Dr. Shear’s Work Widely Shared on China’s Tomb-Sweeping Day

April 14, 2020 @ 9:10 pm

As the impact of COVID-19 continued to alter lives worldwide this spring, Dr. M. Katherine Shear’s work on complicated grief found a new audience in China.

China’s annual celebration of Qingming, known in English as Tomb-Sweeping Day, is usually a time when Chinese families visit the graves of their deceased relatives, burn some “spirit money,” and sweep the tombs as a sign of respect, leaving behind food and other tributes.

But this year the holiday, which fell on April 4, was declared a national day of mourning in honor of the thousands of Chinese who had died from the coronavirus pandemic. Many families were unable to travel to their ancestors’ graves in any case because of cemeteries being closed, and most families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic do not yet have gravesites for them. Normal grieving rites including burials and funerals have been suspended because of the government’s ban on large gatherings in hard-hit cities like Wuhan.

As this year’s Qingming approached, China Newsweekly and China Philanthropist magazine reached out to Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry M. Katherine Shear of our School, who is the founding director of the Center for Complicated Grief. With the help of the Columbia Global Center in Beijing, they arranged to interview her about her pioneering work on grief. They asked her to share her insights on coping with loss under such difficult conditions—ranging from loss of routines and the lives all of us were living before the pandemic struck, to the loss of loved ones who have succumbed to the disease.

The two Chinese media outlets also talked to Shear about her collaborative project with Chinese psychologists at Beijing Normal University to understand and treat bereaved individuals. Since the pandemic broke out, Shear’s colleagues at Beijing Normal University’s Faculty of Psychology have been providing support and guidance to grief counselors who are staffing a hotline to support those bereaved by COVID-19. On April 10, Shear gave a lecture to those counselors, all of whom are graduates of the first training program for professional grief counselors in China.

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