We’ve heard the heart-wrenching stories of those forced to say goodbye to their loved ones by phone or video conference due to the isolation needed to contain COVID-19.
It is a profoundly sad, helpless and disappointing way to say goodbye, and the grief is intensified for those who have lost loved ones. In most cases, death came quickly and was preceded by confusion, fear, anxiety, and for many, guilt. Moreover, coping is complicated by stay-at-home orders that may prevent the closure often offered by traditional ceremonies such as funerals and memorial services.
As a licensed clinical psychologist, I encourage everyone struggling to remember a few things. First, despite the challenges posed by this pandemic, you will get through this. This type of pain usually subsides over time and we learn to cope with the loss. We will grow to the point where our memories of them are accompanied by fewer and fewer tears.
Grief does not have a fixed timeline. For some, it could last months or it could linger for years. Wherever you are in your healing process, I offer these three strategies.
Reject social distancing. The experts talk about the importance of social distancing. I like to think of it more as physical distancing. In times of great loss, it is critical to connect to people in your social circle, even if only through technology.
Talk to the people who are close to you about your feelings, and about your recently departed loved one. Don’t isolate yourself from those who are still here, as this disrupts the healing process. Allow your loved ones to support you. Know that some of them will not know what to say and may worry that you will not want to be bothered. While it is fine to take time to yourself and let calls go to voicemail, recognize when social or emotional distancing is more harmful than helpful.
Be kind to yourself. During this time, you may experience a wide range of emotions, including sadness, anger, exhaustion, guilt, and/or numbness. Understand that these emotions are part of grieving. Acknowledge and accept your feelings in the moment.
Remember your loved ones when they were at their best. Remember specific things about them that bring you peace and comfort. If you feel overwhelmed by your feelings, talk with a mental health professional. Even with physical distancing, there are many options for telehealth, with some organizations offering free short-term treatment.
Honor your loved one’s life by living yours. For some people, the death of a loved one is a call to action. Examine your own life. Trust that your recently departed loved one wants only what is best for you and consider that as you move forward with your life. Strive to do and be your best. Decide today that you will live your life without fear or regrets while learning lessons from your past.
Tiarney Ritchwood is an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at Duke University.