“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Sarah pulls her black blouse over her head, trying not to smear her carefully painted makeup. The dark circles have settled beneath her puffy blue eyes, and she dabs another layer of cover up over top. She brushes her hair, overgrown with neglect, the color faded. The roots reveal her 52 years, and she covers them with a spray that is the deceptive color of her youth.
But none of this matters. Her father has died. Alone. Without family nearby. They will now gather to pay tribute to a man who was her everything. A man who taught her how to throw a softball and fish. A man who showed her what to expect in a partner by loving his wife wholly. Her mother grieves from afar. Phone calls, Facetime and Amazon packages bridge the miles–and the social distancing. No, no one will care that Sarah remains in the comfort of her jeans. Not really. No one will notice as she props herself on her couch with her laptop on a pillow and taps the “Start Meeting” button.
Rituals, memorials and funerals provide ways that those who survive a death have the opportunity to grieve. “We know that funerals date to at least 60,000 BC, and every culture and civilization has had funerals ever since,” says grief counselor and educator Alan Wolfelt, in the National Funeral Directors Association’s resource, 8 Talking Points for Funeral Directors, Crematory Staff, Cemeterians, and Other Death-Care Workers. “Funerals help us acknowledge the death, honor the person who died, and support one another. In other words, funerals help us mourn well and set us on a healthy path to healing.”
Wolfelt, who is the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, also advises finding ways to be with the body following death. Many funeral homes and crematoriums are finding ways to allow the immediate family to spend time with the deceased. One funeral home has created a particular time where family members can sit with the body one at a time. Another funeral home livestreams time when the family can be with the body.
The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has changed the way we do many things in our daily lives. The need for social distancing has resulted in virtual meetings replacing physical gatherings. Zoom conferencing can be awkward, and online happy hour isn’t as satisfying as hanging out with friends at your neighborhood bar. But, the loss of one particular kind of in-person gathering has been completely devastating: shared mourning rituals. Grief is experienced in the support of community, often with hugs and handshakes. Now, some clergy and rabbis are making house calls, armed with sacred texts, masks and hand sanitizer. But it is not possible for extended groups of mourners to gather together. The final resting rituals that many communities of faith have observed for centuries are significantly altered. For example, during the Jewish mourning tradition of shiva, families, friends and the extended community offer comfort through condolence calls. These condolences are now taking place over the phone and via live streaming. Traditional Catholic funeral masses are now livestreamed with only immediate family present and upholding the six-foot rule. Absent is the physical contact so important in the grief process.
Even gatherings of immediate family and friends are restricted. According to Susan Coale, a clinical social worker and director of the Chesapeake Life Center in Pasadena, Maryland, even if people are able to gather following the death of a loved one, there is a 10-person limit–including the funeral director and any presiding religious figure, such as a priest, reverend, rabbi or imam.
“COVID-19 has complicated individual grief and community grief and loss,” Coale says. Not being able to participate in death and grief rituals can result in the experience of ambiguous loss, which can complicate the grief process leaving numerous loose ends, she explains.
According to family therapist and clinical psychologist Pauline Boss, who coined the phrase, ambiguous loss occurs when there is no closure or there are unanswered questions related to the death of a loved one. This can occur when people cannot be with the body or in community. Therefore, it is important to find ways to help families connect with loved ones. Coale says that some families are attempting to connect with loved ones through window visits or telephone calls at end of life.
People need community support in times of loss. Numerous technological resources have arisen to help fill the gap left by the inability to gather face-to-face. For example, grief support groups such as the Chesapeake Life Center’s Living with Loss are being offered online. The Life Center is affiliated with Hospice of the Chesapeake, but is available to anyone in the community who is grieving, whether or not they are using hospice services.
Thanatechnology sites such as Caring Bridge provide a virtual space to grieve in community. Yet, we must always be mindful of the disparities in both the availability of technology and understanding how to use it. Not everyone can—or wants—to replace in-person grieving with technology.
Coale has begun providing her clients with guided imageries that include detailed descriptions of physical touch. She has clients imagine the specific details of a hug experience. The warmth of arms wrapped around the person. The tickle of arm hair. The scent of the body. The brain responds to imagery in comparable ways as to a real experience and Coale is capitalizing on this phenomena in offering “hug imagery.”
Coping with loss during COVID-19
Grief can be an isolating experience and now, more than ever, it is important to have strategies to stay connected to family and friends. We can still be together while observing physical distance and small group limitations.
- Check in with one another by calling, texting or through webcam or social media and don’t forget the virtual hug! This does not require an in-depth conversation. Just a reminder that you are thinking of the person and while they are isolated, they are not alone.
- Drop off food or groceries while observing physical distancing. Send a care package or shop online to send items. Many restaurants offer curbside takeout and Amazon and Instacart will deliver groceries directly.
Observe virtual rituals
- Offer or attend virtual group funerals, burials and memorials. It is important to honor the lives of our loved ones and to experience this in community. While we are limited in the number of people who can be gathered physically, we can use technology to host larger gatherings that include friends and extended family members. Photos and memories can be posted on virtual platforms and viewed by many to celebrate the life of the beloved member.
- Plan an in-person memorial for when physical distancing guidelines are no longer in place. Sometimes the act of creating can be comforting even if the end result is delayed. Plan the memorial in great detail — to be hosted after travel and physical distancing restrictions are lifted.
Seek support and professional help
- Bereavement services are available. Many providers are offering their services by phone or webcam. You do not need to soldier this burden alone. There are virtual support groups, as well as individual counseling.
- Check in with faith communities about online services and support. Faith communities are offering innovative alternatives to traditional worship.
This is a difficult time complicated by the inability to participate in traditional death and grief rituals and activities. Yet, we are a resilient people, capable of innovation as we craft creative ways to connect with one another during times of grief.
“As many challenges as the pandemic presents, it illuminates the hard stuff that causes us to grow…offering us as individuals and communities to do some work,” says Coale.
People are being intentional in how they connect. Some families are re-discovering family time. There are many things to be grateful for during this unprecedented time. People are complex, as well as resilient and we have the capacity to experience both grief and gratitude at the same time.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.