COVID-19: The Process After Losing a Loved One with Dr. Debbie Stevens
We’re back for a new season! In this episode of the Be the Bridge podcast, our Director of Programs and Innovation, Faitth Brooks, discusses the impacts of the pandemic with Debbie Stevens, a registered psychiatric nurse practitioner and close friend of our founder, Latasha Morrison, who lost her father to COVID-19 earlier this year. In this much needed discussion, Faitth and Debbie acknowledge the legacy of medical racism in the U.S., talk about the hope they’ve had amidst the pandemic, and give listeners tips on loving others well through periods of grief.
“Grief is just highly individualized. The way one person grieves is not necessarily the way that you may grieve.” –Debbie Stevens
“It’s really easy to see what somebody else is going through, and then try to relate it back to something you’ve experienced. But the reality is, it’s a time for you to just sit and listen, lending a hand in whatever way possible, and being willing to serve.” –Faitth Brooks
“Because of the legacy of the research and medical community really betraying the Black community—in terms of all the disgraceful things that the medical professional community has done to Black people and taken advantage of them—there’s a lot of distrust.” –Debbie Stevens
“This is a time for us to think collectively and not individually about our wants, about what we desire, and to think about ‘How can I love my neighbor?’” –Faitth Brooks
“I love my patients so I continue to show up for them, and they offer me hope because they haven’t given up. They continue to push forward, and even if they’re losing loved ones and family members, they continue to make their mental health a priority. So that offers me hope that I’m doing something that’s making a difference.” –Debbie Stevens
About Dr. Debbie Stevens
Dr. Debbie Stevens is a mental health clinician, speaker and consultant with nearly 20 years of experience caring for individuals with a range of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, trauma and addiction.
She I currently practices in a shelter based clinic in downtown Atlanta serving the homeless who suffer from mental illness and substance use disorders. She is also a clinical assistant professor in the school of nursing at Emory University.
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The full episode transcript is below.
You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 0:05
[Intro] How you guys doing today? This is exciting!
Each week, Be the Bridge podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture, with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 0:17
[Intro] …but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society, but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end!
Faitth Brooks 0:56
[Voiceover] Hello everyone! Yes, Be The Bridge is back for a new season! Once again, I am Faitth Brooks and I am the director of programs and innovation for the Be the Bridge organization. And I have the honor of once again being your guest host. Please know that Latasha is doing well, and I promise you she will be back soon.
As we’ve mentioned here on the podcast and on social media, Latasha lost her father to COVID-19. We’ve heard a lot about masks, regulations, vaccines and the policies related to all of it. One thing we have not heard about a lot is processing loss, or even the grief during this pandemic. And as I mentioned in the special guest podcast message a few weeks ago, I traveled and stayed with Latasha through the planning and preparation of her father’s homegoing service. But I was not alone. Two of Latasha’s other sister-friends traveled and were there to help her through all this as well. One being Andrea Middleton (shout out to Andrea) and one also being today’s guest, Debbie Stevens, who happens to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Psychiatric nurse practitioners are responsible for helping patients cope with psychiatric mental health needs and provide treatment for ADHD, mood disorders, and anxiety. These nurse practitioners evaluate patients before and during care to monitor their progress, and administer medications as needed. With Debbie being not only a frontline worker during this pandemic, she also has a unique insight on processing grief as well. So let’s start our conversation here.
[In conversation] Debbie, here’s one of my questions for you. What has been your experience with patients and families who are dealing with COVID and grief?
Debbie Stevens 2:51
From the very beginning almost a year ago today, we have seen an increase in our numbers in terms of people reporting more depression and more anxiety. As you can imagine, people initially were very, very nervous, there was so much uncertainty. And then as they began to lose loved ones, then they started experiencing another level of loss and depression, and grief. And so it’s been very…I don’t want to say exhausting, because as providers we do have a special capacity to carry people’s burdens and problems. But it has been very, very challenging because hearing the stories of so many people losing so many family members—sometimes multiple family members at one time—has made it very difficult in terms of you know, treating and making sure that we are able to offer hope.
