The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives on so many levels but for those who have died, it has changed how we are able to mourn the death of our loved ones. Social distancing has made it so that people are unable to grieve their loved ones in traditional ways because of viewing and visiting restrictions. Many families have been unable to attend funerals and memorial services have been canceled or delayed, which is leaving families left to grieve alone.
“This is unprecedented. It’s compared to 9/11 in terms of the intensity, but it’s more than that. These newly widowed people become one of the many. And their person is a piece of the larger tragedy—they are a number,” said Michele Neff Hernandez, founder and executive director of Soaring Spirits International, an international organization that creates and maintains peer-based grief support programs for widowed men and women worldwide.
“When the spouse can’t be present at the end of their loved one’s life, they’re haunted by the idea that their person didn’t remember why they were alone. They ask themselves, did they feel neglected or unloved at the end?” says Manhattan-based psychotherapist Danielle Jonas.
“These survivors feel guilt: They should have gotten (their spouse) to the hospital sooner, they should have taken their symptoms more seriously. They may wonder and worry if they brought the virus home to their loved one.”
The loss experienced by those widowed in the pandemic is also complicated by its unanticipated nature, according to Laura Takacs, clinical director for grief services at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. “It’s imperative to understand that for many of these widows and widowers, this is not just grief. This is trauma.”
When a death occurs, there is comfort found in the rituals of our community and culture. Mourning rituals such as memorials, wakes, and sitting shiva gather community support for the bereaved and help people integrate the loss into their life. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPO), without these rituals and the opportunity to be in the presence of the person who has died, see the casket or urn, and be around other people grieving the deceased, it can be harder for those grieving to make sense of the loss and eventually accept that their loved one has died.
Without this element of face-to-face support and left alone in quarantine, people experiencing losses may suffer more and grieve longer. To add to the stress, people are experiencing many other losses beyond the death of a loved one including the loss of a job, savings, sense of identity, and more.
As of this writing, there is no clear cut answer as to when the social distancing and quarantines will be lifted and to delay grief until a gathering can take place is not healthy and can lead to long-term physical and psychological challenges. Instead of holding grief in, we need to find new ways to go through the grieving process and say goodbye to your loved one within the limits of social distancing. As you move through the process, be remember to recognize that the funeral/memorial is only delayed and not canceled.
Here are a few ideas about how to still do that:
- Since many funeral homes/churches are allowing less than 10 close family members, if any at all, at the graveside or in the funeral home/church, think about the video or live-streaming the service for a larger family/community or have a procession of cars driven by the family to pay their respects.
- Create an online tribute/obit where people could add memories, share condolences. Many funeral homes already have those in place.
- Have family prepare a video of pics to music to share via email or online.
- Utilize virtual memorial sites to share pictures and post tributes.
Generate a plan for coping. Ask yourself how you usually take care of yourself during a difficult time and modify these to work in the current situation. It’s vitally important to avoid withdrawing from friends in your grief even though we can’t support each other in person at this time. Remember that you don’t have to be alone.
- Reach out as much as you can to family members through phone calls and video platforms to share memories or simply cry together.
- Start a text chain with close family or friends for continued check-in.
- Make phone appointments with friends or family to keep in contact.
- Moderate your news intake around fears related to the pandemic.
- Identify and acknowledge any thoughts feelings that arise and let yourself move through them.
- Write out your feelings, keeping a private journal for your eyes only, or writing a tribute to share with loved ones.
- Write a letter to the deceased.
- Make a music playlist or create a video slide show to share or for the future memorial service.
- Create a memory box
- Engage in rituals that will allow you to express your grief now…light a candle, plant a tree, or cook your love one’s favorite meal.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out to the professionals. Online grief support, therapy or make an appointment with your physician as needed
- There are also many grief-related online resources and social media groups that you can utilize.
Above all, practice self-compassion, allow yourself to have a good cry, and take good care of your mind and body during this challenging time.