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Grieving vs Mourning in the Time of COVID-19

April 30, 2020

Grief is the emotional response to the loss of someone or thing that is important to you. Mourning is the process of acclimating to a life without that special someone or something. COVID-19 or the Coronavirus has disrupted our normal processes and rituals.

In the March 2020 issue of Natural Nutmeg, I wrote an article on “The Fragility of Life”. That article was based on my experiences with two people who remain very important to me. One of them was my friend of 40 years, who unfortunately died at the end of March. Though his death was not attributed to COVID-19, he did die in the time of the pandemic. What follows is what I and many friends have experienced and are living through while suffering the loss of a loved one during this time. Normal rituals of closure, gatherings, saying goodbyes and gaining strength from each other were altered. We had to learn to be present with each other without being physically present with each other.

My friend’s story is like so many others during this time period. Following several hospitalizations, he entered a facility for palliative care in the greater New York City area. Once the virus began to spread in NYC, visitation to nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities became extremely limited. In my friend’s case, the only visitors allowed were visitors for hospice patients. Only one visitor was allowed at a time and for a period of an hour. Visitors wore facemasks, gloves and eventually other protective clothing. It was not possible to have human skin to skin contact – no holding, kissing – difficulties being understood while speaking through masks. The two of us that were allowed to visit my friend consider ourselves fortunate in that at least we were able to be present.

Many residents of the facility had no contacts other than staff, whom I must say were extremely caring. Following his death, he was transported to a funeral home. We were informed that only two funerals could be held in a day and only one at a time. No more than 10 people could be in the funeral parlor at a time. The viewing would be limited to two hours. No services were available at the church and only one person could be present graveside along with the funeral director and a priest. This is the new reality. The question now becomes how one processes grieving without the normal rituals and human contact.

Rituals serve as a mechanism to bring a sense of control, which is missing in loss. In grief, rituals are an important part of the healing process. They provide order to the chaos of grief, speaking to our hearts and emotions with a focus on the present. Most of our rituals involve gatherings of loved ones to view the deceased, support each other in grief, share food and stories and engage in human contact – holding hands, hugging and embracing. All of these are currently unavailable in the time of COVID-19. We remain isolated and untouchable. So, what can we do to be present without being physically present?

First, we can reach out to the grieving with a phone call, video chat, with a card, email or on messenger. We can help by genuinely acknowledging the loss and the pain, listening without judgment or trying to make everything better. Speaking about the pain will actually make it possible for the pain to be released. We can say, “I have been thinking about you and I know this must be difficult for you. I care about you.”

There are some basic Do’s and Don’ts of support. Do listen attentively. Don’t be afraid of tears or strong emotion. Don’t change the subject and make it about you by telling your story of loss or offer easy answers. Please do not say, “I know what you are going through”, even if you have lived a similar experience. If they want to hear your story or experience let them ask. Your best response is, “Everyone’s pain is different and their own. I just know it hurts a great deal”. Just listen without judgement or criticism and let them feel what they are feeling in the moment.

Validate the enormity of the loss and use the name of the deceased. Give permission for them to do what feels right for themselves in the moment. Don’t give advice, unless you are asked for it and don’t push them into things that you think would be good for them. Offer specific practical help like childcare, groceries, yardwork, meals or cleaning. Don’t avoid the person or wait for them to reach out to you. Do reach out over the months and years, especially on holidays and anniversaries. Just because they seem OK does not mean that they no longer need your support.

In my experience it takes a good three years for someone to process the loss of a loved one. Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief are simply a model of what people may go through. Everyone’s grief is a personal journey. It is not linear and completed on a straight timeline. Each season brings its own challenges and raw memories, especially in the first year following the loss. Each holiday, anniversary, birthday, family gathering, or normally shared event must be lived through without the loved one. These are all reminders of the depth of how things have forever changed. The second year is still raw, but there has been the experience of having lived through the experiences without the loved one and we did not die. The third year becomes more manageable. Remember that grief can be triggered at any moment by very ordinary circumstances and events. Grief is a response to loss, a trauma. Life is never quite the same again.

The key to surviving and healing in this time of COVID-19 is human connectedness. Physical human touch is not a viable option at this time. What is currently available is reaching out emotionally with our hearts, thoughts and genuine caring. We can act supportively expressing our love and acting on that love by acknowledging the painfulness of the situation with reassurances that we will do what we can to remember and honor the deceased and those left to grieve and mourn. There is a quote by Patricia Campbell Carlson, which I find especially helpful: “Grief and Gratitude are kindred souls, each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by Grace.”

James W. Osborne, MS, LPC, BCPC is one of Natural Nutmeg’s 10 Best Winners for Holistic Psychotherapy/LCSW/Counseling. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Board Certified Professional Counselor, Board Certified PTSD Clinician with over 40 years of clinical experience. He employs Mindfulness, Jungian Psychology, Gestalt Psychology, ACT, EMDR and value-based techniques unique to the individual to support positive health changes. His undergraduate degree is in Philosophy and he views psychotherapy as philosophy in action.
 
He can be contacted at Osborne Counseling Services in Kensington. 860.384.4971 or at: JWOsborne.MS.LPC@gmail.com.

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