In early 2020, CUI faculty member Erin Nelson was on maternity leave and itching to start a new research project, amidst diaper-changing and the round-the-clock care that comes with raising two small children, one a newborn. Dr. Nelson has a strong background in interpersonal communications in the healthcare arena, and when the unprecedented public health lockdowns began, she felt an urgency to dive in and study what was happening in society.
“I was in my two-month-old son’s room, breastfeeding and thinking, ‘God, there’s so much going on and I wish I was doing research,’” Nelson recalls. As if in response, an idea popped to mind for rallying a research team to study the role of communication during the crisis. “That definitely was not a thought I had on my own,” Nelson says. “It was divine intervention.”
Nelson, a Communication professor who also teaches in CUI’s Healthcare Administration program and is helping build Concordia’s Public Health master’s degree curriculum, posted an open invitation on social media to see if anyone was interested in partnering to research communication-related aspects of responses to the virus outbreak.
One of the first to respond was Dr. Cathi Sinardi, who directs CUI’s Master of Healthcare Administration program, and Master of Public Health program, and CUI’s two under-graduate Healthcare Management majors. Sinardi, like millions of parents, was suddenly homeschooling her children, ages 5 and 8, while also building CUI’s growing Healthcare Administration programs from her family’s home in Tennessee.
“I wanted to do research, but it had been so long that I did not know where to start,” Sinardi says. “Knowing Erin from teaching in our program, I admired her and her abilities. To see that post was such an opportunity. I felt blessed and commented immediately that I wanted to be involved.”
Collaborating, and being mothers who have full-time jobs, and accomplishing this level of research is amazing to me.
The group secured a small grant with which to pay participants to take a long survey with questions related to the experience of loss during the health-driven disruption. “We thought we would shed light on the collateral damage, emotionally and relation-ally, that was happening,” says Sinardi. “There was so much going on that it was unfolding right as we were doing our research.”
What surprised Sinardi most was “the amount of loss that people were dealing with at one time,” she says. “It was compound losses, over and over again. It was incredible to read through the responses where people talked about how they couldn’t go to a graduation. They lost their ability to socialize, to go out and get fresh air, their kids lost socializing in school and were dealing with a new way of virtual learning.”
The resulting paper reported that people not only experienced loss, but experienced many different losses at the same time. Their survey responses illuminated how they coped communally and individually, and whether their responses were maladaptive or helpful, Nelson says.
To the group’s surprise, the Journal of Health Communication, the top journal in that field, accepted and then published their research in February 2021. The paper, titled, “Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Compounded Loss and Coping during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” shares findings from the team’s survey of 257 North American participants about “the types of losses experienced due to COVID-19, feelings of guilt and delegitimization, communal coping, and general coping behaviors.” The authors concluded that because of the varying degrees of intensity of the losses of such things as a loved one, a job or a physical activity routine, “people felt guilty for grieving over their losses, and subsequently were less likely to appraise the losses as communal and more likely to utilize avoidant coping mechanisms on their own.” The paper then discussed public health implications of the findings.
“Publication happened way faster than I expected,” Nelson says. “Usually, it takes a very long time and you get rejected more often than you get accepted. To get accepted for the first one was an absolute surprise.”
Kids on Zoom
Just as remarkable is that the team did it in the throes of rearing young children. All but one author was raising small children while participating in the research project. One was also pregnant.
“On our Zoom meetings, there were little kids screaming in the background, asking for snacks, me yelling down the hall, I’m changing a diaper but I’m still listening,’” Nelson says. “It was a free-for-all, absolutely. That’s doing research as a mom.”
Kids made many appearances in the meetings, says Sinardi, and the mute button was liberally used.
“One person would be breastfeeding, another pushing pause and jumping up to tear their kids apart from fighting,” Sinardi remembers. “This group could understand each other. If someone said, ‘I have to go: The PBS show ran out. The YouTube is over. Their tablet died,’ we understood that.” Naptime was priceless research time, and there were some late nights. “After the kids went to bed and [my Concordia] work was done, then came the research,” says Sinardi.
Sometimes the foursome was editing the same online document at the same time — each from the different time zone in which she lived. “The aspect of collaborating, and being mothers who have full-time jobs, and accomplishing this level of research is amazing to me, and I’m proud of that,” Sinardi says.
Nelson adds that the main reason she thoroughly loves working at CUI is the value placed on work-life balance.
“I can be a researcher, a teacher and a mom,” she says. “Concordia has the most amazing work-life balance I’ve ever seen, and has given me the ability to be a teacher and focus on my research, all while balancing my family. It’s the number one reason I work here.”
It’s very clear that God had a hand in driving this the whole way.
Nelson also says she enjoyed this particular research more than anything she’s done before.
“This was the first time I was really passionate, motivated and felt empowered by the research,” she says. “I was using my critical thinking skills to evaluate what was going on from a communication standpoint with the media, government agencies, as well as the interpersonal side. I’m especially fascinated by how families operate. That’s what drove me.”
The achievement also highlights the value of cross-school collaboration at Concordia, which “speaks to the community we have here,” Sinardi says.
Not to mention that two CUI authors helped produce research published in a leading peer-reviewed journal — and being presented at two conferences as well — which “is incredibly important, and shows what a great institution we have,” says Nelson.
The team now has three more papers either published or under review by significant journals. The new and additional research deals with loss and conflict within families during the societal response to COVID.
“It’s very clear that God had a hand in driving this the whole way,” Sinardi says. “It’s been such a blessing and an incredible journey.”