Grieving the Loss of a Loved One During the Pandemic

Written by: Lisa O’Hara

Grief is the form that love takes when there is loss through death and is the most patient and persistent of all of life’s companions.   It is not straightforward or experienced the same by everyone, involving a mixture of thoughts and beliefs, of feelings, behaviours, and psychological changes.

Our loss is permanent and so grief itself is permanent.  We do not get over the loss of a loved one but over time, we learn to live without them.   Although death ends a life, it doesn’t end a relationship and we continue to maintain bonds with our loved ones long after they have gone as they remain in our hearts, our memories, our words and our actions.

Death is a huge stressor and there is a demand on us to cope.  In our coping and over time, we learn to adapt.  It may be acutely painful at first but for most of us anyway, our grief softens as time goes on.  There is no time limit on this but it is often longer than we imagine.   Good copers may be persons who can permit themselves to experience sadness and emotional upset caused by grief while still maintaining a variety of cognitive and emotional skills in their daily repertoires” (Gallagher, Lovett et al, 1989)

In the immediate aftermath of a bereavement, it can be hard to take in that our loved is no longer alive.  We move in and out of it – people often describe it as a surreal time.  Rituals helps us to accept the reality of the loss, creating a bridge or connection between the concrete and the symbolic, between the conscious and the unconscious, between the participant(s) and the community, between the world of the living and that of the dead.  Ritual creates a mood or a sense of the sacred that can reduce anxiety and help induce a feeling of security.

Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic and in order to keep us safe, we are deprived of these rituals as we know them and now families and communities are confined in their mourning by the national guidelines.  Whilst necessary, it lacks the support and comfort needed at this time. Because grief is a complex and multi-faceted experience, those rituals which normally help us to mourn are no longer there in the way that we would like and for a small number of people, it will increase the risk of derailing their journey through grief, leaving them with persistent and pervasive grief that can also impact their ability to function.

The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University have outlined the following guidelines to help to adapt to loss.   They may seem beyond our ability at first but they form a signpost for the direction to move towards.

1.      Understand and accept grief.  Grief is natural after loss.  It is a form of love.  Allow it to wax and wane naturally.

2.      Manage emotional pain.  Accepting emotions and naming them can help, letting them wax and wane as much as possible; experience positive emotions, doing something pleasant each days almost as a kind of ritual.

3.      See some possibility of a promising future.  Take time to begin to think about what is important, meaningful, interesting and what kind of activities are in line with this.

4.      Strengthen relationships with others.  Allow others in, share stories and memories, accept support and comfort.  Lower expectations for reciprocity for a time.

5.      Tell the story of the death.  Share the story, dealing with the troubling aspects, honour a person’s death as a part of their life.

6.      Learn to live with reminders.  Gradually find ways to return to the world of the reminders rather than avoiding them.  Discover meaning and comforting memories in reminders.   Understand that memories are a living part of ourselves.

What can get in the way of healthy adapting to loss

As mentioned earlier, grief is complex and unique.  It can become problematic when we cannot accept the reality of the death.    The way that humans bond will also trigger protest, anxiety, guilt and anger when they experience loss.  Also when we lose someone we love, all we want is to have them back.  It can activate guilt and discomfort to think we can have a happy life without them.   Pain is not comfortable either and we may do everything we can to avoid feeling it.   But grief is painful and we do need to accept that there will be some emotional pain.    Outlined below are the some of the ways that that we can become derailed.

·         Continued protest that the death is wrong and unfair

·         Persistent strong feelings of anxiety, self-blame and/or anger about the death

·         Survivor guilt and difficulty experiencing positive emotions or pleasant activities

·         Ruminating over ‘if only’ scenarios.

·         Holding onto the idea that bringing the person back is all that can help.

·         Over-focus on escape and avoidance of pain.

Problematic grief can be enhanced by the circumstances of the death and COVID-19 deaths unfortunately increase the likelihood of this happening.  These include the fact that many people die alone, death happens quickly and unexpectedly, lack of physical presence of comforting social contact, the randomness of the death and the fact that some so many are affected by the virus (Center for Complicated Grief, Columbia University, 2020).

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