Grieving the loss of a loved one in isolation

By The Health News Team | April 29, 2020
White flowers and lit candle

There are many changes we’ve had to adapt to during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most difficult is the way in which we are able to mourn the loss of loved ones.

From social distancing and travel restrictions to limits on the number of people who can visit a patient in the hospital or gather to celebrate a person’s life, how we handle and grieve the death of someone we care about has been drastically altered. Families can find themselves wondering how to both celebrate a valued life and process the grief they are feeling while also following the guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Getting support when grieving often involves physical and empathic presence and being with other loved ones to comfort each other, particularly someone who is dying,” says Rev. John Breding, a chaplain and the supervisor of spiritual care and education at Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Physical distancing makes this type of comfort and support more difficult, so finding new ways is important to healing during the grief process.”

Sharp chaplains’ spiritual care is open to persons across the spiritual spectrum and those who may not claim a particular spiritual practice. They facilitate communication between patients and their families and faith communities, and counsel family members on ways to manage a loved one’s illness or death and — in challenging times like we’re currently experiencing — navigate new ways to effectively mourn their loss.

Finding new ways to say goodbye
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of visitors allowed when a patient is very close to death or has passed is limited to two people. These visitation restrictions are in place to protect those who are most vulnerable, in accordance with the County Health Department order. While this can present challenges, many families are understanding and find a way to mourn, even as norms have drastically changed.

Rev. Breding recalls one family who was distraught over the idea of limiting visitors to a loved one’s bedside to just two people when there were many relatives wanting to be there. One of the group spoke up and said, “We just can’t do it like we used to or want to; these are different times.” And so they chose two family members to be with their loved one, take photos and help others say their goodbyes via a cellphone conference call.

“I offered a blessing and a sacred text with the family listening by speakerphone, including those at home and out of state,” Rev. Breding says. “They all adapted to grieving differently than they were used to and wanted to, but one person said afterward, ‘In some ways we were closer together, even though we weren’t all here.’”

Families are also having to find different ways to hold a memorial for a loved one who has passed. Rev. Breding says that while some are honoring loved ones by livestreaming or recording services, or arranging online “gatherings,” others are creating individual garden memorials or an art piece as a tribute.

“There are also a number of ways families may commemorate the life of their loved one later,” he says. “For example, a family may decide to spread their loved one’s ashes at a later date and have a memorial service at that time. Or they may decide to do something at a family gathering, such as on Thanksgiving, to set aside time to remember their loved one.”

Missing loved ones during a trying time
It’s not just the current losses that may lead to strong feelings of grief. The death of a loved one can also affect you in a variety of ways over time, and experiencing the pandemic might bring out some of those intense thoughts and emotions.

According to Liz Mackenzie, also a chaplain at Sharp Memorial Hospital, people may be more sensitive to the loss of loved ones who they may have turned to for comfort and support during times like these.

“People are dealing with a lot of grief and loss, in general, due to shelter-at-home orders and other pandemic precautions, and the easiest loss to identify may be the previous death of a loved one,” she says. “A person may be grieving the loss of their daily routine, financial security, safety and more, and it may manifest in thoughts or feelings of a loved one they lost. The loneliness and sorrow that are present may also remind someone of similar feelings they felt after the death of a loved one.”

Mackenzie shared the story of a modified memorial event to mark the second anniversary of a friend’s death. Rather than going to his favorite Irish pub to celebrate his life as planned, a videoconference gathering was held. Friends and family talked about the jokes he’d be making during the pandemic and wisdom he’d share to get through it. “Talking about him helped to remind everyone of their own sense of humor and wisdom in the face of crisis. It may not have been ideal, but it was meaningful and very much needed.”

What you can do if grieving
Both Rev. Breding and Mackenzie recommend you seek out support when grieving the loss of a loved one. Some religious organizations offer counseling by phone or videoconference and online support groups. Friends and family members can be excellent sources of support. And professional mental health providers are offering virtual care appointments.

It is also important to name what you’re feeling, allow yourself to feel those feelings and share those thoughts with loved ones. Be kind to yourself and practice self-care — eat well, get enough sleep and exercise. And find new and effective ways to remember and honor your loved one.

The loss of a loved one also provides the opportunity to consider what you would want your loved ones and doctors to do if you become ill and are unable to voice decisions about your care. Advance care planning — choosing a substitute health care decision-maker and proactively communicating about the type of health care you want should you become severely ill — can provide peace of mind to loved ones in a troubling time.

Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about your health during the grieving process or if you feel you may need help coping with your grief. Learn more about advanced care planning and read important COVID-19 information from Sharp.

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Reverend John Breding


Reverend John Breding is a chaplain and the supervisor of spiritual care and education at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

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Liz Mackenzie


Liz Mackenzie is the director of Arts for Healing at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

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