Throughout the pandemic, people were separated from their loved ones as they approached the end of life. Hospitals were not allowing people in to visit. Nursing homes had restrictions on visitations. Additionally, some people died who we did not expect to die. Therefore, during this incredibly challenging time, people who lost loved ones may not have had their grieving needs met.
We know that cancer takes life. We know aging takes life. But COVID-19 came along and we had more than 1 million deaths in the U.S. and over 5,300 in San Diego County. Many of those lives were of young, healthy people that we never would have expected to die. And because of the unexpectedness and trauma attached to that, our grief became complicated.
Challenges of the pandemic in life — and death
There was such dread, fear and unmeasurable loss surrounding the pandemic. My husband lost three family members due to COVID — three people in one family unit, all within a year. And we were not alone.
There were people unable to be there at the time of a loved one’s passing; people unable to hold funerals because of the restrictions related to public gatherings; and people suffering due to illness because of a lack of resources in our health care systems. All of this complicated survivors’ grief and increased their guilt because they knew their loved ones were alone and their care was not well-managed.
What’s more, added social stresses of the pandemic complicated our lives on top of the mourning we experienced. A sense of powerlessness and hopelessness combined with social stresses, such as unemployment, financial distress, child care issues, schools closing, and isolated families, were overwhelming — again, making grieving that much harder.
The difference between grieving and mourning
However, it is vital that we allow ourselves to grieve after such loss and to recognize the difference between grieving and mourning. Grief is the internal process of our loss — the thoughts and feelings we have when somebody we love dies. It is a normal and natural reaction to loss — or to significant change of any kind. And grief needs the process of mourning in order to come to terms with our loss.
Mourning is when you take your grief experience, the internal process, and you express it outside of yourself. It is the external release of all your thoughts, feelings and memories. This process looks different for each person. It can be talking to someone, allowing yourself time to cry, tapping into your spirituality, going to grief groups or counseling, or writing about your experiences.
Without being able to move those feeling outside of ourselves, the emotions of grief can go underground, causing disenfranchised grief and the decreased opportunity to freely express it. This also occurs if we don’t have people acknowledging our loss. That loss and the feeling that comes with it are invalidated and we are cut off from compassion and support. And when the bereaved suppress their grief, it can start to cause problems that manifest in other ways, such as depression, anxiety and physical symptoms.
Learning how to express your grief and seek support
It is so important to turn to others for support — family members, friends, support and counseling groups. And ask for what you truly need. So often, when people ask what we need, we answer, “I’m fine.” But what we really need is someone to listen, or a distraction, or a meal when we have a hard time cooking for ourselves. Be specific. Let people know what you need and allow them to care for you in that manner.
Finding support and expressing ourselves is so important to our overall health after a loss. We must realize the purpose of mourning is to provide ourselves with the courage and confidence to start integrating the death of someone you know into your life. Through that integration is where we heal. However, healing is not “getting over” loss. Instead of having grief be your life, integration is the ability to be in life with your grief.
Be kind to yourself and your process
Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are going to feel. Know that your grief emotions are normal and they are to be expected. Too often, we tend to be hard on ourselves. We judge ourselves. We compare ourselves to other people. We think grief should go faster than it really does. Your feelings must be felt, and your feelings must be released. That is part of mourning.
And finally, it is important to recognize that with a loss, your life has changed forever. It is not going to be the same. You are not going to be the same. When you come to terms with that, you can then look at the things you are able to control and make decisions about those things in a way that is beneficial.