Grieving in the midst of the coronavirus — what to know and how to help others
Mourning the death of a loved one is hard, and the coronavirus crisis makes it even more difficult. The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has killed more than 800 people in the U.S. and nearly 20,000 people around the world.
In addition to the deaths related to the virus, the bereaved may also be experiencing the loss of a family member or friend for other reasons, such as an illness, old age or an accident.
This is a difficult time for people who are experiencing a loss, partly because they’re not able to conduct a traditional funeral or service surrounded by people who can support them, said Kristin Bianchi, a licensed psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change. Without this in-person support, and potentially quarantined alone at home, survivors can suffer even more than they would have in regular circumstances.
State and local officials across the country are issuing orders to shut down businesses and keep people indoors, in an attempt to slow the spreading of the coronavirus. As a result, families are having to keep burials and cremations solitary and direct, and potentially delay memorials for a few months. Groups of more than 10 people are discouraged, and individuals are advised to stay at least 6 feet away from those outside their household.
Bianchi spoke with MarketWatch about how these restrictions might affect someone grieving right now, whether or not the coronavirus was the result of the death. She also shared suggestions for how people can cope, or support others during this time.
MarketWatch: How is the coronavirus affecting the grieving process?
Kristin Bianchi: The coronavirus makes grieving, which is already a lonely process, even lonelier because we don’t have access to the type of physical contact and support upon which we rely to get through times of loss. When someone is acutely grieving and really in the throes of it, they may be too overwhelmed to be able to articulate what they need. They might not even know what they need in the immediate aftermath of a loss. Not having access to people stepping in and taking care of one another is devastating. It adds several extra layers to the stress that already accompanies loss.
MW: We hear that there are a few stages of grief, but might that path change during this crisis?
Bianchi: What we know about grief is that the original state theory that describes different consecutive phases doesn’t quite align with how people actually grieve. People may have all of those emotional experiences at different points in time, depending on the day and hour, so we are looking at grief much more fluid than it is sequential. With that understanding, I think in the absence of being able to have some of the rites and rituals that go along with traditional funerals, there is potentially more room for denial to happen.
There is closure that comes with funerals, with burials, with being able to physically be there and say goodbye in person. When we are robbed of that, if we have to for example watch a funeral being live streamed or burials, it does remove us in a way that does feel surreal. Theoretically, it could delay the grieving process a little bit. It may not feel real and people who are facing loss would be experiencing loss and that surrealism anyway, but these consequences have the potential to exacerbate that.
MW: How can people protect themselves if they may end up experiencing that delay, or feeling that sense of surrealism last longer than it might otherwise?
Bianchi: It is very important to feel your feelings as they come and as much as we may want to push away intense negative emotions, we know that experiencing them in response to a loss is human. The healthiest thing we can do is live in and experience them as waves, knowing we won’t get stuck in any one particular feeling, as long as we recognize them as coming and going.
The current situation requires us to notice our emotions more carefully, to honor them in a way, to access them, and we may have to do that by ourselves more than we typically would do. Having people around us mourning with us allows us to access those feelings, and when we are isolated, it can be harder to do that. It can also be scarier to do that. There’s this uncertainty that goes along with grief and loss. That can be heightened in the absence of consistent social support.
MW: Some people are live streaming funerals and burials. Can something like that help during the grieving process?
Bianchi: Any kind of social support we can get helps. One of the perverse upsides of live streaming funerals and burials is that it could allow people from out of state or out of the country, who wouldn’t be able to get there anyway, offer support.
Depending how public someone feels comfortable making it, it could allow for more acquaintances to be a part of the experience, so people who might not have paid respects in person but nonetheless wish to offer support can be present. We might be surprised that there are more people who can relate to what someone is going through, and it might reach a broader audience and broader social network from which we can draw support.
MW: How can this type of technology be used in a respectful way?
Bianchi: The key step is to ask the immediate family what their wishes are and being crystal clear on what they would like, and respecting that. Then, designating even one or two point people who can oversee the process — those people who are more savvy with technology, or someone removed from the situation so they are not quite so emotionally encumbered to step in and help facilitate that. And in such a way, the family’s wishes are honored and they’re not left to handle those logistics themselves.
Another important piece, if there is going to be any live streaming, to make it known to those in attendance and alert them to where the camera is, such that if they don’t want to be inadvertently filmed they can stay out of line or the person recording can know not to pan over them. It is tricky. We don’t have templates for this, so I think we are really learning and ultimately, it depends on the wishes of the closest survivors to decide what fits their needs.
MW: Are there different types of grief amid all this — perhaps for someone who may have expected to lose a loved one to an illness, versus unexpectedly from the coronavirus?
Bianchi: It is going to be painful whether we were prepared or not, that’s the reality of it. Even when it is a terminal illness and death was expected, it is still a loss. With sudden loss, it puts us into a much greater state of shock. You see someone go from being healthy and OK to not being there at all. It leads to so much agonizing thinking. The “if only” statements. We have to be aware of hindsight bias, which causes us to look at past experiences using information we have now that we didn’t have access to at the time of the loss.
MW: What can family and friends do to help those who lost someone right now?
Bianchi: Check in, check in, check in. The person may or may not respond, and that’s OK, but at least the bereaved people will know that others care and they do have support. You can never let someone know too much that you’re thinking of them. Another recommendation would be to take action without being asked. Often when people are in the middle of a crisis, they don’t know what to ask for — we are not able to problem solve when our bodies and minds are in a state of emergency, so we’re going to have to be creative in terms of what we can do for people. It might be providing gift certificates for meals if we can’t get them somewhere physically, or maybe having food delivered to them and care packages. Also setting up an online community page, a hub for social networks to support them online.
For people who do go through loss, the impulse is to turn inward, so for them, my recommendation is, as much as you can let people in, even if their support may be coming in forms that feel different and not as comfortable as someone physically being there. It is OK to Skype someone and just sit and cry. That’s unconventional but we can still share our grief together and others will want to help shoulder that burden.
I would also encourage anyone who has suffered a loss to do what they can, however they feel comfortable, to honor the memory of loved ones. I know people are really afraid loved ones will be forgotten amid this chaos so if they didn’t have access to the ritualistic final farewell that we would expect, take the opportunity to remember your person, and encourage others to share their memories. Have it documented so you don’t have to rely solely on your memories of what people tell you.
While these people don’t have a template for how to navigate bereavement under these types of social constraints, it doesn’t mean that we can’t grieve in as healthy a manner as possible. Knowing that there is also professional support, that if someone is really struggling, there are plenty of mental health providers available and ready to assist with painful transitions. Many bereavement groups through hospices, churches and social services have moved to a virtual model, so it is still possible to participate. It may not feel the same, but we can still have that connection in some way.