Pandemic stress has a psychological component that affects people in many ways. That includes those who are grieving. Normally, after the death of a loved one, the world seems to stop for those left behind. Grief isolates and provides a period for processing loss. Grief after traumatic circumstances — devastating illness or injury; sudden death that leaves no time to say goodbye; murder; suicide; man-made or natural disasters that take many lives — adds complex layers. But what happens to those who are grieving during a pandemic, a traumatic horror in itself? With so many deaths around us from COVID-19 and the deaths that would occur even without the pandemic, how are these sorrows mourned? Is grief itself changed because of what is going on now?
The most obvious answer centers on how loved ones die from the virus and what restrictions govern the custom of families gathering for comfort and funerals. Dying alone or in hospital but unable to be surrounded by family members, the need for careful handling of bodies in often limited space, and a limit on how and when services can be held as well as who may attend has changed the oldest customs we have. Medical workers are trying to fill in the gap, taking on the role of “family” as best they can. Connecting through technology can help, but these changes are enormous and very difficult to bear.
Deaths from other causes and terminal diagnoses continue whether we have a declared emergency or not. Families may not live near each other as they often did in the past, and when they do, they are limited in how they can help each other under current conditions. Getting creative to stay in contact does help, and these efforts do lift spirits. The main thing to remember is that people need to know they are not forgotten. A phone call or text is important, especially when displayed effects of grieving are met with kindness.
Due to extreme isolation, increased safety measures, and all the attention put on the special circumstances we are enduring now is changing the grief experience in other important ways.
Without physical touch and the freedom to go where we want to go, reaching out for support becomes harder, especially for those living alone. Being alone after decades with a significant other or losing a precious child or other family member or friend comes with shock that requires extra nurturing and continuing support. Getting out there virtually may be the best we can do right now, even for appointments with doctors or counselors, but remembering this is temporary may help.
The pandemic crisis may exaggerate numbness (another symptom of grief) even toward the pandemic and its coverage. For most of us, recent changes have brought hardship and shock, but those who are grieving may suffer more pain than they think they can bear … or they may wonder why they don’t seem to care much about the human suffering going on around them. Both extremes are normal grief responses exacerbated by circumstance. A little encouragement and providing help lines and reassurance can go a long way in helping. Make sure they know they can call anytime.
Grief affects the mind. Forgetfulness, weeping, anxiety and depression are all things that can make people feel unwell. They may fear they are “losing” their minds. Loss brings changes, most of them painful and confusing. Often it seems that will be a permanent state, which is very discouraging. New survivors may feel it isn’t fair that the world is focused on the pandemic when their own worlds have collapsed, or they may see what is happening as a tearing away of their time to mourn. They feel what they feel. These feelings can change from moment to moment. Many words spoken by a stranger, casual acquaintance, or someone closer, well-intentioned or not, may only add to the level of pain. A better option would be to admit you do not know what they feel but you care.
Trying to go to work as an essential part of the nation’s structure or work from home, care for children or handle finances and legal matters create difficult balancing acts. A pandemic, with its shortage of supplies, puts undue stress on everyone. Trying to figure out why a loved one died the way he or she did can lead to many hours of searching the moments of the past for things that could have been done differently. Finality and recognition that they did not have the control over their lives and their loved ones that they thought they did takes time to accept.
As with the current pandemic, there is no cure for grief. No one else can take on the task, but survival is possible.