Prolonged Grief During COVID

Prolonged Grief During COVID

None of us are immune to the amount of loss and change we’ve seen in the last couple of years. Lives, jobs, friendships, and many aspects of our lives as we know it have disappeared, possibly forever. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think all the changes have been bad. Some relationships are closer, many have taken time to truly understand what is important to them and are taking steps to bring more joy into their daily lives. But this blog post isn’t about that. It’s about handling loss in this unprecedented time. I share my story of loss and some suggestions on coping for those that may be struggling with this now.

My Own Story of Loss

My father had lived a long, full and relatively healthy life after surviving an airplane crash in his early twenties that had left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the three years that preceded his death, he was on bed rest while attempting to heal a bed sore common to those with this type of paralysis. Unfortunately healing came slowly and in the meantime my father’s health declined from the lack of movement. It was a difficult few years for him and while he was quite a fighter, toward the end he was ready to go. We understood that he would then be free from the pain he had suffered all his life, as well as the misery he was feeling from the quality of his life so heavily deteriorating. So his death was not a shock and in some strange way, it partially felt like a blessing.

When he passed away a few days before Christmas, we weren’t sure what to do. Covid-19 was raging, vaccines weren’t widely available yet and it seemed wrong to try to have a funeral at that point in time, knowing that people would feel conflicted about coming and we didn’t want to jeopardize anyone’s health. Instead we decided that we would delay a memorial service until the summer, when the event could be held outside, hoping that by then things would be getting back to normal. We decided to plan a celebration of life party and felt that would be an even better “send off” for him after he had done so much in his lifetime despite his physical limitations.

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The event was last weekend and during the evening and day that followed the party, I felt more sad than ever and even a bit of a letdown. Wasn’t I supposed to feel better? Feel some additional sense of closure?  Happy to have been able to celebrate his life with so many people that had looked up to and admired him? My mother had spent countless hours pulling together scrapbooks, picture albums, a time line and other mementos that beautifully told the story of his life. So many people had come to honor him. We had worked so hard for days to make this a special event. And yet during and after the party all I felt was empty. Why was this?

I lay in bed that night mulling things over and trying to sort out my feelings by talking about it with my husband. Tears flowed and I lay awake for hours before I finally drifted off to sleep. I awoke feeling no better, a heaviness lingering in my being. Later that morning, my daughter Justyne and I were sitting outside on the deck with mom having breakfast and talking about how the party went. We chatted about how we felt everyone had really seemed to have enjoyed the party despite the humidity and smothering heat. We talked about how many people had commented on all the thoughtful touches mom had thought to pull together for the party. Beyond the pictures, scrapbooks and dad’s favorite foods that were served, she even had a little table set up with tiny gold bags that people could select one of the crystals that dad had collected over the years. There really couldn’t have been a more well thought out celebration.

I don’t remember whether I mentioned how I was feeling first or my daughter did, but it turns out her experience of the party and evening after had been similar to mine. She too had cried herself to sleep that night and still was feeling unsettled. We later found out that my sister and two nieces had felt this way too. As we talked things over, we began to better understand our emotions and the lingering sadness. With no memorial service after dad passed away, in a way, this seemed like the first “official” time to grieve. I know that sounds kind of silly, as there is no right or wrong way to handle grief, but stick with me a bit on this theory.

The Stages of Grief

While in hindsight I still believe delaying a gathering to honor dad’s life was a wise decision, I now realize that we prolonged the stages of grief by putting off formally saying goodbye until many months later. Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is most well known for her book On Death and Dying. In it she summarizes five stages of grief from her observations of working for many years with terminally ill individuals.

Her categorization of the five stages of grief are:

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

 Grief is experienced differently for all people and not all people go through all five stages or in this order, so consider this a generalized theory on how grief is often experienced. For us, while it was clear that dad was no longer alive, instead of setting aside time to come to terms with this at the time of his death, we gave ourselves permission to “handle this later” – at his party that we knew we would be having in the summer. We had quickly slipped back into our busy lives and pushed aside sad thoughts when they arose.

I now realize how many people must have reacted similarly with deaths of loved ones that they weren’t even able to say good-bye to, let alone have a funeral to commemorate the passing. And I’m sure many people have struggled through the grieving process alone as a result of social distancing and many people, like we did, just stayed in the denial phase. Others have just kept grieving.

The heaviness we felt during the party and afterwards is indicative of feelings of depression. This is understandable, for as we took time to really think about his life and our loss in the days leading up to his party, doing so yielded sadness with the realization that we could never again share these experiences with him.

