My cousin always made the best buttery pound cakes. During the holidays, she’d spend weeks baking these cakes to give to each family member. She’s generous like that.
When I found out my cousin died, I was in shock. She was a mom to two kids — one in college, the other in high school. She was youthful in spirit and age, but it didn’t matter. COVID-19 unexpectedly took her life, and I heard it for the first time over the phone. I was speechless and felt strange for feeling so numb. But grief takes many forms and it shows up differently for everyone.
Stages of Grief
With more than 133,000 COVID-19-related deaths around the world, countless individuals and families are grieving right now. According to Northwestern University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, there are typically seven stages of grief that you may observe. Grief might first appear as shock. You feel like you don’t feel anything at all. Then, there’s disbelief. “This can’t be real,” is not an uncommon thought during this stage. Helplessness follows, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do to be productive or helpful. Regret trickles in and it feels like you should’ve, could’ve done things differently. Guilt might show up, and you might feel like you could’ve prevented the death. Feelings of anger and sadness come through when you’re grieving, too. You’re angry at the situation, your heart feels heavy, or the tears are streaming down your face.
If you’re like me, and you’re experiencing grief right now — whether it’s because you’ve lost your daily routine or you’ve lost someone you love — know that what you’re feeling is normal. The first few days after the phone call, I was a stone cold worker bee. My professional responsibilities were a welcome distraction. But suppressing how I felt meant it would all come bubbling to the surface sooner than later, and it did.
One thing that can happen is “the emotion is put aside because the time doesn’t feel right or people are just so caught up in survival at the moment and being safe,” said licensed clinical social worker Bijay Minhas. “We can’t feel to the fullest extent because feeling these emotions — overwhelmed, afraid, vulnerable, sad — can be difficult to process.”
Not being able to express emotion during a time of uncertainty can add layers of pain, guilt and a sense of helplessness. Left unattended, those layers of pain can turn into longer-term suffering.
Coping With Loss During Self-Isolation
To cope with the loss of a loved one during these unprecedented times, it’s important to self-reflect and ask, “What am I doing, if anything, to cope?” If you’re not sure where to start, here are some suggestions from Bijay Minhas, LCSW, MSW and Dr. Sudha Wadhwani, Psy.D.:
- Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to heal.
- Be present in the emotions that show up.
- Remember that everyone grieves differently. Find family members or friends who may be at a similar place as you are, and share your grief process with them.
- Have conversations about your loved ones who have passed away.
- Have a memorial or service via Zoom.
- Engage in activities to honor your loved one, such as group chats, donations and community service.
- Journal, write letters, view photos, and make albums.
- Go for a walk and be in nature.
- Listen to music or cook comforting foods.
- Reach out for help, which is available through a range of telehealth and online resources such as CrisisTextLine.
The goal is to allow yourself to be and to allow yourself to feel what you are feeling. “We tend to mistake feeling less for feeling better, but it helps to remember that the feelings are still there,” wrote therapist Lori Gottlieb in The New York Times.
And while it’s possible to experience a full range of emotions during the grieving process, it’s not possible to fully sense each experience of grief and loss right now. Attending my cousin’s funeral and being with all my relatives is out of the question. Under these current circumstances, big gatherings aren’t allowed.
This is difficult to reconcile because people are attuned to their environment through the five senses. It’s how people process their realities.
“You’re not going through that final timeline with your loved one, and there is a sense of detachment that may come with that,” said Minhas. You’re thinking, “I haven’t experienced it. I haven’t had that closure. I haven’t walked my loved one to their final destination of death. I haven’t been there with them.”
Opening up the parts of your experience you can’t have right now is important, Minhas said.
Dr. Wadhwani agrees. “Social distancing does not mean refraining from social connection. In this temporary, new normal, it is imperative that we find other ways to connect and get the emotional support we need,” she said.
