Grieving in a Pandemic: Connection in a Difficult Time
As a culture we’ve been taught that grief is a problem to be solved, an unfortunate experience that’s best put behind you as soon as possible. We try to cheer people up as best we can. This can backfire in the best of times, but it feels exceptionally wrong in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grief and loss are everywhere, and we’re not quite sure what to do with it. Our culture simply hasn’t taught us how to come to grief with the skills needed to be truly helpful. Even professionals, as you may know, often feel awkward in the face of grief.
Grief is a lonely experience in the best of times. Feelings of isolation and “other-ness” are typical. While we can’t “fix” grief, connection and validation go a long way. It’s important to tell your families—and yourself—that there’s no one “perfect” thing to say that will make someone feel better. Companionship alongside grief is the best thing we can offer.
Here’s a quick primer to help you or those you work with to feel more prepared.
o Grief is a normal, natural process: that it feels bad doesn’t make it bad. Grief doesn’t need to be fixed, solved, or rushed through.
o Grief includes a range of emotions. It’s perfectly normal to feel several things at once. There’s no one “right” way to grieve.
o Grief lasts as long as love lasts. While you may interact with a person in the early days after their loss, grief will continue to unfold for years to come. This is normal.
o It’s okay to feel awkward and helpless when faced with someone’s grief. Remember that there is no one perfect thing to say. It can help to remember that it’s not your job to remove someone’s pain; rather, it’s your job to help them feel heard and understood inside their pain.
o While we can’t fix grief, we can reduce the grieving person’s suffering by focusing on concrete, tangible things like improved sleep, emotional regulation, and finding new ways to connect with others.
Talking about grief as a normal and healthy part of life is important. In a culture that considers grief an illness, clients and families can feel overwhelmed with emotion, yet not feel they have the right to talk about it. Your acceptance and understanding will go a long way.
How we survive this pandemic depends on how well we take care of each other during this time. We’ll have to bear witness to a lot of incredibly difficult things. As authors of this paper, we acknowledge the difficult work ahead and the toll it takes on you as leaders and providers. Acknowledgement is often the best medicine we have.
More resources, tips, and ideas on meeting grief and loss inside the pandemic can be found in the resources section of this document. And if you’re curious about current and historical approaches to grief, please see Chapter 6 as well as the Addendum.
Suggestions for the Grief Process The suggestions gathered below may help people connect from a distance as they celebrate and mourn the lives of loved ones. Offer these to the families with whom you work.
o Send a note without ever leaving your home. Apps such as Ink, Felt, and Hallmark Shoebox will allow people to send a highly personalized card, in an envelope (not a postcard), via the US Postal Service, without ever having to leave their home. Most card-sending apps also allow people to personalize the note with a photo. In a time of isolation, receiving a card with a meaningful picture on it will be especially comforting.
o Just hearing someone else’s voice can help. Calls don’t need to be heavy or emotional, at least not every time.
o Brief check-ins, by text or email, such as “thinking of you” will let someone know you are “with” them without obligating them to respond. Another great way to be helpful from a distance is to lead with curiosity; for example, consider sending a text asking “What’s today like for you? Happy to virtually have a cup of tea and talk about everything or nothing.” Another option could be: “Do you need to vent, or do you need help problem-solving this thing?” Doing so may give them a better chance of delivering the support that the other person needs. Additionally, encourage people to try simple actions, using their existing technology and apps, to show their love and support.
o Have them set reminders in their calendar for important dates that might be rough for their friends or loved ones. These can include birthdays and big holidays, as well as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, their kids’ birthdays, and even a specific day of the week. People often feel forgotten, so point out how their calendar apps help them remember.
o Share the idea of ordering food or arranging some other errand for a newly grieving person. This is immensely helpful, as those details of daily life can feel overwhelming. This is especially true if the grieving person is the only adult in the house. Sharing the load of responsibility is a great gift.
o Parallel play can still be done virtually as lots of folks want company, not conversation. This could be as simple as sitting with a friend—each in their respective home—having a cup of tea and reading books. It could also be a shared art activity, such as each person painting or making a collage while connected via Zoom or Facetime. Companionship doesn’t have to be fancy.
o End-of-life planning and conversations can relieve anticipatory grief and give an opportunity to honor and remember loved ones. The Conversation Project, Death Cafe, Engage with Grace and Death Over Dinner offer great framework for these conversations. Additionally, there are a variety of games that can take some of the pressure off of this conversation including The Death Deck, Go Wish, Karuna Cards, and After. o Often after the death of a loved one, family caregivers can feel a loss of purpose. One way to remain connected to that sense of purpose is to pay-it-forward by honoring and thanking other caregivers. ARCHANGELS.me has a simple badge and poster that can be downloaded here: archangels.me/the-thank-you-digital-badge, then posted on social media or printed and shared so that other caregivers feel seen, loved and lifted up.
o If a person is able to move, encourage them to move their body while they are grieving to help their body stay healthy. While exercise might feel really ambitious some days, moving around is helpful. For some, grief can mean that they move around more, since it’s great way to release tension, stress, anger, and pent-up energy. Yet, grief can also have people moving around less; some days they might only have the energy to sit and just stare at a wall or lay in bed.
