As hard as it has been to maintain social distancing over these past few weeks, the reality of what the novel coronavirus is capable of has started to set in for many of us. With nearly 40,000 deaths being currently attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, and that number expected to continue to rise, it’s hard not to think about the loss of life.
In fact, the climbing death toll has many of us worrying about what would happen if we lost our loved ones, or panicking because our loved ones are currently sick and battling the novel coronavirus alone in the hospital.
Since this is territory that most of us have never had to navigate, we turned to the experts to help us better understand how to process losing access to a loved one who is locked down, and the loss of a loved one’s life.
Focus On Connection Where You Can Find It
Gail Carruthers, an Equine Guided Learning Facilitator at Skye Blue Acres outside of Toronto, has dedicated her life to helping people process and express grief and loss through working with horses. Carruthers says that facing reality head on is not always a possibility for some people during a crisis. Instead, she is encouraging clients to focus on connecting with their loved ones each day as best as they can.
“We have to be creative in these times,” says Carruthers. “This can be a daily call or video chat, sending photos or handwritten letters. Anything to help our loved ones to stay busy and feel connected.”
Carruthers reports that friends and clients are utilizing video chat technology to watch old movies with grandparents and discuss them afterwards, possibly even having dinner together.
“Feeling emotionally distraught by our current circumstances is normal right now,” says Carruthers. “Focus on each day at a time and make the most loving and self-compassionate choices possible in any given moment. The most important tool for decreasing distress is connecting with other human beings in whatever capacity is possible for you.”
There Are Layers To Feeling Grief
Kim Hanlon, a California-based certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist, says that it’s important to recognize that grief is a normal and natural response to loss of any kind, including the conflicting feelings that come up when something familiar ends or changes.
“There are so many layers of grief people are feeling as a result of this pandemic,” says Hanlon. “From loss of security, loss of control, not being able to visit family members who are sick or dying, being worried about going to the store or the doctor’s office, or even sitting in the park. Grief is cumulative, and typically negative. So all of these layers interact and affect our ability to process the other layers of grief that are all happening simultaneously.”
Hanlon recognizes that most people do not have the emotional tools they need to prevent meltdowns from the stress and pressure that comes with the feelings of grief right now.
“So many symptoms can come up with grief, such as difficulty concentrating impaired memory, trouble sleeping, or maybe sleeping more than usual, and changes to eating patterns or appetites,” Hanlon says. Many start to isolate or or feel anxious, or angry. And all of these are completely normal and natural responses to grief and having compassion for oneself when these things are coming up, and knowing why they're coming up, can be something that's so helpful.”
Processing the Loss of A Loved One
Tampa-based psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW, says that we are all currently experiencing a prolonged traumatic event, whether or not we have lost a loved one to the novel coronavirus. But it’s exponentially more traumatic for those who have.
“For people who have lost a loved one at this time, the trauma is unimaginable,” Neidich tells us. “The truth is, there is not a right way to process this or prevent the pain from coming. Emotions insist on being felt, and so we must feel them as they come rather than pushing them away. There will probably be many folks who will require ongoing psychotherapeutic treatment once the height of COVID-19 has passed and we enter our new normal.”
Since it may not be possible to say goodbye to loved ones in person right now, Neidich recommends finding different ways to say goodbye to loved ones who have passed during this crisis, such as planting a tree or a garden in their honor. No matter how you choose to honor your loved one, Neidich says that finding ways to say goodbye can help you to begin the grieving process.
“Prolonging the start to the grieving process may be a contributor to worse mental health symptoms in the future,” says Niedich. “So I would encourage folks in this position to begin online mental health treatment as soon as possible.”
Ways to Honor Those Who Have Passed From COVID-19
Ashley McGirt, MSW, LCSW, works as a hospice clinician in Seattle, Washington, where the earliest cases of COVID-19 were first discovered in the U.S. The nature of McGirt’s work forces her to confront loss on a regular basis, so she is no stranger to helping others deal with the heaviness of losing a loved one.
“As sad as funerals are, they still create a sense of connection for those of us left behind and can begin the process of closure for people,” McGirt tells us. “Unfortunately, during this crisis, many people are unable to celebrate the lives of those who have passed in traditional ways, but there are still plenty of ways to process the loss of a loved one right now.”
McGirt suggests trying the following alternatives to a funeral in order to process your grief and honor your loved one:
Hold a Candle Lighting Ceremony. Utilize technology, like FaceTime or Zoom, to tap into a wider network of friends and family who want to join in this tribute to your loved one. Sing songs, read poems or religious passages, and tell stories about them to celebrate their life.
Honor Them With Music. “Invite your selected community members to create a playlist of songs that reminds each person of your family member who has died,” says McGirt. “Designate a date and time for your community to share the songs creating a compilation of music honoring your family member.”
Host A Slideshow Of Their Lives. Work together with family and friends to create a communal slide show of your loved one’s life. This is a great way to reminisce about the good times you all had together, and creates a deeper sense of connection to the people you hold dear.
Build A Cairn. “A Cairn is a type of memorial crafted from rocks,” says McGirt. “Typically, a Cairn is located on a hilltop or at a skyline. Each family or individual can build their own Cairn in honor of your special person.”
Create a Memory Garden. Invite selected friends to share ideas of plants, flowers, and garden art that are representative to them of your family member. “During this time of isolation, you can design together a memory garden/celebration of life garden to be created once social distancing is no longer necessary,” McGirt says. “The connection at this time is in the planning and designing of the garden.”
Get The Help You Need
The loss of a loved one is never easy, but the trauma is compounded right now due to the nature of this pandemic. If you or someone you love is struggling with feelings of loss, depression, isolation, or grief, reach out to others for help. Whether you want to connect with friends, therapists, or some of the experts we spoke to in this story, the best thing you can do for yourself and others right now is to talk to people about how you are feeling. Although we might feel alone at this point in time, we are all in this together.