Grieving during a pandemic

By: Candace Hawkins
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Grief is complicated. 

This is true under any circumstances, but especially right now. There's a million things to read out there about grief and loss, and maybe I'll create another post soon dedicated to the plethora of emotions and experiences that surround grief, but I want to focus on the unique experience of losing someone during the pandemic. If you're finding yourself feeling guilty, overwhelmingly sad, lost, afraid of the future - know that you aren't alone. These are common experiences.There is no magic wand that will make this easy, but I want to discuss the major ways in which people tend to find comfort during grief and how we might alter them right now to accomodate these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Most of this information can be useful to those experiencing other kinds of loss and trauma as well; maybe even to those who haven't personally lost someone but who feel the weight of the collective grief we are all experiencing because of the tragedy that has played out this year. If after reading this you feel you need more information or someone to talk to, always know you can reach out to us. Check out our grief resources at

1. Self-work.

The first and most important thing to do is to allow yourself to feel your emotions. Now, people say that all the time but what do those squishy words actually mean? Well, a few things. It means to give yourself permission to feel your feelings, even when it's unpleasant. I talk to so many people - and it's even more true in Buffalo than it was back home in California - who are afraid of their own emotions. Men and women alike. They will keep themselves from talking about their loved one, speaking at the funeral, even having a funeral at all sometimes because they don't want to cry. They don't want to wallow in the sadness, fear, guilt, and other unpleasant emotions that can hit you after a loss. But that's part of the healing process, and it really is true that ignoring your emotions will only compound the problem and make it more difficult to work through your grief. By denying yourself the opportunity to talk about your loved one or engage in ceremonies or rituals that might be helpful to your grieving process, you could be prolonging and complicating your grief. 

Giving yourself permission to feel your emotions also means giving yourself the space and time to assess those emotions. When you feel an emotion pop up that you can't identify or don't understand, allow yourself some quiet time without distractions to think on it. Ask yourself why you are feeling that way - is there is a root memory or other emotion driving it? If you are experiencing it as a negative emotion, why? Could you have done things differently? Is there a lesson to be learned? Or are you feeling this way because of things beyond your control? What other emotions feel connected to this one? Being able to name and identify your emotions is naturally easy for some people and very difficult for others, but it's a skill worth honing for everyone. The act of identifying your emotions, acknowledging them, honoring them, and then letting them go is a valuable mental exercise that can really help you through difficult times. This is one reason so many people take up the practice of meditation during trying times in their lives. It's really easy in today's world to ignore your own well-being for extended periods of time because of constant opportunities for distraction. When you're bored, you can sit and daydream and allow your creative side to come up with ideas or just thought expirements to take up the time, or you can grab your phone and play a game that will give you instant gratification and stimulation. When you're feeling blue, you can allow yourself to explore internally why you're feeling that way and what will help ease the root cause, or you can turn on the TV and instead just turn off your brain, and all of it's annoying emotions, off. Even folks who don't spend a lot of time with technological distractions can do this. Did your mom or grandma ever go on random day-long cleaning sprees when she was stressed out? Or start baking like she was preparing for the world fair? Keeping yourself busy is a great thing in general, but like all things, it can be harmful if you use it as a way to avoid your problems.

I really do feel as though this is the most important step of the grief process, and the good news is that you can do these things anytime, anywhere. In fact, they might even be easier to try when everyone is staying safer at home.

2. Expression.

This is just as valuable as the self-work aspect, and can be even more valuable for folks who process their thoughts and emotions more effectively by talking to someone else about it. For most people, their close friends and family will be their best resources after a loss. This is a very important aspect of holidng a funeral or memorial - having that dedicated space and time to acknowledge and honor your loss and then talk to others who knew and loved the same person and can appreciate the depth of your loss. If you are a person trusted as a confidante to someone going through a loss, it's important to honor their emotions and not necessarily try to fix them or make them feel better. Many of us resort to platitudes like "he's in a better place now," or "be glad you had so many years with them" when we don't know what else to say. While these things are nice sentiments and may be warranted in some situations, they don't do anything to acknowledge the very real pain of the person or help them explore their grief. They can actually make the person feel more selfish or guilty for grieving when they feel they should be thankful and happy instead. Just practice being a good listener. Whether you're the person grieving or the person listening, remember that there is no time line for grief. Most people find they experience overwhelming emotions less and less the more time passes, but it will never go away. It's not reasonable to expect that you will not still have hard days a year or even ten years after losing someone very close to you. Friends who have experienced a similar loss are often the best listeners of all.

