Grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19
May 27, 2020
Working through the grief process is difficult whenever we lose someone close to us. But coping and healing after a death related to the coronavirus is even more complicated.
Taking someone off life support, not saying goodbye or not holding a funeral can bring on feelings similar to those experienced after a trauma. While you are coping with strain and anxiety, the inundation of COVID-19 news is a constant reminder of the cause of your sadness and loss. Also, due to stay-at-home orders and shutdowns, the usual ways we cope with stress — hobbies, self-care, physically being with family or friends, and doing enjoyable activities — may not be available to us. All these factors make bereavement a much greater challenge and call for extra care and consideration for your well-being while grieving.
I recently started a Grief Support Group for those who have lost a family member at UChicago Medicine to COVID-19. These weekly Zoom meetings are designed to allow participants to support each other, connect over similarities and discuss strategies to interact with feelings. In grief counseling, the goal is not to make the feelings go away, but to learn how to cope.
If you have lost someone to COVID-19, these strategies may be helpful:
Observe, name and acknowledge the feelings that come up around the loss
There may be a “storm” of emotions that threaten to blow you away, and that’s normal. Breathing slowly in addition to focusing on your breath are ways that you can “drop an anchor” in this emotional storm. Ups and downs are expected in the grief journey and we can get carried away by them at times. At any time or place, we can always access our breath and body. What are the things that can bring you back into the present moment?
Exercise some self-compassion
It is tempting to blame ourselves for various aspects of the loss, judge ourselves for the way we are responding, or lose patience with our own journey of healing. However, this often serves to increase our suffering. What if we were to show ourselves some kindness? Try placing your hand over your heart and remind yourself that you are human, you are grieving and you will move through the pain. What type of compassion would you give to a friend or family member if they were struggling?
Engage in self-care
Take care of yourself during this time despite the limitations of the shut-down. We may need to be a little creative since the usual hobbies and self-care strategies are not available to us. Consider what helps you to relax, feel nourished in mind and body, and what is enjoyable. Some examples are taking a brief walk outside, journaling, drawing a bath, watching your favorite movie, etc. Eating healthy food, exercising and creating a flexible schedule are also important even if you don’t have the desire or urge to do so.
Remember and honor your loved one in creative ways
It can be easy to get lost in recalling the traumatic circumstances surrounding a death from COVID 19: not being able to say goodbye; maybe your loved one on a ventilator; having to make life/death decisions for your family member; the death happening fast; perhaps being sick ourselves; and/or feeling guilty about what we should have or could have done. These are a normal responses. However, it is helpful to find ways to reminisce about the deceased loved one, including both the “good” and “bad” times. What did that person value? What did you value about the person? What were their hobbies or interests? What impact did they have on you? These can be powerful healing rituals when you engage in conversations with others who knew and loved the person. Think about setting up a phone call or virtual gathering to celebrate your loved one.
Reach out for support
Turning into ourselves during grief often feels natural but this can lead to isolation. The grief journey can be much more bearable when you connect with others for support. Reach out to family or friends who you feel will listen. You can also request that they listen to you rather than attempting to problem solve. Just having validation and love is important during these times. You may also want to consider joining an online grief support group, seeking out individual counseling or reaching out to a hotline to guide you through this difficult time.