In this time of Covid-19 pandemic, there is now a third situation that plays out almost as if we are in a war zone. Our loved one is alone and visitors are not permitted, perhaps they are in a medically induced coma, doctors are unable to stay ahead of the symptoms, and if death occurs the body is whisked away. No vigil, no rituals, no goodbye, no ceremony, no hugs, no funeral gathering, no breaking bread together, just the pain of the loss, the loneliness and the grief. Guilt and what-ifs plague us.
Adding even more tension to this situation is the general anxiety level created through social isolation, financial stressors and political division. Whether a family is able to create a farewell to a loved one becomes fraught with uncertainty. Will the death feel less “important” to others if the honoring of a life is delayed?
Under more normal circumstances therapists can help the family make meaning of the loss through rituals and remembrances and shared stories and memories. Whether the death is due to the coronavirus or other factors, we are now challenged to help bridge the gap between the death loss and healthy grieving. Important to note: there is never an absolute timeline to grief and emotions will swing. With today's challenges, the bereaved may feel disconnected from their feelings or feel things even more intensely.
In many cultures and religions, once death has occurred, burial or cremation takes place as soon as possible, forcing the bereaved to absorb the reality of their new status. In recent years in the United States, the concept of a delayed service of remembrance or celebration of life has taken root, extending the period of mourning, but allowing time for adjustment. With quarantines and stay at home orders in place, the choices are limited and obituaries regularly note that a service will be scheduled at a later date.
During these first months of the pandemic, I’ve attended a socially distanced funeral, a Zoom remembrance service, and completely missed out on funerals I would have otherwise attended to console the bereaved. With these options in place, what can we suggest to help mourners feel, be seen and held?
At the time of death, those who sit with the dying might engage in music, prayers, and rituals that encourage spiritual connection. Different cultures might chant, drum, use incense or essential oils to calm the spirit. For those families whose loved ones are hospitalized but at the end of life, consider these types of rituals to be necessary for yourself as you say goodbye at a distance. Just as prayer is thought to help comfort and heal over the miles, so should it be that a loving farewell ritual can be performed without being physically present. Many professionals who work with end-of-life care note that the spirit/soul/essence of a person lingers immediately after death. For those at a distance when death occurs, allow those first hours to say goodbye; death may be a physical reality, but the mystery of the passage remains unknown.
Most likely, we will not be ready for the death. Denial and shock are common. Holding a tangible object is helpful at this time. The act of feeling an article of clothing, jewelry, a religious symbol, photo, or memento can help the mourner’s body to go through the trauma of bereavement. These transitional objects perform a real purpose.
Each county, state, country, will likely have specific guidelines regarding cremation or burial or even assemblies. Use friends and family to help make the announcement of how you plan to honor your loved one. Even as we learn to utilize internet gatherings we must ask for the comfort we need.
Clients have said to me that the worst time has been when the cards stop coming or feeling that no one cares or remembers the loss anymore because it has been a few months and the mourners are “supposed to be over it.” In fact, most people are afraid that the mention of the dead will make the bereaved feel worse. This is a false narrative; it is others who are afraid of witnessing tears or supporting those in pain. In this odd time, we must learn to advocate for ourselves.
For those who are grieving, here are some specifics: Ask for letters or emails from friends. Request donations go to a favorite charity. Spend time in nature recalling the bond with your loved one. Ask particular friends or family members to check in with you particularly on meaningful dates and let them know you will want to hear the name of your loved one. Write down the stories you want to remember and share them. Write a blog of your journey.
For those who are constrained by a stay-at-home mandate, constantly being reminded of the loss can be excruciating. After the first few weeks, consider creating a place in your home where grieving can be localized. Being able to feel your loved ones’ presence through pictures and objects or even ashes may be comforting; healthy grieving includes learning to accept the loss and carry the memories forward.
Understand that while the rituals surrounding death and burial are suspended, the loss is very real and possibly heightened by loneliness. Reach out to your community, your religious family, or your neighbors for support. Talk about your loved one and let others know that mentioning the name and the life brings your comfort.
As we adjust to the world that Covid has brought and taken away, we will face new challenges. Funerals may be postponed for months or longer. Family gatherings may be limited. We will need to conceive new ways of sharing memories and stories through social media and the written word. Creative rituals may be the new standard. And as we see the numbers climb, remember to speak the names. You are not alone.