If you aren't someone who is good at verbally expressing your emotions, or if you feel like you don't have anyone in your life you can talk to who understands, you might find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional. There's still a little bit of a stigma to this, and it's not always an option financially. However, it really can be helpful to have a space that is 100% safe and confidential, and where you can explore all of your emotions at a dedicated time. It's helpful for some people to have this dedicated time as a means of separating this work from the rest of their lives - think of it like a chore. If you have a routine of getting up in the morning, making the bed, walking the dog, and doing the dishes, then these things won't get neglected. If you instead wait until you feel like doing it or there is an opportune time, they might get neglected. Making your mental health a priority is an important coping strategy. 

The challenge here is that right now, many of us are isolated from our friends, family, and even mental healthcare professionals. It adds another layer of complexity for sure. Many of us tasked as listeners and helpers to someone coping with a loss just want to be able to give a hug when one is needed. Instead, we have to try to find words to fill spaces no words can fill. It's important to know who you can reach out to when you need to talk - even if you would normally go and see the person and now can only talk to them on the phone, they are still there for you, and this won't last forever. 

If talking on the phone doesn't seem to satisfy your need to get your emotions out, consider other outlets. There's a reason why some of the best painters, poets, and musicians have been people who have experienced a lot of trauma. These are great outlets to allow you to reflect and act at the same time, getting all of those feelings out into something concrete that you can then look at to remember and acknowledge that moment in your journey. And there's no rule that says you have to be good at it. Part of the difficulty in grief is that we are very focused on results. Try to reprogram that thinking - even if you don't have a beautiful museum-worthy piece of art when you're done, the process is what really counts. The same is true for life in general. Enjoy the moments, and don't focus on the end result overmuch.

3. Honoring your loss

Honoring your loss looks different to each person. Often, the beginning of this process is the funeral or memorial, where friends and family gather to bear witness to the loss of a life, and to support one another. Memories are shared, photographs are displayed, sentimental songs are played, and family and friends can share their grief with one another and say goodbye to their loved one.

This is the hardest thing to try to replace right now, when there are restrictions on both gatherings and travel. The biggest thing about grief is that is has to be shared somehow. These huge life events aren't meant to be endured alone. That's why every society since our hunter-gatherer ancestors have had some sort of ceremony to honor births, deaths, coming-of age, marriages, and other major milestones. They create community. They create support systems. They honor the importance of these events, and how they impact everyone. They fulfill religious traditions. Not being able to hold these ceremonies leaves a huge hole in the wake of a loss. So much so that one of the oldest known pieces of literature, The Iliad, conveys the story of King Priam tearfully approaching his enemy, the man who killed his son and stole his body, begging him to return the prince to his kingdom so they may perform the sacred burial rights afforded to the dead. The funeral rituals lasted 10 days, during which mourners would gather to celebrate, feast, honor the life lost, and mourn their passing. Our funerals now are much less lavish, but that doesn't mean you can't do something each day and create your own rituals to honor your loved one and the empty place they leave in your life. It can be as simple as stopping to reflect on your favorite picture of them, or donating to their favorite cause in their memory. I found a lot of solace in drinking a glass of wine in memory of my grandma after she passed. I don't even like wine, but it will never not remind me of my grandma, and those few moments of mindfulness and rememberance somehow made it taste better. If you are able to create these moments, do so. And if you are able to share them with someone who can appreciate how meaningful they are, even if it's just over the phone, do that. The importance of introducing rituals to incorporate the person's memory into your daily routine can't be overstated. 

Many folks held off on having a memorial service until they could get the whole family together. The longer this stretches on, and the more the virus oscillates back and forth across the country, the less likely it becomes that the whole family will be able to get together any time soon. And the longer it takes for that to be a possibility, the less likely it is that we'll be holding funerals for many of these people. Depending on the religion and traditions of the family, that can be a really hard blow. For those who want to do something, we have had great success incorporating video chat software into our funerals to allow family from across the globe to attend remotely. We're happy to help you do this, but the important part is that you do it if it's meaningful for you, even if you decide to do it on your own at home.

For those who choose not to do something, I encourage you to reconsider. It doesn't have to be a big formal funeral, but even if, when all of this is over, you can get the family together for a dinner dedicated to honororing and remembering your loved one, I hope you do. Life marches on during these global catastrophes and we must march along with it, but the fact that it keeps moving when we sometimes wish the whole world would stop for a moment doesn't mean we shouldn't take the time to acknowledge the ways our lives have been forever changed by the life events that have refused to wait until a more convenient time. Death never comes at a convenient time. Make the time to allow yourself to grieve, whatever that looks like for you.

And remmeber, we're all in this together.

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