of grief is something we have stayed away from due to difficulties addressing the topic or for more personal reasons. However, right now, in this environment, it will not only benefit the athletes we serve but in some ways ourselves to acknowledge and put a name to what we are all feeling. Most social workers are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler- Ross’ seven stages of grief (denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but be mindful that the athletes may not relate to this model because no one has died. Unfortunately, when it comes to grief, we often tend to assign levels to the seriousness of a person’s grief based on the severity of the loss such as the death of a loved one compared to the loss of a season due to injury. Unfortunately the loss of sport has been minimized in comparison to the loss of life. Acknowledging an athlete’s loss and helping them put a name to this feeling that they may not be able explain is the first step in helping athletes not only grieve the loss but find positive ways to cope.
As we all know for athletes, sports are bigger than just a game. Their sport is often their identity, their way of life, or means of academic and financial security. Those brave enough to share their feelings of loss may have been countered with the cliché “at least you are alive” or “there is always next year”, thus disenfranchising the athletes’ loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disenfranchised grief as coined by Dr. Ken Doka is when grief is not openly acknowledged, socially accepted, or publicly mourned. This type of grief can have effects such as depression, emotional disturbances, withdrawal from society, psychosomatic illnesses, and low self-esteem (Thelen, 2007). Since the pandemic athletes are a vulnerable population thus at greater risk of experiencing a decline in mental wellness. Athletes who have previously coped with life stressors through sports may now be left with limited or no coping techniques.
The reality is, there is no magic pill that will make this all go away and you may have felt that there is not much that you can do or hope for ways to help. If you have either felt hopeless or inspired to help the athletes that you work with then I challenge you to do so. Regardless of your level of comfort in navigating the waters of grief you have the ability to add value by simply encouraging athletes to talk about their loss, what it means, how it makes them feel and then validating their experience by calling it by name, grief.
Thelen, V. (2007). Disenfranchised grief. Mental Health Matters. 4(10). Retrieved from https://www.fhpcc.com/disenfranchised-grief.