Grief and the Future of Social Work: An Invitation to Grow Together in Respect and Readiness

Photo taken by a doctor who goes by the Twitter handle @roto_tudor posted this photo in December 2020 – and explained that these were end of life stations being prepared at his hospital. The photo went viral with its simple yet staggering view of covid-19s’ realities.

In April of 2019, I had the privilege of getting to design a futures game for my dean colleagues of schools of social work around the United States. It was an interesting challenge – one that was intended to help everyone involved expand their thinking into various “what ifs” in the world around us – and in the face of these possibilities…what it might mean for social work as a profession to “be ready.”

One of the numerous scenarios in the game included a global pandemic in which 1/3 of the world’s population perished. This scenario was developed after studying the available projections of those studying the future of viruses and health. I played this game with my dean colleagues, but also across the United States at a series of events, conferences, etc. and heard social workers talking about it might mean to prepare for these kinds of possibilities…and just as challenging, what it means to not prepare. With regard to this particular prompt – we mused about what social work might best do to help “society” heal and recover from such a development. To a person, almost everyone who played the game would remark that we were no where near as ready as we needed to be.

And then, a year later, Covid-19 arrived, along with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (and others who came before and after them) – reflecting a breaking point for so many, dismayed and angry – and the related uprisings and community actions.

Like so many, I’ve thought a lot about this during the past year. I’ve thought about the almost incalculable grief, anger and both individual and shared trauma – as I continue to think about the future of the social work profession. What does it mean for our society to have a collective need to grieve and heal that is the result of multiplied wounds and traumas? And what, if anything, might our role be in offering the best of who we can be as a profession to simply help facilitate all that will need to happen to move forward. What is social work’s role in what happens next?

I watch the news go by – and story after story calibrating the complexity of what grieving means right now and in the years ahead. I note that we rarely have spaces to really “take in” what this all means for our communities, for our country – even as we fight for the election, for justice, for lives. Social workers all over the country are working in spaces where there has been an almost year long-covid-19-specific emergency and generations of racism and trauma prior to that.

As workers, we gather on Twitter or in other platforms and share our insights, our methods, our experiences – and early efforts at “sensemaking” are evolving for us across our profession. We compare how futile “the stages of grief” (as important as this framework may have been historically…) and related frameworks, feel right now at this moment.

I am thinking ahead as I chip away at the questions:

“Are we ready as social workers for what is and what is about to happen in terms of new levels of directly and indirectly expressed grief? (Both in individual and collective forms.)”

“What does being ready for the deep grief and anger that will inevitably evolve and appear in our world look like for the profession of social work?”

“What are the most important things we can we help each other learn and be inspired by right now, urgently, to make it through?”

“How do we honor the histories, identities, strengths, cultures and anger of the people who are grieving in the days and years to come?”

“How do we not fall into traps of ‘fixing’ or ‘rescuing’ but rather simply witnessing, getting out of the way of community solutions, interrupting privilege blinders, and investing ourselves in lifting up and supporting the voices of those most impacted right now?”

“How do we best respect the strengths of those who have been actively surviving and building health and racial justice movements and stand out of the way of these efforts, yet prove ourselves (as social workers) worthy of providing supports and expertise that is genuinely helpful?”

“How do we help to channel the grief of these times into social transformation, accountability and true justice that will do more to prevent such pain in the years to come?”

The beauty and power of the human spirit has long demonstrated its many ways to navigate grief and loss…and survive or even evolve for the better. But there are vulnerabilities so deeply exposed right now – built upon generations of loss and lack of investments, presence of racism and injustice.

This is a complicated time to be alive and seek change, healing and justice. Probably not useful is to think of this time like any other. We may need to think bigger, imagine more, potentially engage in a deeper and more humility-anchored review of our methods and maybe even “throw out” the playbook that dictates what individual or social grieving may look like according to those who established these “norms.” So often these have been developed in narrow and historical contexts that may or may not fit the world we’re in right now along with the world that is on its way. New ways of making progress, of marking, memorializing and processing “these times” are emerging – and they are powerful teachers. Among all the things we might consider doing, LEARNING for the time and space we are in may be among the most important.

This post is an invitation to join me in deepening your own commitment as a social worker to “be more ready” for the grief, anger and the evolution of the trauma of our times as it unfolds. This means being ready for it’s presence – as well as it’s powerful expressions and hopefully, the healing that will result.

It is an invitation to open up what you think you know about grief – and prepare to have it expanded dramatically, geometrically – exponentially, and to allow it to transform your own practice, and your own life towards anti-racism and liberation.

We must find our rest where we can, and prepare individually and collectively, for our role in the evolution of healing and justice that will needed ahead. Social work is a profession that operates throughout spaces where grief, loss and injustice are plentiful and deeply focused. But it is important that we also stand open to how much more we have to learn from what is happening around us.

If we are white, we have additional work to do to honor and learn from the particular complexities, strengths and power of BIPOC, Queer, and disabilities communities who have been living though collective trauma before covid-19 arrived, only to have it multiplied. We have work to do to promote and amplify solutions, methods and expressions related to grief that come from members and leaders in these communities – as they inevitably grow and flourish in the days and years to come. History shows us the clear sustaining power therein. And, we have work to do to interrupt the power and perspectives of privileged people who over-analyze and over-interpret how the problem and potential solutions – should be framed and acted upon.

To support this, I’ve gathered up items which are signals of how issues of grieving, collective trauma and anger at injustice along with related issues of healing and transformation are being framed and discussed in the academic literature and popular media. These are windows to help us consider more about the future of grieving, the future of trauma recovery, the future of healing…and to nurture our deepest consideration of our role in what lays ahead. I urge you to spend some time in this overview – and to explore how what is happening is both like and unlike what has happened before, and how the healing from it will need to be correspondingly dynamic, creative and responsive. This list is only a start, intentionally pulling from a wide variety of places, and deeply imperfect and incomplete…but it is a place to begin to think bigger, pull voices and ideas that represent current and new worlds, and stretch into what comes next.

Our better world ahead is counting on us to be ready and to bring our imaginations, our sense of justice, our anti-racism, our skills, our openness, and our humility to bear…are we ready? What kind of future, of healing, will we build together?

One comment

  1. Excellent perspectives presented around the future of grief and trauma’s impact on not just individuals but as a society. The demand for the expertise of social workers will escalate as the impact unfolds for us all.


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