Dealing with the loss of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. Add to this the coronavirus pandemic and we begin to see an already difficult process become more complex.
In many states, hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities are limiting visitors. If a patient or resident in one of these facilities became ill, family members may not have the opportunity to visit with and see their loved one before they die, whether they have coronavirus or another illness such as cancer or heart disease. For loved ones’ peace of mind and to achieve a sense of closure, people want the opportunity to be present and know their loved one was comfortable and did not die alone.
The fear of dying alone is shared by many patients, families and healthcare workers alike. Healthcare providers are doing all they can to keep families connected as the end of life nears, while still maintaining the physical distance needed to keep everyone safe. Some are standing vigil at patients’ bedsides so they aren’t dying alone. As time and technology permit, they may hold a phone or tablet to the patient so loved ones can virtually see and/or speak to them before they die.
For those patients receiving hospice care at home, there are still opportunities to say goodbye and be part of a peaceful passing. Chaplains, social workers and bereavement counselors provide emotional and grief support, helping people navigate through the losses brought on by this pandemic. But without hospice or access to a facility, many people are left without the resources and opportunity of a proper goodbye.
Further complicating the grieving process, in some areas funerals, memorials and other religious ceremonies have been cancelled or postponed because of the virus. For some, it’s difficult to process that their loved one is gone because they haven’t witnessed their death nor have they had the customary rituals surrounding death.
So, how do you deal with the loss of a loved one? One place to start is by understanding grief and the grieving process.
STEPS TO DEAL WITH THE LOSS OF A LOVED ONE
- Understand Grief
- Know the Signs of Grief
- Determine if It's "Complicated Grief"
- Cope With Your Grief
1. Understand Grief
It’s normal to have a wide range of feelings when a loved one dies. Some common feelings include:
Guilt – Many people wonder, “Could I have done something to prevent or change this?” Even though it’s beyond their control, people often assume responsibility.
Regret – Loved ones may feel regret when they haven’t had a chance to offer support, reconcile grudges or apologize. Regret can be especially strong when a death is sudden or unexpected.
Shock – It can be hard to process the magnitude of the loss, especially when death occurs suddenly. Some may feel numb or have difficulty expressing emotions.
Powerlessness – Once you realize there’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent your loved one’s death, feelings of powerlessness may set in.
Fear – Loss reminds us how little we truly control, which brings feelings of fear. You may feel overwhelmed by fear and worry your response isn’t normal (even though it is).
Anger – You may feel hostility toward those you believe “caused” your loved one’s death. Anger often masks feelings like sadness.
Sadness – When shock, anger and other emotions subside, many people are left with profound sadness. Expressing these feelings, for example by talking or crying, is healthier than holding them in.
Loneliness – Grief can be an isolating experience. During COVID-19, it’s even more isolating because loved ones can’t gather together to share memories, cry and comfort each other.
2. Know the Signs of Grief
Grief is a normal response to loss. Many people who suffer a loss report experiencing:
- Feeling sad, lonely or empty
- Crying at unexpected times, often over small things
- Feeling guilt or regret (e.g., about the way the person died or about some aspect of your relationship or interactions with them)
- Sensing your loved one’s presence
- Preoccupation with your loved one’s life, or assuming their mannerisms or traits
- Difficulty concentrating or being around other people
- Changes in behavior, such as eating or sleeping more or less than usual
- Feeling angry at the loved one for dying, the healthcare system, a higher power or others
- Feeling restless or irritable
- Forgetfulness or wandering aimlessly
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Feeling distant from reality, as though the loss did not happen
- Physical symptoms like headaches, upset stomach, or tightness in your chest or throat
- Re-experiencing past losses
- Fear about getting sick or a loved one getting sick
While some grief can be difficult to let go of, most people reach a place of acceptance and find ways to cope over time. Their loss becomes integrated as part of their life. The pain of loss gradually softens as they move forward and develop a new “normal” way of life.
3. Determine if It's "Complicated Grief"
If your symptoms of grief don’t ease over time and you’re having trouble doing normal tasks, you may be experiencing complicated grief. Symptoms of complicated grief can include:
- Inability to focus on anything but the loss
- Intense or persistent anger, sadness or longing for your loved one
- Feeling numb or as though life no longer has meaning
- Severe social withdrawal
- Neglecting your basic needs
- Excessive avoidance of things that remind you of your loved one
- Coping in unhealthy ways like drinking alcohol excessively or using drugs
- Refusing to move your loved one’s personal belongings
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
If you experience any of these symptoms, contact a mental health professional. Complicated grief is more likely to occur if you’ve experienced multiple losses, you have unresolved issues with the person you lost, or you don’t get the support you need.
4. Cope With Your Grief
Whether you’ve lost a loved one, a job, a sense of normalcy or something else, coping with grief can be difficult. Here are a few ways to cope with the loss of a loved one or another significant loss:
Many people are grieving alone, without the support system they would ordinarily rely on after a loss. But we all need support. Connect with your loved ones as much as you can. When social distancing, this can be through letter writing, phone calls, video chats or other virtual means.
If you know someone else who is grieving, offer nonjudgmental support and a listening ear. You can send a care package, drop off groceries or just call to check in so they know they aren’t alone.
Accept Your Feelings
Give yourself permission to fully experience and express how you’re feeling. If tears come, embrace them. Your feelings are valid no matter what they are, and regardless of whether you prefer grieving alone or with others.
Take Your Time
The way you grieve during the pandemic may be different from the way you’ve grieved in the past. It may take more time to reach a place of acceptance when your daily routines have changed and you’re facing other losses at the same time. Allow yourself to move through grief in your own way, at your own pace.
Take Care of Yourself
Resist pressure to go back to normal when you’re in crisis. If doing basics like eating and sleeping are difficult at first, focus on those. When you’re able to do more, make time for activities you enjoy.
Memorialize Your Loss
You may not be able to memorialize your loved one in traditional ways right now, but it’s important to find other ways to honor them. Rituals can support the grieving process and provide closure. Here are a few ideas:
- Write a letter about your loved one’s life and how they’ve made a difference
- Share memories or favorite qualities about your loved one with friends and family virtually
- Cook your loved one’s favorite food or recipe
- Offer a moment of silence at a meal, family gathering or other meaningful place
- Plant or buy your loved one’s favorite flower
- Display your loved one’s photo or a special decoration and share it with others
- Play your loved one’s favorite song or read a poem or book that reminds you of them
- Wear an item of clothing or jewelry that belonged to your loved one
- Look through photos or video footage of your loved one
- Donate to a charity in memory of your loved one
- Start a new tradition to help remember something special about your loved one
If you’re struggling to do normal tasks or have intense grief that doesn’t get better with time, contact a mental health professional. Many are offering online therapy sessions or support groups during the pandemic. Mindfulness, journaling, exercise and getting outdoors may also help you cope.
Most of us have never experienced anything like this pandemic. With heightened worries about jobs, finances, sickness and losing a sense of normalcy, we’re all feeling a deep sense of loss. Compounding this collective grief is the added layer of grief some are experiencing as a result of losing loved ones. Whatever losses you’re experiencing, take care of yourself and the people you love. And remember, everyone’s grief journey is unique.
Courtney Butler, LCSW, MPH, is Amedisys' Assistant Vice President of Hospice Clinical Distinction