Remind them that whatever is going on, that they are not broken or permanently messed up. They might move around a lot for a while, then spend a whole year in bed catching up with their grief. Or they might suddenly get up off the couch and decide that it's the year they take on a new pose, like headstands in yoga. Regardless, remind them to be good to themselves, to find their limits and enjoy pushing themselves. Another interesting practice that they can investigate is grief-walking, which will allow them to get some sunshine and move their body through low-impact exercise.
Some movement resources include Ryan Heffington’s Instagram Dance Parties,
The Assembly, Everybody Los Angeles, and Pony Sweat (the latter two being queer friendly and body positive).
If the person with whom you’re consulting is not trying to move at all, encourage them to try to see their loved ones, or at least talk with them on the phone. When we're lacking physical intimacy, we can still show care and compassion for someone through our voice and facial expressions.
o Meditation practices can be helpful in managing both stress and grief. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff of the Center of Mindful Self-Compassion have outlined a brief practice for COVID-19 here.
o Creative practices can be very useful in managing the intense emotions of grief. Painting, collage, mandala-making, and creating playlists are some of the many things people might find helpful.
o Encourage them to care for themselves in this stressful time and be kind to themselves. The connection between grief and food is stronger than what we eat. Grief can change when we eat, why we eat, how we eat, and with whom we eat. Sharing meals can be healing. Cooking for ourselves or others can be a great distraction. And finding friends to share a cup of tea with (even virtually) can mean a new ritual that helps someone through their grief.
o Sleeping while grieving can be hard for many reasons. People might be getting too much sleep because their body is in overload mode. Alternatively, they might not be getting enough of it because they can't stop thinking about their loved one or their schedule is thrown out of whack. Regardless of what's going on, remind them that their experience is common and normal, regardless of whether they can't get out of bed or they’re counting sheep in an endless loop. Some resources to help people manage their sleep include the articles “Grief and Getting a Good Night's Sleep” featured on What's Your Grief? Website and “How to Actually Fall Asleep” featured in The Cut as well as HeadSpace’s meditation for sleep. In our experience what we’ve learned is that a lot of it comes down to habit; apps and tools can be helpful; and what counts is what you do when you're not sleeping.
Further education on how to help grieving friends, family, and co-workers:
o For how to support a grieving friend, this How to Help a Grieving Friend animation is helpful, as is this article on “11 Things to Do When You’re Not Sure What to Do.” A lot of the ideas there are adaptable to social distancing.
o Relieve anxiety or a sense of helplessness by letting support folks know they don’t have to know what to say—awkward and heartfelt support is always better than nothing. There are resources for supporters at this website.
o The DEI Collective has developed an excellent resource for employers and team members which you can find here.
Educational resources for managing the physical and emotional symptoms of grief:
o Survival rules for early grief, which you can find both as an article/list and as a pdf.
o An article for dealing with the memory loss, confusion, and other cognitive issues that may arise in grief.
o Anxiety is a huge issue in grief, even outside of the COVID-19 pandemic. With permission from the publisher, we’ve excerpted the anxiety chapter from the book It’s OK that You’re Not OK, which you can access here. It includes trauma-informed care, exercises to help people ground themselves in the physical, present moment without relying on breath-focused meditations that can be contraindicated for some people.
o For additional support here are a few apps that could be helpful: Liberate (for POC), Insight Timer, and Better Help
o To help people open conversations about grief— especially if they aren’t sure how—encourage them to view the trailer of the new PBS documentary Speaking Grief. (The full documentary will be out in May 2020 and can be requested from your local PBS station.)
Finally, here are some specific suggestions for managing your grief while working from home:
o Since many people might be working from home, whether on a long term basis or permanently, encourage them to explore resources that address their specific needs related to what it’s like to deal with grief while working from home, and often alone; while they’re juggling a new way of working and other stresses in their life; when bereavement leave isn’t useful or possible; and when this heightened state of crisis means employers are focused on other things, and compassion, procedure, and supportive resources and individuals might not be as available as usual.