The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed so many aspects of our lives. We’re not just worried about higher-order needs now – the temporary loss of shared restaurant meals, professional sporting events, spring break travel with families – but we’re worried about basic needs, like our jobs, our income, the survival of our small businesses. Even worse is the stark reality that lives are being lost – we are actually losing family members, work colleagues and friends.
The circumstances surrounding loved ones who are dying are deeply troubling. Because of social distancing, some who fall ill are perishing alone: hospitals are prohibiting visitors, and ambulances are largely barring family members from accompanying those who have emergent medical needs. We are essentially helpless to comfort our sick loved ones, which fuels our despair. And if the worst-case occurs, and our loved one passes away, we are no longer able to launch rituals we typically evoke to say our farewells; we cannot sit shiva or attend funerals or visit bereaved families and friends to express our sadness and pay our last respects.
As anyone who has lost a loved one can attest, grief can be deeply isolating and bewildering. While everyone reacts differently to grief, for most, the world is suddenly a surreal, barely familiar place. Normalcy has vanished, and with our familiar routines shattered during sheltering in place, we cannot turn to our old habits and activities to soothe ourselves. Activities that define us – our jobs, our hobbies, our extracurricular activities – are unattainable or available in deeply modified ways, so our reliable ‘rocks’ may not be able to help us. Our grief at this time is effectively compounded; we are grieving many things at once.
What can we do to help ourselves process this multi-faceted grief? We offer a few suggestions below.
Modify grieving rituals
With gatherings out of the question, we cannot practice ‘normal’ rituals like funerals and sitting shiva, which would otherwise give us a short-term purpose and allow us to share poignant and meaningful moments with others. Ritual and ceremony have the power to soothe us and give us closure. If you are sheltering in place with family members, you can honor your loved one with a private ad hoc memorial over a shared at-home meal or an evening with shared memories and photo-sharing. If possible, consider holding a virtual memorial, perhaps involving some type of personal touch that feels appropriate to represent or symbolize the person you lost.
Avoid feelings of guilt
The helplessness we feel during this time can also bring on guilt; in our culture, we do not like helplessness because it means we lack control. Try to avoid falling into the guilt trap; you did all you could for your loved one.
Be kind to yourself
Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can. Your ‘rocks’ — job, life, routine – have all been jumbled, and on top of that, you have suffered heartbreak. 1960’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross established a model of how people emotionally respond to grief. Originally presented as a five-stage model of grief, encompassing denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance; since then, we’ve adjusted the model, learning that the stages are not linear, but rather wave-like, and deeply personal. Post-acceptance may involve post-traumatic stress as well. As we feel these emotional responses, remember that they are normal, individual, organic and absolutely acceptable. Let’s allow ourselves to move through the stages at our own pace, and not blame ourselves when we cannot always stay strong or need extra time to heal.
Reach out to others
Ironically, at a time of mourning, when we need social connection, empathy and compassion more than ever, we cannot physically connect with each other or seek out in-person human interaction. Now is the time to call or text or skype or facetime; post on social media; reach out to friends and family members. Grief sometimes makes us distance ourselves; if this sounds like you, treat these calls as if they were appointments so you know you’ll keep them. Share stories and recollections about your lost loved one and grieve in the (virtual) company of those who understand your loss.
Connect with mental health services
Grieving under difficult circumstances may mean developing complicated grief, which can be prolonged and potentially disruptive to normal functioning. Isolation adds to this risk. In these cases, it may be time to reach out to mental health professionals for customized treatment after COVID-19 has subsided. In the meantime, immediate support services are available! We have several on-line support groups and programs led by trained professionals.
Please consider joining one of our virtual mental health support groups to learn about the remote options we’re offering; they are, as always, free to participants.