Shine a Light Alabama offers model for communities to acknowledge grief and honor lives lost during pandemic

On Saturday, a group of volunteers supported Shine a Light Alabama, a community-based effort of remembrance and healing the losses from the pandemic by preparing hundreds of canvas and paper bags with resources designed to help families, neighborhoods, and communities wanting to participate in remembrance activities honoring the lives lost during the pandemic. Created by Alabama Forward, a network of community-based organizations, Shine a Light Alabama is based on the idea that communities can take steps toward memorialization and healing with simple and safe actions. "As a civic engagement coalition, our work is often focused on voter registration, district mapping, and the fairness of our election systems,” Evan Milligan, executive director of Alabama Forward, said. “However, commitment to the people living in our communities drives everything we do. If our neighbors are overwhelmed by grief and illness, then invitations to participate more actively in democracy are less of a priority. Shine a Light Alabama seeks to meet our neighbors where they are, with helpful resources they may not have already found. We're modeling what we think responsive democracy should look like.” Saying goodbye to loved ones is never easy, but the pandemic severely altered how families and friends said goodbye to their loved ones or held memorials to honor lives lost. Many have grieved alone, a far cry from the typical cultural and community rituals that support people in mourning. That is true for families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 as well as to other causes throughout the pandemic. More than 11,000 Alabamians have died of COVID-19. “The typical processes of grief and community response have been interrupted. But the need to honor lives lost and for the larger community to recognize those losses is real. People do care. But with common responses dampened by the pandemic, we need ways to step into the void. To tend to grief in visible and shared ways. We had to create a flexible toolkit to respond to that need—safely,” said Amanda Hiley, project manager for Alabama Forward. “People do care. We need ways to show that with some unity and shared sense of compassion and loss. We hope community groups, families, neighborhoods and faith communities will pick the model and creatively and safely put it to work in their communities,” Hiley said. “We could all use some empathy and connection right now.” Communities are encouraged to visit, which features a video, downloadable resource guides in English, Spanish and Korean, as well as links to healthcare and vaccine information, grief support, and mental wellness resources. A memorial wall where people can add a photo of an object that uniquely reminds them of the loved one they lost is also available on the website. This effort recognizes the losses of life due to COVID, but also to other causes throughout the isolation of the pandemic. “There is a tendency to believe that thoughts are completely rational and true in the moment — when in reality, they are just thoughts,” said Megan Hays, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Hays says cognitive behavioral therapy, first introduced by psychologist Aaron Beck in the 1960s, is a type of psychotherapy that proposes a person’s mood and feelings are impacted by their thoughts and behaviors. One of the strategies of CBT is to identify and overcome cognitive distortions and replace them with new, more helpful thoughts. Hays presents five thinking traps, which she identifies as common negative cognitive distortions, and offers examples of how to use CBT to avoid these traps. Trap No. 1: All-or-nothing thinking “This thinking style is often termed as black-and-white thinking and is one of the most common traps,” Hays said. “It involves thinking in extremes, such as saying to yourself, ‘The presentation was either a total success or a complete failure,’ or, ‘I am either great at my job or I am horrible.’” Hays says the antidote to this thinking trap is to be more flexible in the interpretation of the situation. •Example: “I only have 20 minutes to exercise today, so I just won’t work out at all since I don’t have my usual hour.” •Replace with: “Something is always better than nothing. It is better to exercise for 20 minutes than not at all.” Trap No. 2: Catastrophizing This thinking trap involves focusing on the worst possible outcome of a situation, and not on the most likely or probable outcome. The solution for catastrophizing is simple: De-catastrophizing. “Once the worst-case scenario has been assessed, ask what the realistic odds are that the worst fear will come true,” Hays said. “Then, look at other possible outcomes, and consider how to cope, even if the worst happened.” •Example: “I haven’t heard from my partner in three hours — he could be dead!” •Replace with: “He is probably just busy at work. There have been many times in the past that I worried when I didn’t hear from him, but nothing horrible ever happened.” Trap No. 3: Emotional reasoning This thinking trap involves seeing feelings or emotions as the truth, regardless of the objective evidence. Just because one feels useless does not mean they are. How to break free of emotional reasoning? “Remember that feelings are not facts, and tap into logical reasoning skills by examining the objective evidence for and against the automatic negative thoughts,” Hays said. •Example: “I feel really anxious on this plane ride, so I think something bad is about to happen.” •Replace with: “Feelings are not facts. I have been on many plane rides in the past, and nothing bad has ever happened. The odds of being in a plane crash are less than one in 10 million. I can accept my feelings of anxiety without believing something awful will happen.” Trap No. 4: Mind reading “Mind reading is assuming that someone is thinking something negative, without having any definitive evidence,” Hays said. “This can often lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, when the other person picks up on your odd behavior.” Realize that no one can read minds and one can never really know what others are thinking unless they say it. •Example: “My boss hasn’t responded to my second email requesting information. She must think I am so annoying. I am probably her least favorite employee.” •Replace with: “She has been especially busy lately and is probably having to prioritize all of the items on her to-do list. I can think of many examples of times when my boss was very responsive to me in the past, and there is no reason to believe that she does not like me.” Trap No. 5: Overgeneralization When encountering difficult situations, it is easy to fall victim to overgeneralizing when it is assumed that it is going to happen again every time, or that a single negative event is part of a series of unending negative events. “If you find yourself thinking, ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ or, ‘How typical — I’m just an unlucky person,’ you may be caught up in the thinking trap of overgeneralization,” Hays said. “Overcome this trap by removing terms such as “always,” “never,” “everybody” and “nobody,” and look for any exceptions to the statement.” •Example: “That date was horrible. I am a terrible dater who will never find love.” •Replace with: “I am probably overgeneralizing. I’ve been on some fun dates, so this doesn’t happen every single time, and it’s very possible that it won’t happen next time either.” Hays says the bottom line is, by using cognitive behavioral therapy, one can transform their thoughts, and potentially change how they feel and how they ultimately behave, for the better.