Our lives have changed unimaginably during these unprecedented times. Each news announcement was met with disbelief, anger, sorrow, and a sense that life as we know it was being chipped away a little at a time. Some people may feel like an island, straining to stay in contact during isolation. Others may feel like they’re drowning, struggling to stay afloat financially, emotionally, and mentally. Still others are frantically pushing forward, attempting to block out the noise as they strive to keep a sense of “normal” in their lives. If, in the midst of this fundamental shift, you have experienced the death of a loved one, you have learned all too well that grief doesn’t care what else is going on in the world.
Perhaps it is a parent in a nursing home, or a spouse in the hospital. Maybe it is an entirely different disease where, under normal circumstances, you would have been able to spend time with them. Perhaps it was completely unexpected, a car accident or instant heart attack. We also recognize that suicide rates have been escalated during this Pandemic, and the pain that follows can radiate into every aspect of your life. You may have had to face the loss of a sibling, or a very dear friend. Regardless of your specific circumstances, we want to acknowledge the unfairness that surrounded their death.
The very first step after death during COVID is to acknowledge that you have already been battling grief, perhaps unacknowledged, for life events that have had to be fundamentally changed. Weddings, graduations, vacations, annual community events, and holidays; by the time this virus is controlled, more than a year might have passed with these missed events. You also may be more isolated from family, not being able to see them and engage in normal routines. This first grief has been weighing on you for months. Then, a death occurs.
Due to COVID, it is very likely that you have not been able to have the type of funeral you wanted, or more importantly, that your loved one deserved. There was probably a limit on the number of people allowed to attend, if anyone was able to at all. And due to travel restrictions, family and friends weren’t always able to be there. Maybe you, yourself, couldn’t get to the service. The limitations on physical contact also make it very hard to feel the comfort your family, and community, typically gives you. Finally, we also want to recognize that if you have already experienced a similar loss in years past; this death might feel completely different from the expectations you had for it, which can be frightening and uncomfortable during your grief journey.
In exploring all of the feelings, emotions, and physical responses that are associated with grief, we want to offer a few ways to connect with your family and friends, outside of the old norms, to create a way to express your grief and share memories of your loved one. If you’re used to a huge wake or reception where generations of family reconnect and share stories, it is devastating not to get that opportunity. If you expected the community to come together and crowd the funeral home and cemetery (as you did for other community members), it is extremely upsetting that your loved one isn’t getting the respect and admiration that they so deserved. Or, if you anticipated a small, intimate gathering of close family and friends, it is distressing that those few cannot make it due to the circumstances of travel, or safety, which is well beyond their control, but still hurts deeply.
So what can you do to better experience a similar type of support and connection that you had assumed would be there when your time of need came? First, we highly recommend setting up a weekly Zoom or video call with a group of trusted family or friends (or both). Find a day and time that works for most people, and create a standing meeting. Let them know that they are welcome to come and go during the hour you have set-aside. If they share a connection to your loved one, this can be a good time to both share memories of them, and also get to catch-up on each other’s lives. If they don’t share a connection to your loved one, that’s ok too. You can still share your feelings and emotions with them as you walk through the “after death” parts, such as sorting and selling belongings, facing holidays or anniversaries, and in general figuring out your new day-to-day life.
Another recommendation, particularly if you aren’t overly comfortable with technology, is to send emails or handwritten letters to those people who you know share in your grief. If you lost your spouse, you could send letters to your grandchildren, talking about how much their grandfather loved them, and asking for them to send back their favorite memories. If it was your parent who passed, perhaps you can email their friends asking for them to tell stories of the adventures they shared. Look for connections that can be created to help you laugh, cry, and learn new things about your loved one. This does place an initial burden on you to reach out, and if that is too much during the immediate aftermath of your loss, it is completely understandable. Tuck this idea away for when you do feel strong enough to proceed.
Finally, we also want to encourage you to explore speaking with a therapist if you simply find yourself so overwhelmed by grief, isolation, anger, sadness, frustration, or the dozens of other emotions that can make the loss of a loved one so hard. Virtual therapists are available in a variety of ways if you are unable to leave your home, do not want to risk physical contact, or simply want someone to talk to who can be available at any time, day or night. This can be new territory, and it is ok to keep looking if the first few people you talk with don’t seem to provide you with the support you are looking to receive.
We sincerely hope that these ideas for creating ways to express and share your grief during this Pandemic have been helpful. We know that not experiencing the expected family and community support during this time is both distressing and can cause resentment to build. In exploring new ways to connect, we hope you can find a way to share your sorrow, honor your loved one, and strengthen connections with the other people who are also mourning their death. May you be able to come together, even if it must be virtually, to share memories, tears, and laughter, as you all move through your own pain.