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From 9/11 to COVID, Exploring Loss and Grief During Times of Tragedy

CandleCreighton experts discuss grieving for loved ones lost to mass tragedies.

The death of a loved one is a devastating blow under any circumstances.

But in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, all too many Americans learned what it was like to lose someone in the most public and tragic of ways. It’s a reality that millions more are facing today, as the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 600,000 Americans so far, continues to rise.

These events have become permanently embedded in the national discourse. They are regularly covered in the media, and they crop up in daily conversation. So, for those who have experienced a loss because of these tragedies, the process of working through grief, while always unique, can be a little more complicated.

“When you start thinking about two of the biggest national disasters we’ve ever had, one of them was 9/11 and the other is COVID-19,” says Ronn Johnson, PhD, ABPP, professor in the Creighton School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion. “They’re both public tragedies, but the issues underlying them psychologically are a lot different.”

The immediate aftermath of 9/11, Johnson says, was characterized by a widespread feeling of national solidarity. The narrative, expressed in news reports from across the country, was one of a nation, united in grief, coming together to support one another as neighbors and friends.

“We could all see 9/11 happening before our eyes. We could all see the planes flying into those buildings, and in a very real, very public way, you could see the anguish people were experiencing,” Johnson says. “That was the last time I can recall seeing the nation as a whole rally around a particular incident and feel a sense of Americanism.”

That’s quite a different story from the narrative that has emerged from the pandemic, which has been awash in political invective almost from the beginning. And the tone of the national discourse could, indeed, impact the personal process of grief for someone who lost a loved one in either tragedy.

But more important than media coverage, Johnson says, working through grief hinges on having a personal network of support: “You get your support from the people who are closest to you, from your friends and your family members,” he says.

Mourning in community is a tradition found in almost all human cultures, says Jill Brown, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychology in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences. The process always involves a commonly accepted series of rituals. Mourning rituals, even simple ones, help a person re-encode a devastating experience in the brain, Brown says. The outward expression of mourning adds new layers of experience to the initial shock and heartache, making it easier for the grieving person to move forward.

Studies have shown that mourning rituals, even nonreligious ones, can have a positive impact on people working through grief, Brown says.

In the West, mourning has traditionally meant wearing black or dark clothing, with friends and neighbors coming together to bring meals to the grieving family. But for decades, even these basic traditions have been on the decline as the idea of formal public mourning fades away.

“Even our funeral rituals are so divorced from real human connection,” Brown says. “We take the bodies to a professional. We don’t know what happens to them. They make them look like they’re still alive, and we don’t get to touch our dead.”

Within this context, Brown says, the idea of public mourning in the wake of mass tragedies such as COVID and 9/11 could offer some measure of comfort to affected families. Memorial events, such as candlelight vigils, prayer services and benefit fundraisers, can stand in for the formalized mourning rituals of the past, she says.

And in the face of contentious political narrative or unwelcome news coverage that serves as a difficult reminder of the initial loss, that sense of ritual can serve an even more essential function.

“Maybe that’s when ritual becomes even more important,” Brown says. “It’s a public acknowledgment of what’s happening. These public rituals and remembrances might be more important at a time when things are so polarized.

“I really do think that there’s something about how these rituals help us retell the story of loss. That’s what growing is. You’re reworking the story from something so terrible and painful to something more managable.”

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