Grieving During a Pandemic

Special considerations as the regular rituals surrounding mourning are upended.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

These are challenging times. Our regular lives as we used to know them have been upended—we don’t know when our kids are going to be able to safely return to school, many of us have lost our jobs or if we are lucky we may have been able to maintain them but have to adopt to either working from home, or risking infection anytime we leave the relative safety of our homes to go to work. Everything is being politicized—whether we wear a mask or not, whether we live or die, how we live or die, none of it is immune from polarization, social commentary, public scrutiny, etc.

The Psychiatric Times predicts that the second wave of this pandemic will be accompanied by large spikes in mental illness-related symptoms, in particular exacerbating symptoms for individuals who are already suffering regarding their mental health (Lake, 2020). On top of all of this is the reality that with nearly 154,000 deaths in this country—and increasing—many of us are forced to mourn our loved ones during an already tumultuous time without the regular rituals that oftentimes offer comfort and support through the process of grief.

Which leads me to the focus of this article—how does one grieve during a pandemic? The regular rituals that accompany the death of a loved one have been entirely overturned during this time—starting with even the process of death itself. For those who have lost loved ones to this virus, the death itself upends regular norms by not allowing any family members or friends to bear witness to their loved one’s last moments in person. Funerals are capped at 10 people, social distancing inhibits offering physical comfort to grieving individuals as they are mourning their loss, and travel restrictions inhibit close family or friends from even being in attendance as the process of grieving commences.

The process of mourning can be a very solitary one—while we seek social support and commiserate with others who also loved the person who has passed, there inevitably will be aspects of this painful process that an individual has to go through on their own. This solitary aspect of grief has been magnified by the pandemic—the social ties that bind us and enable us to survive difficult times in our lives are being severely tested right now.

Moreover, the rituals of grieving that have a social element to them such as friends and family gathering together, sharing meals, etc., have all been stymied by this virus. Nobody should have to make the choice between being physically present to mourn a loved one versus staying safe by socially distancing—and yet, those are the stark choices that are being presented to many of us right now.

So how can we cope with this new reality? What can we offer in the way of comfort to loved ones who have lost someone to this virus, or are experiencing grief because of another cause of death of a loved one, but still remain bound by the new restrictions due to this pandemic? Experts agree that mourners have to be creative in the ways that they seek social support—using whatever pathways they have, including technology to connect with others (Pinsker, 2020). They also point out that there is no set timeline for grieving—if the in-person funeral that one imagined having for their loved one has been disrupted by present restrictions, it is possible to substitute it with something virtual now and have an in-person memorial or other such event at a later time when it is safe to do so.

The important piece here is to recognize that grieving is a process, and there is no “right” way to do it. While the regular rituals or activities that we associate with grieving have been upended—we hope, temporarily—this doesn’t mean we cannot develop new rituals or ways to pay homage to our loved ones or derive meaning from the loss. I have found that the process of grief is indeed a very personal and solitary one, and rather than shying away from that feeling of aloneness, I have attempted to really dive deep into it—since I am socially distancing from most people outside of immediate family anyways, why not take this time of solitude to really process and reflect on the loss that I have experienced in a way that makes sense for me?

As I do the work, I find myself grateful for the time to myself, while also looking forward to a future time where I will be better able to invite others to share in the grief and gather to collectively pay tribute to who we have lost.

And while it may seem old-fashioned, never underestimate the power of a telephone call or letter or card in the mail to let a grieving person know that you are thinking of them. In the immediate aftermath of my loss, I found myself the recipient of packages and cards in the mail from friends all across the country, and this offered me a deep sense of comfort and feeling of support during a very difficult time. We show up in ways that we are able to, and if physical proximity isn’t possible right now, we live in an age where we have many outlets to reach out to others and let them know that we are thinking of them.

The stark and unflinching reality of this virus is that is it compelling all of us to confront not only the mortality of the people we love, but also our own mortality. This begs reflection on how we are living our lives, what kind of life we aspire to, and what we want to do with our time while we are here.

These are not easy questions to reflect on or to answer, but alas, just as grieving is a process, so is living—and we could all benefit from digging deeper and deriving meaning and direction for ourselves during this challenging time.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2020

References

Lake, J. (2020). A mental health pandemic: The second wave of COVID-19. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved on July 31, 2020 from: https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/a-mental-health-pandemic-the-second-wave-of-covid-19

Pinsker, J. (2020). All the things we have to mourn now. The Atlantic: Family. Retrieved on July 31, 2020 from: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/05/grief-mourning-death-pandemic/610933/