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Sharp Health News

COVID’s effect on grief and loss

Aug. 30, 2021

Back of person on a swing holding an empty swing

By Robyn Nieto, a senior communications and marketing specialist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

Facing a pandemic and all of its side effects meant digging deep into our emotional reserves to navigate daily life while changing the way we did nearly everything. For millions of people, it also meant having to amend even the very personal journey of grieving the loss of a loved one.

In 2020, our family was rocked by the loss of my mother in March, followed nine months later with the death of my older sister. Mentally managing these two gut punches was enough on its own. But for me, it also brought to light what not only my own family, but people everywhere, were facing as COVID-19 threw oil onto the path of the already difficult process of grief, and challenged us to somehow navigate it in our new reality.

We’ve all become adept at doing things differently, even creatively, to get through the day and find ways to work, socialize and celebrate. Online meetings and drive-by birthdays were born, but for millions facing the loss of a loved one, the continued shutdown of our “normal” added another layer of complexity.

“Losing someone has become much more intensified with COVID-19,” says Colleen Linnertz, a grief counselor with Sharp HospiceCare. “People haven’t always been able to be there to say goodbye to their loved one or mourn with extended families. Mixed with that have been job losses and financial issues, and that has made the last year and a half a time of accumulated tragedy and grief.”

Most people are hardwired for timelines, traditions and conventional ways to move through what life throws at us. Grief on its own is mentally isolating, but being physically limited on traveling, gathering and other traditional ways we would normally lean on others when we lose a loved one has forced our hand to figure out how to reorder the steps of grief. This by-product may, however, have been a silver lining for some. The pandemic led to an increase in awareness of and support for mental health, and grieving the loss of loved ones on top of it took tremendous resilience — and baby steps.

“We’ve been in this place of hypervigilance, uncertainty, digesting information and finding out how to cope in a pandemic, right when some of our best coping tools were taken away,” says Linnertz. “For some people, the gradual grieving process that they have been forced to adapt may have been the only way through it in such an unprecedented time.”

Long before the pandemic, Linnertz says she always stressed to people that there is no recipe, no timeline for grief. Success in the process is largely dependent on not doing too much too fast, and to go at a very moderate pace.

“The more we give ourselves permission to go slow, take small steps and do what we need to do at the right time for us is the most important thing you can do for yourself,” she says. With the threat of COVID still very much a reality, she says it is important that loved ones allow themselves to feel OK and not guilty about an unconventional grieving and remembrance process because they simply may have no control over it.

“One thing for people to remember is that all of us have been touched and our lives altered by COVID,” says Linnertz. “Don’t feel alone that the way you want to honor your loved one just may not be able to happen right now, but know that that’s OK, they would understand, and there are many other things you can do in the meantime that are under your control.”

She shares some personalized ideas to help loved ones through the grieving process, even if a larger service or gathering has been put on hold.

  1. To celebrate a loved one’s birthday, favorite holiday or observance, organize a virtual family gift exchange and encourage gifts that the person would have chosen, then unwrap them together with loved ones near and far.
  2. Write a letter to the loved one you lost, asking questions, making amends if you need to, telling stories and so on. To complete the conversation, write one back “from them” to you with how you think they’d respond.
  3. Share recipes of the person’s favorite meal with family and friends, and “have dinner together” virtually with everyone.
  4. Find a recurring time to connect online, by phone or in person, to share stories with one another and build on the positive memories that, when the time comes for a remembrance or celebration, you can share with the rest of family and friends.

For us, my mom is home for now, her urn surrounded by fresh flowers and family photos, on a table overlooking a Northern California vineyard. In memory of my sister, my niece potted cuttings of her mom’s beloved plumeria and gave one to each of us. For now, it’s the little things that keep us on that important path of healing, no matter how, or when, we get there.

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