I’m not sure I’ve hit the acceptance phase yet and who knows when and how that will come about. I do know that a number of things I did in the days following the party have allowed the heavy feelings to lighten and me to get back into a space of functioning with a lighter heart and some sense of normalcy. I’ll share here what worked for me, as well as a few other suggestions from experts in the hope that if you too have been suffering through a loss you may find these suggestions helpful to try.

Suggestions for Processing Grief & Loss

Sharing your feelings with someone. After talking with Justyne at breakfast that morning I could tell that I felt just a little bit lighter. It’s crazy how just talking about how you feel can ease the burden and heaviness associated with a loss. In hindsight, I recognize now that I should have explained to my husband that first night that I wasn’t looking for advice or answers, I simply just wanted to share my feelings. Letting him know this upfront could have helped him know how to respond as well as prevented me from trying to justify and further explain over and over again how I was feeling.

Setting aside time to feel the loss. Rather than pushing myself to writing a lengthy email with helpful ideas last week, I acknowledged my heart just wasn’t it. It was elsewhere and I let it remain there by doing the bare minimum of what I felt I’d committed to do. I let myself reminisce and feel sad, with confidence that in allowing myself to feel the sadness that the fog would eventually begin to lift. Know that it is okay during the time you’ve set aside to grieve to cry, yell and otherwise throw a tantrum to release and express strong emotions.

Write in your journal. Capturing memories and releasing thoughts on paper can be extremely therapeutic. If you find your mind is a blank page when you come to your journal in a time of processing loss, try one or more of these prompts to help you begin:

  •  What I’m going to miss the most…

  • I remember how we used to…

  • One of my biggest regrets was…

  • When I had xxx, I felt…

  • One of my favorite memories was the time…

  • One thing I learned from…

  • Things I’m happy to leave behind include…

  • Things I’m now looking forward to in the future include…

  • A few things that would make me feel better include…

  • I feel grateful for the support of ________ at this time…

  • I really appreciated…

  • I’d like to do ______ to help remember…

  • One funny time I remember was…

  • Describe how the sense of loss feels in your body.

  • I forgive…

  • I loved it when…

Get outside and move. Regular physical activity, especially time outdoors can help regulate and calm both your body and your mind. Mood boosting endorphins will be released to the brain, which in turn can help motivate you to get back to your normal routines. It’s rare that after a walk I don’t feel just a little bit better now matter how I was feeling when I set out.  

Reminisce.  Talking about the good times and looking through old pictures that sparked memories helped me get the process of coming to terms with loss moving. Doing so seemed to provide both a sense of connection and a feeling of comfort rather than additional sadness. In hindsight, I thing this would have been a very helpful activity to engage in soon after the loss of my father instead of waiting so long to do so. It is important to realize that you don’t need a formal event to do this. Go back through pictures and reach out to share with others that too have felt this loss.

Commemorate or memorialize. In this time of reflection, I shared some of what I had learned from my father over the years in my social posts. It felt really good to be able to publicly give him credit for what a great dad he had been. You may decide to plant flowers or a tree or perhaps volunteer at an organization that the person you’d lost had appreciated or helped over the years. Preserving your memories about losses such as a job, favorite restaurant, or things you used to do in a scrapbook or by writing them in your journal may feel good as well.

Social, spend time with your pets, or join a support group. Being around others can help you share the burden of loss and keep you from feeling alone. While you may not feel like socializing at this time, you may also find that if you push yourself to do so, you end up being glad that you did. Or perhaps it would be easier or more comfortable for you to connect with others online. There is a national Facebook group called COVID-19 Loss Support for Family & Friends that could be helpful. 

Get professional counseling. If you find it difficult to eat, sleep and carry out your normal activities for an extended period of time, seeking out someone that is skilled in coping with the grieving process may be helpful. Know that grief and loss are a personal process and look different for everyone. Go easy on yourself and realize there is no set time period for when grief begins to subside. Just because others around you seem to have rebounded quickly, doesn’t mean that you should be feeling better as well.

In any case, allow yourself the gift of time. It may not completely heal all wounds, but over time you likely will find it will soften them if you let it. We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, but we can be assured that change is a constant. Giving ourselves time to acknowledge and work through strong feelings and emotions caused by loss and change is truly a gift to yourself. A gift you deserve and well worth the time set aside to make it happen.

 

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