So I would say for my regular patients that I’ve seen in the outpatient setting, it’s been difficult because they’ve been isolated. And so that brings a whole nother level of you know, just a lot, not just fear, but now you’re not able to access the type of resources that would normally alleviate some depression and anxiety like exercising, going to the gym, going out to eat, doing those things that bring you joy—just really being connected to other people. So we’ve been able to see just how the isolation and loneliness has exacerbated a lot of people’s depression. Of course, the fear of getting COVID and dying, getting sick, their loved ones—not just being worried about themselves but also worried about other family members can increase anxiety. And then moving into the inpatient setting, I think that’s been the most challenging setting because now we’re getting, we’re seeing patients who are diagnosed and in ICU and separated and not being able to have the comfort of their loved ones to be near them. And so all of that has complicated the grief process, where normally when you’re experiencing loss like that you find comfort in knowing that, you know, you can be by the bedside, and you can have family members there to support you. So people are being robbed of that opportunity. And this made it very, very difficult.
Faitth Brooks 5:13
[Voiceover] With both of us going through this experience as a part of Latasha’s community, it prompted me to ask this question:
[In conversation] As we think about grief and community, what would you say are the stages of grief that are part of our actual healing process? And, you know, like, what is it like for us to begin going through that process? Because obviously, yes, we’re grieving. But we do want to also continue to have those tools to know how we can heal.
Debbie Stevens 5:41
Absolutely. So of course, I didn’t make up the stages of grief, that’s based on seminal work by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Faitth Brooks 5:52
[Voiceover] Okay, a quick pause here, Debbie mentioned Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. So just so you know, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who pioneered near-death studies. But one thing she was most known for was her bestselling book “On Death and Dying.” It was this book that introduced her theory of the five stages of grief. So that’s just for a little context, let’s jump back in.
Debbie Stevens 6:17
And many of us who have studied psychology or studied psychiatry, are very familiar with this because it’s definitely made it into mainstream knowledge. And, you know, it’s been accessible to everyone. But basically, the five stages are: 1) Denial—and that’s where you’re kind of in that feeling of disbelief, like a lot of times, people are like, “This doesn’t feel real,” it’s surreal, like your brain is trying to kind of reject that this is, you know, happening. And then you move into 2) Bargaining—which is kind of what you’re trying to make a deal with fate saying, “I just need more time.” And part of what we were doing in the beginning was a little bit of bargaining, right? So, “I’ll do, you know, maybe I’ll make sure I can socially distance and maybe if I do this, then I can still be able to go out and do these things.” So that’s a form of bargaining. Then, you know, we move into 3) Anger—and this is where you’re trying to, you know, find someone that’s responsible or something where you could place the blame. And then 4) Sadness—where you of course, you feel helpless and depressed. And then 5) Acceptance—where you finally have this sense and understanding of what’s going on. But it’s, and I’m describing them in a linear fashion, but they’re definitely…you don’t necessarily move from denial to bargaining to anger, depression, and acceptance. Of course, you think acceptance kind of intuitively makes sense to be the final stage, but sometimes it’s not. You know what I mean? And sometimes you can move between the multiple stages, at different points, and you can kind of go back or some of the stages can be extended. I think what’s important for our listeners to know and to remember is that grief is just highly individualized. And the way one person grieves is not necessarily the way that you may grieve. And if so, if you are walking with someone on their grief journey, that’s really important to note that they may not respond in the way that you may expect them to, or that you may have in the past, or you are currently responding to the loss because everyone is very different.
Faitth Brooks 8:30
[Voiceover] Now, let’s expand this out. You, like me, may wonder about boundaries and space as it relates to communicating with someone grieving during this type of loss. Let’s pick it up here.
[In conversation] How for us, like if we have a friend that’s walking through some grief, what’s an effective way for us to show them love and support, but then also to extend them grace? Right? Because maybe their capacity is going to be a lot different than it was before emotionally…all these other things. So what are ways that we can actually extend that grace? And you know, just be more aware?
Debbie Stevens 9:06
Yeah, I think the first step again, is to understand that grief can be unpredictable and the way they grieve may be different or the way they’re responding, it may catch you off guard or surprise you—and that’s okay. So just reminding yourself that they need that space to go through the stages that they need to go through as they are, you know, processing their grief and their loss. And then there’s no standard or right way. So you’re not placing any expectations on them. I would also say, we talk about this a lot in Be the Bridge work, is that to center…you know, we’re careful on centering ourselves—and I think sometimes when you’re trying to help someone, it’s so easy to try to think about what’s important to you. Like for example, if you know, when Latasha is going through what she’s going through, I’m thinking, “Okay, what can I do to be there? Like, I need her to know that I am there for her.” But that’s MY need, you know, I’m saying that’s not necessarily HERS. So really just being mindful that you’re not placing your need first, and you’re really trying to consider what they need. So you can ask, like, “How can I be here for you? What do you need from me?” And sometimes people may not be able to, you know, quickly verbalize or tell you what they need. So sometimes anticipating what they need can be important too. Like, for example, she was telling me, I’m not sure who did this for her, but someone, you know, provided some house cleaning services for her. And it was just so helpful for her to not worry about that piece, you know? And so I don’t think anyone’s going to turn that down. So just thinking about, you know, maybe gift cards instead of cooking a meal, because you don’t know, you know, then you have to ask them, “What do you want? What are your food preferences?” You know, sometimes people don’t want to think about that. So maybe gift cards for food, for travel, you know, just trying to alleviate some of their responsibilities. Those are some practical things, I think, but just mainly just sending text messages or letting them know you’re thinking and praying for them. And praying for them! Obviously, that’s very, very important.
