There is much to grieve right now in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic—lost jobs, lost patterns of daily life, and loss of loved ones, whether it be from COVID-19 or other causes. Spoken or unspoken, society has strong expectations for how you are supposed to act in the face of grief. How long you are supposed to feel sad. When, where and with whom it’s appropriate to cry. At the same time, the rituals designed by society to help prepare for and deal with the death of a loved one, such as wakes, Shivas, and funerals, have been interrupted, as we stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. “We’re not being allowed to go through or finish the steps we’ve designed as a culture to process grief,” says Kate Willamska, LCSW with The Juniper Center Counseling and Therapy. “That can overwhelm our self-regulation pattern and cause stress or even PTSD.”
On the other hand societal expectations for grief can be limiting for individuals who experience it differently. “Being at home and isolated gives the okay to grieve more, the space to indulge feelings,” says Elizabeth Berland, LPC at The Juniper Center. “We can delve into it and take the time to grieve, whereas before we may have been too busy,” she adds. However, “it’s a double-edged sword, as the isolation also means any support or connection may be virtual, with no physical comforting.”
There’s No One Right Way to Grieve.
Both Kate and Elizabeth acknowledge that there’s no one right way to grieve. Far from the oft-referenced Five Stages of Death and Dying (Kubler-Ross), grief is very individual to each person. Rather than following a straight trajectory, it can be like a roller coaster. “At times it can be more prevalent and other times it’s softer and not as intense. People need to allow themselves to listen to what their body is saying,” says Elizabeth.
Sarah was surprised, even annoyed, at her mom’s focus on planning a menu for mourners who would be visiting the house after her father’s burial several years ago. For Sarah, what they would eat was the last thing to think about at a time like this. Kate explains, however, that “for some folks, they must have control over something. Some must cry and express feelings. Some need to be alone. Others need to cry on someone’s shoulder.” For the people who manage grief through control, they need something to do, be it flower arrangements and food details, arranging the burial or helping out-of-town mourners make plans.
“Consider how hard it is for all now,” says Kate, whether because they have no details to plan with modified funerals or no one to cry with in isolation. The “typical” progression is disrupted: “I receive the news of something happening to someone I know. I am now sure they are dying. I am free to choose and go to say goodbye. I see the body; people get together at the service. I am comforted by them; I am not alone.” With COVID-19 these steps are rushed or even barred, impacting a path to closure.
Letting Go of Preconceived Notions
People have a preconceived idea of what grief will look like. “I always start with self-awareness,” says Kate. “What is your theory? What have you been taught, and what do you expect? Was that idea helpful?” Many things will affect how you grieve, such as if you’ve experienced a loss in the past or if this is your first experience. How you were attached to person, and where that person was in their life cycle also impacts how you process their death. Troy felt relief along with sadness when his grandmother, who had been suffering in pain and a long illness passed. Beth, whose son died suddenly, thinks of him daily, and deeply appreciates when people say her son’s name out loud to her.
Margaret Strobe and Henk Schut suggest in their model of grief, The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement, that after a loss our life goes on two parallel tracks: one oriented on loss (remembering, longing, missing the deceased person) and the other one on restoration of functioning (working, shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.). Keeping the balance between the activities related to each is the main task of finding meaning and quality in how we will live afterwards.
Whatever is right for you, “loss must be expressed, or it will come out somewhere,” says Kate. You might find yourself working too much. Or you may have a big reaction to another loss two years later. There’s no timeline to how you are feeling. “It’s good to give yourself permission to feel what you feel, when you feel it,” says Elizabeth. “I feel sad today. I’m not going to push it away because it’s been 21 years. I’m going to take the time to feel the sadness and loss.”
Letting go is also true when looking to the future. Current events remind us that there is no such thing as “back to normal.” Kate recommends being patient with oneself and letting go of expectations of adhering to what we used to do or how things used to be. “This is an opportunity, even if forced, to take stock and make decisions, and ask yourself, ‘how do you want to be?’”
When and How to Get Help
Friends and family mean well when they say call if you need me, but some people may feel they are a burden. And friends and family may not understand your grief process. Telling someone “it’s time to move-on” based on a calendar won’t help.
With social distancing preventing in-person gatherings, look for blogs, forums, and online groups. Many hospices are running free online bereavement support groups. Look for ones that are specific to what’s going on with you: loss of spouse or parent, people your same age, the length of time since your loved one passed. Individual counseling with a clinician who has experience in bereavement can help in concert with group. In the group it’s a shared experience, knowing you are not alone. In one-on-one therapy it’s more specific to what’s going on with you.
You Don’t Have to Struggle Alone
Contact us to schedule an appointment using teletherapy, right from the comfort of your home.