Judith McCoyd is an Associate Professor and Associate Director for Doctoral Programs at Rutgers School of Social Work. Dr. McCoyd discusses National Grief Awareness Day, how the social work community can observe it, and ways social workers can support their clients as they navigate grief.

Tell us a bit about your journey to social work.
My pathway to social work went directly through a pre-med undergrad major. I had always been interested in obstetrics and midwifery, likely as a result of hearing a regularly repeated story about a miscarriage that preceded my birth. I enjoyed the sciences and was granted a semester to shadow an obstetrician during my junior year of college. She was phenomenal, but she never got to see her son nor spend much time with her patients. Indeed, as the semester went on, I observed that when patients had perinatal losses or other challenging circumstances, another woman met at length with them. I learned that this person was the medical social worker and I met with her to learn more about what she did. 

By then, I viewed doctors as body mechanics, and I had become more interested in the emotional side of how people function. After learning about perinatal social work, I was hooked.  I created and finished an individualized major in biology, social welfare, and psychology and went off to Columbia to earn an MSSW with a concentration in health and mental health. My internships confirmed my interest in people starting or enlarging their families. Later, the hospitals where I worked quickly began using my expertise with pregnant folks who had losses of various sorts--from miscarriage and stillbirth to fetal and newborn diagnosis, to infertility and early hysterectomy. I enjoyed working at the intersection of complex loss and health and had a growing interest in the intellectual puzzle of how medical technologies both enable and force people to make decisions and adjustments that often inspire complex grief reactions.

My knowledge of genetics situated me to provide decision-making support and grief counseling in the rapidly evolving area of prenatal diagnosis during the late 1980s and beyond. I worked in hospitals, homecare for mothers and babies with complex medical needs, hospice (at both ends of the lifespan), and started a small private practice after doing the three-year post-MSW certificate program of the Pennsylvania Society for Clinical Social Work. After doing that work for many years, I wanted to understand the evolution of the decision-making and grief processes of people who terminated desired pregnancies after the finding of fetal anomalies. I was especially interested in the influence of the stigmatization of abortion, a topic I explored in my dissertation research at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research.

I remain committed to having a small private practice to stay clinically in touch with grievers. I also view part of my social work mission as working to dispel inaccurate ideas about how to support grievers. I believe that all clinical social work is about some form of loss and that no social worker is fully competent without understanding the skills and values that undergird work with people and communities experiencing loss and grief.

What is the significance of National Grief Awareness Day for you?
I applaud National Grief Awareness Day for its unstinting acknowledgement that grievers mourn differently and that grief shared is grief managed. The day emphasizes the idea that grief comes as a result of any sort of loss (e.g., job, relationship, situation), not just death. Established in 2014, it is meant as a day to reflect on one’s own losses and how one has coped with, and hopefully grown from, them.  It also is a day to reach out to friends and family members to help support their grief.

How can the social work community recognize and commemorate National Grief Awareness Day? 
First, social workers need to understand that everything we do, even positive interventions, can inspire losses for the people affected. Whenever a person changes, they have lost what they had before (e.g., the known). People may benefit from ceasing substance use or behavioral addictions, but they lose a form of coping (albeit dysfunctional), and likely some friends as well. When people grow their families, no matter how enthusiastically, they lose some freedom to focus on their own needs. When policies change, some people are unhappy about the change and feel deprived of power and control.  

The social work community can recognize and commemorate National Grief Awareness Day by promoting recognition of this truism that even positive changes may be tinged with loss. By naming it and by normalizing loss as a destabilizing force that allows us to establish new ways of being, we help ourselves, our clients, and our world to move forward from loss. Not all grief requires active and deep mourning; sometimes just acknowledging that losing the familiar is painful promotes the embrace of new ways of thinking and doing. It is also important for social workers to believe in the human ability to tolerate loss. Grief intensity is directly related to the level of attachment to the lost entity. The adage “grief is love with nowhere to go” is accurate. Grief responses therefore vary with attachment level, developmental phase, cultural and religious background, and levels of social support. I argue in my writing that our best way to support grievers is to ask open-ended questions that help people acknowledge their loss, consider the importance of what was lost, examine their fears in light of the loss, and consider how they will move forward into their futures without that entity in their lives. We must truly listen to the answers in an attuned and compassionate manner, while avoiding any expectation that there is some set of stages or a prescribed way to “do” grief.

What can the social work profession or social workers do to continue to support individuals on National Grief Awareness Day beyond August 30?
Quite honestly, every day should be grief awareness day for social workers. To risk being a bit maudlin, all beginnings come from prior endings. We must attend to the losses our clients feel as they make changes. By acknowledging them, we promote our clients’ recognition that feelings of loss often accompany the excitement of new beginnings. We help them process the ambivalence they might experience as they sort out new goals in their lives–or in their community’s life. Loss can be collective, as we have seen with the multiple pandemics (COVID, racial and economic injustice, violence). The social worker’s role in the process is to help people find their strengths, acknowledge their pain and vulnerabilities, and embrace what it is to be fully human moving forward together.

This story was created in partnership with Rutgers School of Social Work's Inclusion, Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity, and Advancement (IIDEA) Committee in support of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.