Even under the best circumstances, coping with grief and loss after the death of a loved one is difficult. The world shatters around us and the things we thought we knew about life are called into question.
During the time of a a raging pandemic, such as the one we’re experiencing now with the coronavirus, everything we thought we knew about grief is called into question. How can you properly grieve the loss of a loved one when they were alone in their final moments and you weren’t allowed to be by their side? How can you find closure when there are no more funerals?
Due to the infectious nature of the coronavirus and its accompanying disease, COVID-19, loved ones are being kept out of hospital rooms. The tradition of keeping a bedside vigil while our loved one is fighting the disease has been replaced by anxious waiting at home, as hospitals have even closed their waiting rooms in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
In our loved one’s final moments, instead of holding their hand as they transition, and providing comforting words as they pass, people are left alone in their hospital rooms. If they’re lucky, they may get a phone held to the side of their head as they breathe their last breaths.
These disturbing scenes are happening around the world today due to the coronavirus outbreak. Loved ones are being kept apart from one another for public health reasons, while their emotional and psychological needs are forced to take a back seat. Grieving is secondary to preventing the spread of the disease.
Managing Grief Apart
Many will feel the stages of grief compressed, or perhaps become focused on the anger stage, as the person is forced to be apart from their dying friend or family member. It’s alright to feel angry. You were not given the time to be with your loved one that you thought you would. It’s unfair.
It also hurts like hell to imagine them alone in the hospital room, perhaps even intubated and unable to talk. Experience those feelings and let them wash over you, like a tide approaching the shore. In a safe place, let that anger out. Yell at all the unfairness. Curse at the inhumanity of the situation. Hit something soft to release all of that energy you hold.
This is not a time to be yourself, because you’re not. That’s what grief does to most people — it changes you. It’s a process that will take time. Give yourself permission to take that time. And give yourself permission to feel angry when you were denied access to comfort your loved one in their last moments.
Remember, too, healthcare workers can’t help you with this. They too are overwhelmed caring for the sick and dying. They know you are going through the unimaginable right now. But please don’t take your anger out on them.
Funerals are a commonplace component of many cultures’ death and burial rites. It gives loved ones one final chance to say goodbye, and to support your friends and family in their time of grief.
With the outbreak, however, such gatherings have been banned or strongly discouraged. In most states, viewings have been disallowed, as has the traditional funeral and mass (or other religious ceremony) done in a decedent’s honor. At most, a service now often involves a funeral director saying a few words while people observe from afar, sitting in their cars.
Family and friends aren’t allowed to say those final words of farewell, they aren’t allowed to physically and emotionally comfort one another in each other’s presence. This is heartbreaking to many and devastating to others.
Managing Death Without a Funeral
There’s no one right way to manage all the conflicting feelings you’re likely feeling when told a funeral just isn’t possible in a time of social distancing orders. The anger and sense of unfairness may raise their heads again, but you’ll likely feel better if you focus on what is possible, not on what isn’t.
You’ll need to be patient. With so many people dying at once, it means the systems designed to handle death are temporarily overwhelmed. Instead of burying your dead taking a week or less, it may take two or more weeks now.
During this trying time, it’s important to find another way to engage in a shared social experience. The technologies we have available to most of us today allow this to occur fairly easily. Some ideas for managing a loved one’s death without a physical funeral:
- Consider a virtual gathering on a day you would’ve held the viewing or funeral. Again, using a video conferencing app like Google Hangouts, Zoom, or the like, give people a time and place to be with you socially online. While perhaps nothing can replace the physical comfort of being in the same room as someone you’re trying to comfort, it’s an available option to consider during a trying time. It also can help start you down the path of healing. This can be used to supplement whatever meager services you may have been able to do in person.
- Consider setting up a temporary social networking group, such as a Facebook Group so everyone can share their memories and thoughts together in a safe space. Facebook allows anyone to create a group on any topic. Make sure you set the group to Closed or Private, and then send out invites through the group to only invite friends and family of your loved one. Start a new post every day on a different topic related to your loved one. For instance, “Share your fondest memory of John Smith” or “Share the funniest story of a time you were with John Smith.” Through shared experiences, we can begin the process of healing.
- Postpone a funeral or a social gathering until the pandemic has run its course. While most people prefer to honor their loved ones with their physical body, there’s no reason you can’t still honor them without their corporeal presence. This probably makes more sense if most of the person’s loved ones are older, or folks don’t have access to or are not comfortable with technology.
Don’t forget the techno-phobic people in your group, or those without access to technology. Have a family member visit their home (taking the usual health precautions, including wearing a mask and washing hands regularly) with a laptop to share in the online experience, whatever it may be.
These are most unusual times we are all doing the best we can with. Please try and do the best you can with what you have to work with, given the limitations placed on all of us by the pandemic. While nothing can make the feelings of loss dissipate faster, focusing on navigating — and accepting — your own conflicted feelings during this stressful time may be helpful.
More on coping with grief: Psych Central’s grief resource page