Robin Gurwitch knows all too well about loss.
Gurwitch was working as a psychologist and program director at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center on April 19, 1995.
After the bombing at Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, she was among the first responders to provide mental health services to victims and their families.
Now a professor at Duke University Medical Center, Gurwitch is one of the nation’s leading authorities on grieving with a resume that includes working with victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and a long list of other tragedies.
She is also facing a new challenge: Helping families, particularly children, deal with the still-unfolding COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 583,000 Americans, including at least 8,000 Oklahomans.
Gurwitch said the last year has presented many unique challenges in helping people cope.
She and other experts say we can look to the aftermath of the Murrah Building bombing and other tragedies to navigate the grieving process.
“One of the biggest similarities between COVID and the Oklahoma City bombing is that they both have a high risk for complicated bereavement,” she said. “It’s not that you don’t feel sad or don’t feel loss, it’s just the circumstances around the death keep interfering with the grieving process.”
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In the play-therapy room in Calm Waters Center for Children and Families’ new facility in Oklahoma City’s Midtown, firemen, doctor and police outfits are laid out next to a medical activity center that allows kids to roleplay being at a doctor’s office.
“For children, play is their first language,” said Erin Engelke, the group’s executive director. “One of the best ways for them to express what they have seen in their grief journey is by acting it out. So instead of superhero costumes with masks and capes, we have firemen, doctors, nurses – all the people they might interact with over the course of losing a loved one.”
The nearly 30-year-old nonprofit treats families across central Oklahoma as they navigate grief after a death, divorce or other significant loss.
With a staff of six, including four therapists, the group was kept busy even before the pandemic. As COVID-19 deaths began to mount in large numbers, they have seen demand for their services spike to record levels.
“Initially, there were a lot of people who were just overwhelmed and stressed,” Engelke said. “Then we began getting more and more calls, specifically looking for a group to support people who had someone die to COVID-19.”
After moving to virtual sessions for much of the pandemic, Calm Waters began offering in-person counseling within the last month. But demand continues to be at an all-time high with a growing waiting list of people seeking help.
Heather Warfield, a program director and therapist with Calm Waters, said coping with COVID-19 losses is unique since the virus is not a “tangible thing” that someone can channel their anger or grief towards.
On top of that, Warfield said the pandemic has put a halt to common grieving rituals — whether it’s a funeral, being able to visit their loved one in the hospital before they pass or coming together as a family to grieve — due to social distancing restrictions.
“So I think that has created a lot of challenges because many people are not as connected to their support system,” she said.
Gurwitch added another big difference between COVID-19 and events like the Oklahoma City Bombing is the timeline for grief. Unlike the shared experiences of bombing and the subsequent events that led up to Timothy McVeigh’s arrest, trial and execution, almost everybody experiences COVID-19 in different ways and at different times.
Some might have experienced loss in the spring of last year. Others might have lost a loved one just weeks or days ago. Some have died within days of getting the virus. Others can spend months in the hospital before ultimately succumbing to it.
“With the bombing, there wasn’t a threat of like there’s going to a bombing every day,” she said. “So with all that uncertainty now, you can see high levels of stress and anxiety.”
How We Respond to the Grief
Although COVID-19 has created unpreceded situations across the board, including how we grieve, experts say there are still lessons that can be applied to today’s experiences.
Gurwitch said her continued work in the community, 26 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, shows that grief is not something you ever “just get over.” Instead she said it’s a process that can ebb and flow.
“We need to be more patient and supportive of each other because there is no time limit for grief,” she said. “I think what we’ve found with all these events, and it doesn’t matter if it’s been one year later or 26 years later, is that we will still have individuals that will need and seek mental health services.”
One of her biggest takeaways from the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing was how important a sense of community was in the healing process.
“We know from Oklahoma City and from the years since the bombing that one of the best protective factors we have is having connections and having a strong support system,” Gurwitch said. “It may include friends and family, it may include faith and culture or it may include mental health services.”
Warfield said just talking about the loss — whether it’s in a support group or just with a friend — can make a big difference.
“They need to feel understood,” she said. “They need to feel like their story is important and they’re not alone.”
Warfield added that, similar to after other tragedies, it’s important to recognize warning signs that you or someone close to you is going through a hard time.
“It’s important to be honest and vulnerable with yourself and saying, ‘I know I’ve been struggling, how are you doing?’”
‘They Are Remembered And Not Forgotten’
As Oklahoma’s COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to mount in early October, Tulsa resident Toby Gregory wanted to do something to help honor those who had died.
Gregory is known around his community for his extravagant Halloween decorations, complete with tombstones and dancing skeletons.
Last fall, he decided to scrap those plans and instead decided to plant small white crosses in his yard on Tulsa’s Louisville Avenue to signify every Oklahoman who had died from COVID-19 at that time.
Soon, there were 500 crosses. Then 900. Then, at about 1,100 crosses, he ran out of room and supplies. That didn’t keep onlookers from checking out the display.
“A lot of people started coming around and it was like a ‘Field of Dreams’ type thing,” he said. “I was worried about the feedback cause it was still a bit of a political thing, but people would drive by, get out or just talk to me about who they lost.”
As fall turned to winter, however, the number of deaths continued to climb — and even faster than before. But the work wasn’t over.
In December, Gregory and a group of volunteers and community organizers found a new home for the memorial, which they had now called the Oklahoma COVID Remembrance Project, outside of Forest Park Christian Church in south Tulsa.
They proceeded to dig up the 1,000-plus crosses in his yard, constructed another thousand more and planted them in the new location. Over the course of the next few months, Gregory and the volunteers kept adding to the lot, eventually bringing the total to over 5,000 crosses.
“I did this so people would see the amount of loss we have and that the people who have lost someone will know they are just not a number on the TV screen,” he said. “They are remembered and not forgotten.”
On March 18, the one-year anniversary of Oklahoma’s first reported COVID-19 death, the project came to an end. After allowing anyone who had lost a loved one to take and bring a cross home, the memorial was dismantled.
Gregory said the project, which morphed from a small side project to one that gained media attention and attracted people from towns over, had run its course and was time to end.
But the project and its temporary nature highlights another challenge for those grieving COVID-19 losses: How do we remember and pay respect to those we have lost?
Warfield said a physical memorial can serve as a healing place for many since it validates their grief and shows they are not alone.
“We have different perspectives and beliefs about COVID-19 and how it changed out lives,” she said. “But if there was a tangible thing that symbolizes something about my loved one and their live, that can bring someone comfort.”
This is already being done in some communities, such as Norman, which has set up a small fence in Reaves to serve as a memorial wall for loved ones to hang reminders of those they lost.
But how to properly memorialize a tragedy that has killed more Americans than World War II, Korea and Vietnam is likely a question that will need to be addressed by civic and community leaders across the country in the months and years ahead.
Gurwitch said she hopes whatever memorials will be built in Oklahoma or elsewhere will look to the Oklahoma City National Memorial for inspiration.
“It really has set the standard on how do you commemorate and how do you remember in a way that is not only honoring loved lost ones and those impacted by the bombing,” she said, “but it also keeps an eye toward the future and how to make a better future.”