This is what grieving during the coronavirus looks like

Trigger warning: This article discusses grief.

When her grandfather was hospitalized for over a month earlier this year, Tawni C.—a 31-year-old general manager of a restaurant living in Kirkland, Washington—knew he might not survive. “He had serious health issues, including an autoimmune disease, and was just overall unhealthy. He had also suffered several small strokes,” she tells HelloGiggles. So when he passed away on February 2, Tawni felt peace in the knowledge that he was no longer suffering. But that peace was short-lived, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic soon started to spread throughout the United States, making holding a funeral for her grandfather impossible.

“We still have not been able to gather as a family and with friends to celebrate the life of Nick Herberger, Sr.,” Tawni says. “We are not able to reminisce and laugh and cry and hug one another to share this burden of grief.” 

Tawni is not alone in this problem. Currently, a reported 316 million Americans are sheltering in place, so many of us are going long periods of time without touching other human beings or only spending time around the people we live with. For those who are mourning, this means not being able to have a funeral or other traditional ceremony and not being able to find comfort in the presence of others when grieving.

“Loneliness and isolation are a giant cause of suffering for grieving people,” explains Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and author specializing in grief and loss. “And community is our best chance for survival when things go sideways.”

Right now, a sense of community is difficult to come by, and loneliness and isolation are steadily increasing alongside the country’s death toll. As of April 30th, more than 61,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, a virus strain reportedly 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu. The loss of life is staggering, but, of course, it does not include the number of people who die every day from unrelated causes, like cancer or overdoses. With so many deaths and major cities inundated with the sound of ambulance sirens, it’s difficult not to exist in a perpetual state of mourning. But, due to safety protocols and social-distancing practices meant to help mitigate the virus’s spread, expressing that grief has turned out to be much more complicated than in the past.

“One of the things that’s really tricky about this time, during this pandemic and isolation, is that even in the best-case scenario, we’re missing touch and normalcy,” says Devine. Losing someone while we’re grieving the loss of that normalcy “reorders the world” again, she adds, “so we’re adding instability on top of instability.”

According to an American Psychiatric Association poll, 36% of U.S. citizens feel that the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, and the pandemic is expected to cause a spike in depression and anxiety among the population. Since the unexpected death of a loved one can cause or exacerbate numerous mental health disorders, many people experiencing a loss right now are finding that it’s compounded the already-harsh emotional ramifications of this public health crisis.

Bonnie L., a 33-year-old operations supervisor at a mutual fund in Colorado Springs, recently lost her friend and co-worker to a drug overdose. Since the funeral and reception were canceled because gatherings of 10 or more people were banned, she’s had to find creative alternatives for mourning her loss. Returning to nature—where her friend loved to be—has been key to helping her grieve.

“I’ve gone out into the woods and have said out loud what I would have wanted to tell her in a letter or in my thoughts at a funeral or wake, which has helped me be at peace,” Bonnie tells HelloGiggles. “Just because you’re not able to hold a public celebration of life or a funeral doesn’t mean you can’t remember that person on your own.”  

As Bonnie learned, a traditional ceremony is not the only option when it comes to memorializing someone. Just like how students are adjusting to e-learning and employees are transitioning to working from home, grieving people are having to find new ways to honor their loved ones’ lives. One option Devine recommends is to engage in what she refers to as “parallel play” through technology, i.e. holding virtual ceremonies where “attendees” can play songs that remind them of the person they’ve lost. Some people have even attended virtual shivas and funerals, where they can view the small, real-life ceremony via Zoom, Skype, or other online services. This way, they’re able to share their thoughts about the person who has passed with others who are grieving, too. 

There’s also always the option of holding a more traditional ceremony later on. “You don’t ‘miss your window’ to have a memorial. You don’t miss your window to sit shiva,” says Devine. “When we come together again, you can give your person the send-off that they wanted or the send-off you think they deserve.”

“You can do a do-over—we just don’t know when that can be,” she continues.

And no matter how you mourn, you can take time to bond with others having the same experiences, like Bonnie is doing while grieving her friend. “I still think about her daily and continue to hear about others who have dealt with similar situations,” she says. “That makes it easier because we’re essentially all in similar positions without the ability to hold funerals. But it’s upsetting nonetheless.”

For Tawni, meanwhile, thinking about the hopefully pandemic-free future has helped her deal with her grief over her grandfather. “I am just waiting for the day when we can celebrate his life together as friends and family,” she says. “I don’t want him to be forgotten in all of this.” 

If you or someone you know and love has lost someone during this unprecedented time, you can reach out to the national support group at Grief Speaks, access information, resources and grief support through NAMI, What’s Your Grief, Modern Loss, Refuge in Grief, or the Grief Resource Network.

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