Faitth Brooks 11:21
[In conversation] Yeah. And I think I love what you said about not centering yourself, because I think it’s really easy to you know, see what somebody else is going through, and then you try to relate it back to something you’ve experienced. But the reality is, it’s a time for you to just sit and listen, and you know, offer, you know, lending a hand in whatever way possible, being willing to serve. And it’s just not the moment for your relatable, you know, to say something that you know, you know you can relate to and then interject it. And you know, I even found myself, as I was with Tasha just thinking, “How can I be supportive? And how can I just listen? How can I say less, and just be around to listen and help and anticipate what her needs might be?” And so most things were just about listening to anticipate, not to really problem solve, not to do anything else, but just to be there. And I learned so much from that. And I think that it’s just something that’s important to remember just in general, that I’ll carry with me for life. Like how can I make sure when somebody is going through a hard time, even during all this stuff with COVID, that I can listen, which will help me anticipate someone’s need?
Debbie Stevens 12:33
Yeah. And I would also say, avoid asking a lot of questions. I think that sometimes that curiosity can, you know, get away from us, and we’re like, oh, I wonder what happened or wonder, you know…you want to know more details about the situation and I would just also encourage people not to ask a lot of questions. And I think that’s common sense, but sometimes if you’re very close to the person, you can assume that you’re entitled to know certain things. But I would say even if you’re very close to the individual who’s going through this process, to just kind of wait and follow their lead in terms of what they feel comfortable sharing.
Faitth Brooks 13:13
[Voiceover] Wow, this is so good. Let’s take a really quick break and we will be back shortly. Be prepared to learn something new.
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Faitth Brooks 15:08
[Voiceover] Thanks for staying with us. Many of you may have heard on the news about how different communities are being affected by this pandemic. Well, for some of you, what Debbie is about to share will be eye opening, especially as it relates to the vaccine. Let’s listen in.
Debbie Stevens 15:26
Yeah, it has been tough, you know, especially because the population that I work with is particularly vulnerable. Like, you know, they are dealing with not just mental illness, but substance abuse, they are experiencing homelessness. So you can imagine someone in that particular situation, for whatever reason that you know, whatever they experienced in their, over their lifetime, to now have to deal with all that in the midst of, you know, a pandemic…it’s been very hard, especially for people of color. And because I’ve worked in the city of Atlanta, I would say 85% of my patients are African American or Black. And they, you know, so they have limited resources, they may not have access to the knowledge and the research. So because of the legacy of the research and medical community really betraying the Black community, you know, in terms of—gosh, I mean, we could, that’s a whole nother podcast, you know, in terms of all the disgraceful things that the medical professional community has done to Black people and take advantage of them—there’s a lot of distrust.
Faitth Brooks 16:47
[Voiceover] Distrust. Yeah, I had to jump in again. I’m not going to assume that all of you are aware of why there is distrust and where it comes from, as it relates to the medical community. So here’s just one of many examples of why that distrust is especially deep with the Black community: an unethical natural history study conducted between 1932 and 1972. Yes, you heard that right—this unethical study was done for 40 years by the United States Public Health Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, better known as the CDC. Bottom line is they duped 600 impoverished Black sharecroppers into thinking they were going to be treated for the disease they all had. Were they treated? Of course not. They were given placebos and watched like lab rats to monitor the course this particular disease took until its ultimate resolution, which was either complete recovery or death. With that, 128 people died. By the way, this unethical study had a name: it was called the Tuskegee experiment.
