Saying goodbye is never easy, and the COVID- 19 pandemic has made a hard time even more difficult. As states begin to open up, families continue to face the challenges of how to process their own grief and support loved ones while maintaining safe distancing.  What does that mean in this time of fear and sorrow?

As an advanced practice nurse, a Certified RN, Death Educator-Grief Counselor, and an APC board-certified chaplain, we have many years of experience personally and professionally supporting families in the grieving process.  Grief is our natural, normal human response to loss. This time of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unending number of challenges including a surprising intensity of emotions and new losses to grieve, such as facing the unprecedented and unnatural risk of becoming ill which limits the ability to be with family and friends.  As the death toll grows, losses are mounting. Not only have many experienced the loss of life and health of loved ones, but many have also lost jobs and financial security. And for many, in the midst of this pandemic, the casual indifference displayed by the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck adds to our heartache.

Grief is the normal process of responding to loss. Grieving is not just about death. It’s about the loss of space, time, and connection. According to the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), grief involves loss of control, normalcy, social connection, financial stability, and loss of knowing what the future was going to bring.

Grief usually comes in waves, crashing into our hearts and causing us to try to catch our breath before that next wave hits. Being asked to physically distance ourselves from loved ones can add to the sadness, anxiety, anger, irritability, and frustration we normally experience in grief. Stepping back, literally taking a deep breath and considering what is happening in the world, or calling someone to let them know you need to talk to release some of the restlessness you feel – all of this can go a long way towards helping you cope. Taking what you know from tradition and adding in some creative changes can create a meaningful way to remember and grieve. 

Most grief experts report one of the main tasks of grieving is to work through the pain of loss. Having to acknowledge these losses, readjust to the world without this relationship, stability, or knowledge, and form new relationships or sensibilities has now been made so much more difficult with the added loss of physical connections. Traditional rituals that nurture community such as funerals, often serve as the marker for initiating the grief process. However, some are choosing to postpone any kind of ritual until the pandemic is over. Suspending the full acknowledgment of the loss is not a healthy way to grieve. It may actually prolong the suffering. Acknowledging loss now may mean that it can only be done with a small group of family or friends. Planning larger tributes can occur later when it is safe for people to gather. 

Many of the beliefs, values, sacred rituals, and cultural practices that usually bring comfort and peace may not be permissible during the pandemic. Some “Dos” have become “Don’ts.” These long-practiced traditions created opportunities to share and express our grief and pain in a supportive community. Creating ways to express our grief means finding new opportunities to name the loss, to say it out loud where it is heard, acknowledged, and validated. Americans have shown great creativity, celebrating birthdays and graduations during the pandemic. That same creativity can also be used to find ways to connect with each other in supportive ways for grief.  

We recognize that, for many, one of the biggest losses in this pandemic is the loss of physical contact. There is no good substitute for a hug, a warm embrace, or crying on another’s shoulder. We suggest that if a hand to the shoulder would be helpful, try to stand behind or at the side of the grieving person to limit exposure to the virus that is spread when talking, crying, or coughing.

We also recognize that while anger is a normal grief reaction, it can be exacerbated during this time. Anger can reflect the feeling of the perceived loss of control that many are experiencing. Some are angry that this pandemic has wreaked havoc on their lives, that they've lost their jobs,  that their loved ones died, or died alone. Some, if they dare to admit it, may even be angry at whoever they believe is Divine. Anger and grief, if not given room for expression, can become destructive to one’s health and well-being. Talking to a trained chaplain or counselor can help with processing anger, emotions, or spiritual concerns.     

The inability to perform important rituals may be devastating and may prolong suffering for families and friends. Some practical ideas for acknowledging loss for yourself and others during the pandemic: 

  • Create a social bubble. Quarantine pods, or bubbles, are the combination of a couple of isolated households, making one larger isolated unit. Essentially, it’s a slight expansion of one’s quarantined family.
  • Make and drop off a meal or coordinate a contact-less grocery delivery.
  • Send picture notes, cards, emails, video calls, regular phone calls.
  • Create or participate in a parade of remembrance or celebration of life (car parade to the cemetery or around bereaved family’s home), or funeral homes that offer drive-up services
  • Consider practices from traditions other than your own. For example, the Jewish tradition of leaving a decorated river rock at the gravesite of a friend or family member.
  • Do memory-making which includes locks of hair, pictures, thumbprints in the shape of the heart that can also be made by working with the funeral home after the embalming process. You can then have it made into a necklace or chain- done digitally. 
  • Create slideshows or memorial social media posts. Free online websites include never-gone.com or mykeeper.com
  • Zoom memorials involving organized storytelling and less of a religious service or both at different times. 
  • Participate in virtual support groups or counseling.
  • Write a letter of things you remember or things you wanted to say about the loved one 
  • Plant a memorial tree or flowers to keep the memory alive
  • The Six Honoring’s: guidelines for those suffering loss and tragedy that may assist people in processing and finding meaning in their continued living. 

Grief and loss changes who you are as a person, however finding ways to navigate the suffering can be helpful in moving forward. While COVID-19 has presented challenges to the normal ways we cope with grief, it is important to find alternative, creative ways to grieve and acknowledge the loss.