Grief in the age of coronavirus

Posted 5/5/20

Everyone’s life has been turned upside down during this time of coronavirus; I’d bet that none of us know a single person who hasn’t been affected. Everything has had to be …

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Grief in the age of coronavirus


Everyone’s life has been turned upside down during this time of coronavirus; I’d bet that none of us know a single person who hasn’t been affected. Everything has had to be redefined: school, family life, work, health and safety, fitness, personal restrictions, financial concerns—there really has been no part of our lives that hasn’t been affected—and death and dying is no exception.

Death hasn’t stopped because the world is in lockdown. People are still dying from natural causes, and of course, COVID-19 is hastening the deaths of many. What has changed? Many are dying alone and grief rituals are, by necessity, quite different or postponed indefinitely. How can we adjust to that? Yet, adjust we must.

If your loved one is hospitalized, dying with COVID-19, you won’t be permitted to sit at their bedside for comfort for you or for them. They will die alone with perhaps an overworked, compassionate medical person at their side. If your loved one dies during this time, you won’t be able to have a traditional funeral. You will be at the mercy of your state’s procedures.

If your loved one is hospitalized with COVID-19 or some other reason, you will not be permitted to visit and you will be worried about their safety with other COVID-19 patients in the building. This can be worrisome, but worry will not help you: be positive, have faith, stay calm. Your goal is to let your loved one know you care about them even though you are caring from a distance. What can you do from a distance? Try FaceTime or another video chat option. Visit through a window, if possible. Hold a candlelight vigil on the lawn. Send an email, or even mail a letter or card if they will be there a few days. Call, but be considerate. A patient in a hospital is happy to get any sleep when the getting is good; you won’t want to wake them up.

If a friend or loved one has passed away in this age of coronavirus, I am sorry for your loss and know it must be painful in new and confusing ways resulting from the restrictions we are living under, in addition to the usual pain of losing someone important to you. You have a decision to make: Will you be frustrated by things you can’t control or take control of the things you can? It won’t be easy, but you will struggle less if you choose the latter.

Some people are holding Zoom memorial services and funerals where people can attend virtually from their homes. I know of a woman whose husband died and the family is planning a graveside, drive-by service. There can be up to 10 vehicles and everyone must remain in them.

Others are opting to postpone the funeral until the restrictions are lifted. This is great for logistics, but how are people managing the grieving process? A death has occurred and friends and loved ones enter a holding pattern with no experience of how to negotiate that and no knowledge of when restrictions will be lifted.

What is important is that you work through denial, the typical first stage of grief. It is hard to believe it’s happened. You may find it particularly difficult if you were unable to view a body. As morbid as it sounds, you might benefit from seeing pictures of the deceased if you are having trouble accepting your loved one is dead. Write your loved one a letter… include all the things you would have liked to say to them but couldn’t. What you do with the letter is your choice: throw it away, tear it up, burn it or bury it in a time capsule.

Don’t waste time, energy and effort raging against coronavirus and its corresponding restrictions for you and death toll for others. These are two things in your life you have no control over. The way to manage your grief is with acceptance and a shift from focusing on what you’ve lost and look, instead, to the privilege you had in sharing your life with this person. For this, I love Dr. Seuss’s quote: “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

One of the purposes of grief is to keep the person you lost active in your mind—this is why you can’t stop thinking about them. Put that time to good use by thinking about what you can do, either privately or publicly, to memorialize this person in a way that would be helpful for you and generate positive emotions.

If you are feeling guilty because you couldn’t be with your loved one as they died, forgive yourself. You did the only thing you could. It wasn’t your fault. You can also remind yourself about how you showed your love and respect for this person before they died. They left this world knowing how much you cared by all the things you shared during your lives, not by those few days at the end.

Without the rituals, this process will feel cold and strange, but allow people to comfort you in their way. People will call. They will leave you food. They will make attempts to comfort you because it’s what they need to do. I know of one woman whose tribe showed up at her home at the same time to hold a candlelight vigil, observing social distancing outside her window, when her father passed away from COVID-19. It wasn’t a standard funeral, but it provided beautiful, healing comfort.

Try not to focus on what coronavirus stole from you and instead, relax into the new normal of what grief looks like during this time. And if you are waiting to bury your loved one, be patient. This will not last forever.

grief, coronavirus


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