Everyone will seek to fill the gaps in their experience. Some will volunteer their time and focus on helping strangers who are grieving. Others will set up numerous virtual happy hours with familiar faces who are experiencing this grief with them, and others will decide to sit in silence and write. (For more ideas on how to stay connected during this time, here are 27 things to do during a pandemic.)
Stages of grief are not linear, whether you’re grieving the loss of human-to-human connection or the loss of life. “They can happen in any order, vary by day, or even shift by the moment… There are no rules to grief; it ebbs and flows,” said Dr. Wadhwani.
Caring for Sick Family Members
For families who are experiencing grief because loved ones are in intensive care or undergoing treatment, using resources to connect with those loved ones can help.
“Just because you’re not there doesn’t mean you’re not feeling with them or for them,” said Minhas. Whether it’s a video message, a real-time phone call, a prayer, or a spiritual rite of passage, any effort that retains some degree of contact can make a big difference. Any form of outreach that is tailored to the individual and the uniqueness of their family, may be especially meaningful.
Experiencing Pandemic-Related Grief
Due to the global pandemic and stay-at-home orders, millions are also experiencing a new kind of loss. It’s the loss of daily routines and predictability, the loss of human contact — particularly in areas that are under lockdown.
“There are traumas being created in our sense of safety, in our sense of what we took for granted. Loss of any kind is hard to put in any kind of process that would be necessarily healthy from start to finish,” said Minhas. There will be good days, bad days, and days when you don’t want to accept the reality of what is.
For those trying to get through this difficult time, practicing mindfulness and being present is key to managing COVID-19-related grief, when it would otherwise be easy to shut it all out. In fact, Minhas said, “Our brains will try to block out that pain when we are in a state of shock or trauma.”
5 Steps to Manage Loss of Normalcy
Here are five steps you can take to cope with losing your day-to-day sense of normalcy.
- Set aside stigma around mental health and illness and recognize this common loss we are all experiencing. Losing what we’ve known (like our daily routine) is a loss.
- Examine and acknowledge how everyone is processing this every day.
- Stay connected through virtual means: phone, Zoom, and/or messenger apps.
- Ask yourself and others: “How do you feel?” and be willing to have honest conversations.
- Share your experiences and allow yourself to safely express your emotions.
How to Practice Mindfulness Right Now
The human race has continuously dealt with extreme adversity, and people who have survived difficult times share their learnings and wisdom. The common thread? Being adaptable and resilient, Minhas said. “We can’t run away from what we’re facing. We can’t hide. We can’t dismiss what is.”
Part of mindfulness is being present in the experience while we’re having it — to the best that we can. Most clinical therapists agree. Mindfulness is a useful toolkit to have. Here is one simple way to put it to practice: Notice what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. Minhas recommends using the five senses as a gateway to connect with yourself and bring yourself to the present moment.
“It’s a way to softly and gently start to recognize that I exist — that actually, even though this pain is excruciating, I am existing in it,” she said. “Therefore, if I’m here right now and this is coming through me, I have already shown resilience. I’ve already shown adaptability.”
Research has shown those who face their pain, rather than turn away from it, come out on the other side. “Sometimes the actual pain will go away, but even if it doesn’t, you can transform your relationship to it so that it no longer erodes your life,” said meditation teacher and Professor of Medicine emeritus at University of Massachusetts Medical School Dr. John Kabat Zin to Boston’s NPR News Station.
Transformation can come from simply channeling the pain in a way that will be meaningful. Minhas encourages individuals to do something that you can control “…whether it’s for you or in the memory of those we’ve lost.”
My very large family recently started a Facebook group so we can keep in touch. No one explicitly addressed all the reasons why we started it, but I know it’s one small step in our journey to stay connected during this period of isolation and to cope with the loss of someone we all loved.
Even though my cousin isn’t physically here, she’s still with us — in our memories and conversations. And during the holidays, we’ll inevitably devour slices of buttery pound cake… in her honor.
If you’re experiencing grief and would like to seek counseling, licensed clinical social worker Bijay Minhas is offering free counseling sessions at this time. If you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or start a free online chat with them here.