The Impact of Virtual Grieving

The new normal of saying goodbye to loved ones from afar.

Posted Apr 03, 2020

COVID-19 robbed us of our goodbyes,” says psychotherapist Dr. Joy Miller of Peoria, Illinois, “My friend was suddenly gone without warning. How do I say goodbye? I can’t travel. We aren’t allowed to gather, and I will never see him again. I don’t know what to do. I feel lost and empty, as if my heart is being ripped from my body.”

 Milada Vigerova/Unsplash
Self-distancing has created a new normal for how we mourn the losses of our loved ones.
Source: Milada Vigerova/Unsplash

Grief is a lonely and isolating experience in and of itself. And human contact is essential for healthy and full psychological closure. With added self-distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, grief can be compounded and prolonged. In the midst of heartbreak, Miller finds the loneliness of grieving compounded by the double whammy of self-distancing. Unable to embrace or be embraced by those who share her loss, she must draw upon her own creativity and resources for comfort.

Miller—founder and CEO of the Resiliency Forum and Joy Miller & Associates—isn’t alone. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are dying in isolation. And friends and families are mourning from afar. Not only are they robbed of their loved ones, they are robbed of their ability to gather and mourn their losses with others, which is leaving an empty, unsatisfying feeling from a lack of full closure. Studies show that during bereavement, having satisfactory family support and a support person navigating post-death formalities, plus satisfactory information about the death decreases risks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and prolonged grief disorder (PGD).

Without appropriate bereavement scaffolding in place, many grievers are at risk of PGD and complicated grief (CG)—a syndrome characterized by preoccupying and disabling symptoms that can persist for decades. Affecting between 10 to 20 percent of mourners, CG can lead to the difficulty of accepting the death of a loved one, yearning or avoidance, sadness, somatic distress, and social withdrawal.

“In my faith of Judaism, everything is mandated to occur in a specific way,” says Miller. “At a specific time, with a specific prayer. I always knew what to do. Right now, I would normally be at the visitation, making food for the family, standing at the gravesite and helping put dirt on the grave until each particle covered my friend completely. I would say Kaddish, and I would mourn, and in eleven months we would return to once again celebrate his life, and place the stone on his grave. But now I can do none of that.”

The pandemic has mandated that mourners of all faiths cannot have their traditions that have helped them heal for generations. Like so many other people in this country and around the world losing their loved ones to COVID-19, mourners must find new ways to grieve and process. Some dying hospital patients are saying their goodbyes to loved ones by FaceTime or other virtual devices. This modality isn’t ideal, but it’s the only option for now to contain the community spread.

“I am faced with death without normality,” says Miller. “This is the new normal for right now. Each of us must find a new way to enter this path, but I am choosing to discover new rituals that help me face my sadness. Ironically, I teach a graduate-level course on grief and loss. It seems to open my heart even deeper as I contemplate the stages of death and dying, joy and pain, and healing and peace with my students.”

Although there are no adequate substitutes for human connection during grief, Miller and I came up with nine tips to help you grieve the departed from afar during the new normal:

  1. Go through photos. Miller is a photographer, so sorting through old captured pictures has helped her reminisce about past celebrations, joyful moments, funny stories, and the love she shared with her close friend. But you don’t have to be a photographer to create a montage of photographs to help you heal, and you will see how the act of reminiscing can bring you peace and healing.
  2. Write down your feelings. Writing helps us discover some peace, sort our feelings, and document what we’re not allowed to share at the mortuary, the visitation, or the cemetery. It brings closure and helps us find clarity. Journaling your thoughts and feelings down on paper can be a huge unburdening. You might also consider writing a goodbye letter to the departed, saying what you wish you could have said directly and how much he or she changed your life for the better.
  3. Allow yourself to cry. Miller remembers tells her grieving clients that each tear brings you closer to healing. The process is cleansing and tears help us move toward a new reality. Acceptance means realizing that these tears may be present for a long time.
  4. Meditate. Meditation, prayer, or contemplation can help you face and release your feelings of loss and bring comfort. If you need guidance in meditating, you can Google “apps for the bereaved” and find many support resources online.
  5. Reach out to others. Social distancing platforms—such as live streaming of funerals—are temporary solutions until mourners can embrace the comfort of each other’s arms. Meanwhile, take advantage of social devices such as FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype to share stories with others who are also mourning the departed. Talk about the times that were sacred to you. Discuss how the person helped you change your life and the impact he or she had on your growth.
  6. Set up a memorial page. A memorial page on Facebook or other social media allows you to connect with others who share your loss. Friends and family can post their own tributes and condolences. And reading through the online messages can provide comfort.
  7. Focus on the positives. It is called “anamnesis”—a way to remember the positives in this painful loss. Each person is in our life for a reason, a purpose, and it all has meaning. Ask yourself what this person taught you and what you want to keep from your life together.
  8. Consult a grief counselor. If the grief process is severely interrupted to the point that you could be having prolonged or complicated grief, contact a grief specialist. During the pandemic, therapists are conducting virtual sessions by social media, so it’s possible to get immediate support.
  9. Let there never be the final death. Author David Eagleman said, “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time." Consider making a vow that there will never be that final death, and speak of the departed often in your head and in your heart.

References

Matthews, LR, Quinlan, MG, & Bohle, P. (2012). Posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and prolonged grief disorder in families bereaved by a traumatic Workplace death: The need for satisfactory information and support. Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience, 14 (2): 195-202.

Miller, MD. (2015). Complicated grief in late life. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 18 (5): 438-446.