Debbie Stevens 18:06
So, you know, Black people initially, you know, there was this moment where we felt like, oh, Black people aren’t, we’re not even getting COVID! So there was like this joyful kind of period, do you remember that? There was like this period, they were like, “It’s only the white people getting it,” but that was a form of denial too. You know what I mean? And so then as we started learning about how we were really shouldering a disproportionate burden of COVID because of pre-existing conditions and a lot of other structural, you know, inequalities in our country, then, you know, it was like, “Wait a minute, we’re the ones, you know, dying,” you know, I mean, “we’re the ones being affected.” And so when the vaccine became available, this is now part of our battle, is trying to educate, encourage people to get the vaccine. Because of that distrust, they don’t want to get the vaccine. They are afraid, because they’re like, “Okay, is the government doing something to us? Are the doctors researching it, you know, using us as guinea pigs?” And so that’s where you start to see the far reaching effects of racism in our country. So not only are we dying, having more incidents of COVID and dying disproportionately, but now, we are afraid of something that could save our lives. It’s very sad.
Faitth Brooks 19:22
[In conversation] Yeah. And I think that, you know, you can never underestimate the generational trauma that truly exists within the Black community. And I know that, I remember like you’re saying, everybody in the beginning was like, “Black people can’t get it!”
Debbie Stevens 19:38
[Laughs] Finally one thing that we can say for ourselves we’re protected against, and it was short lived.
Faitth Brooks 19:45
[In conversation] And, you know, after a while, of course, like you said, that was denial—it was totally false. And then, you know, we really saw that, “Oh my goodness, COVID is wiping out so many members of the Black community.” And it is completely devastating families. And we cannot overlook the impact that COVID has had, especially on communities of color. Communities of color in this country have borne the brunt of the deaths and loss. And it’s just been so sad to see. And so I really think it puts us in a position to ask ourselves some hard questions. So as we wrap up here, you know, I really want people to ponder, like, “How am I showing up for my neighbor? How am I, you know, displaying empathy and kindness? What can I do? Besides socially distancing, and you know, wearing your mask and all those things, what can I do to actually show that I care?” Because I can promise you, especially if you have a person of color in your life, most people have been affected in some way form or fashion by COVID. And it really is important to be thoughtful about people. I know it can be easy to be, you know, flippant with your words. We’re tired of being in the house…listen, we’re all tired of being in the house. Okay, like, we all get it, we all understand. But this is a time for us to think collectively and not individually about our wants, about what we desire, and to think about how can I love my neighbor? So one thing I want to leave you with Debbie, a question, which is, you know, there’s so much going on, right? This has been a good conversation, but also a heavy conversation. What is something that gives you hope right now?
Debbie Stevens 21:33
Well, I appreciate the opportunity to share stories, to share what’s going on behind the scenes. Like, I love my patients, so I continue to show up for them and they offered me hope, you know, because they haven’t given up. They continue to push forward, and you know, even if they’re losing loved ones and family members, they continue to make their mental health a priority. So that offers me hope that I’m doing something that’s making a difference. And so that is encouraging! I think too, hearing stories of other people, like you saying, getting engaged in the work, advocating for the more vulnerable populations, volunteering—you know, there’s so many opportunities for people to volunteer with testing and that sort of thing. So those kinds of things offer, give me hope. Like the vaccine, I mean, initially a lot of the health care providers were so afraid of getting it and bringing it home to their families. So you heard the stories of people sleeping in hotels and in their cars. And now, when you go into the hospital, there’s a lot of excitement, you know, about the vaccine and being able to be a part of the solution and offering medication that can save people’s lives. And so I’m hopeful about the vaccine being made more readily available to the greater population.
Faitth Brooks 23:01
[In conversation] Yeah, and I just want to say what makes me hopeful is this community right here, this Be the Bridge community, you all—we have seen such an outpouring of love for Latasha in a way that has just been so beautiful. I mean, it would take me a long time to kind of list out the different ways you all have shown up. But from gift cards, to condolences, to just checking in, and surprise gifts. Thank you so much for being the community, the very community, we’re talking about. The very community that we are encouraging people to be as people walk through deep grief and sorrow right now. So thank you for being that and for believing in the work of Be the Bridge, for continuing to uplift and pray for Latasha. Please continue to do that. It’s something that she’s going to need a lot of prayer, really for the years to come, right? And so we just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being here, continuing to listen and engage with us. And also for some of you who are financially supporting Be the Bridge, thanks for doing that. And if you aren’t a donor or a financial partner, please consider joining Be the Bridge and coming closer in with our community and staff. We would love to get to know you more, especially those who are part of our Donor’s Table. And so thank you for being with us, Debbie. Thank you all for listening and we will talk to you all soon.
[Voiceover] If you are a member of the Donor’s Table, you get access to today’s unedited episode. Go check it out!
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast! To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization, and/or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BeTheBridge.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, GA. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the senior producer. Brittany Prescott was our transcriber. Please join us next time! This has been a Be the Bridge production.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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