Grieving COVID-19 losses
We are living in an unprecedented time of loss. More Americans have died from COVID-19 than were lost in the Vietnam war. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that all of the rituals that usually comfort those who’ve lost a loved one are not possible right now. Calling hours at funeral homes, memorial services and burials are all severely limited, if they can happen at all.
Then there are those people who were financially living week to week before the coronavirus hit. Now, without a paycheck, some people are experiencing both financial hardship and the emotional toll of not being able to do meaningful work.
“These are the major losses that are devastating,” said grief counselor Rick Bickford, LICSW, at the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. “But there are so many other things that are real losses and we shouldn’t ignore them. We’re doing so much work on the phone now and one of the common things I hear is how much people miss simply being able to hug each other.”
Some people are grieving the cancellation of major league sports, music concerts, live theater, the prom, and high school graduation. Holidays and birthdays, that are normally times to gather with friends and family, have become lonelier events now that physical distancing is the rule of the land. An increasing number of beloved local annual events like the Barnstable County Fair, Cape Cod Baseball League and the Wellfleet Oysterfest have been canceled, making some people grieve the loss of summer before it has even begun.
The bottom line is that there is no hierarchy of pain, Bickford said. Pain is pain and, while everyone grieves differently, there is a danger in trying to pretend or suppress our feelings of sadness and loss.
“I think it’s important that we are able to acknowledge those things we are missing and try to figure out how to cope with that instead of just denying them or minimizing them,” Bickford said. “Because if we do that too much, we can find ourselves feeling very irritable and angry. It has a way of eroding our sense of well-being, which we are struggling with to begin with in this difficult time.”
An Individual Experience
The journey of grief is different for each person and there is no one right way to respond, he said. Some people will isolate themselves and become numb. They feel lost and without direction, as if their life no longer has meaning. Others will get very busy early on and get overly involved in activities.
“What works for one person doesn’t work for somebody else,” Bickford said. “There is no recipe for how to deal with this. So, it’s really important for people to be able to have the freedom to not be judged for how they are dealing or coping with their grief.”
Bickford described a dual model of grief that acknowledges that we spend a lot of time attending to our grief on the one hand, but there is also a part of us that needs to get involved in activities that allow us to re-enter life. In normal times, most people tend to oscillate back and forth between the two, he said. That becomes a lot more difficult to balance during a time of social isolation.
But it is not impossible.
One of Bickford’s best tips is to look for all the ways that ordinary people are rising to the occasion and also the ways that people are showing their appreciation for their local heroes and frontline workers. Witnessing events like the residents of New York City going outside at 7 p.m. every night to applaud healthcare workers can raise our spirits and show us that there still are positive things in the world, he said.
“It’s weird because it’s not unlike a war,” he said. “We are realizing how much of a threat this is and it speaks to the resiliency of human nature that we’re really rallying to the cause and doing a lot of really positive things to respond to this. That, all by itself, is a huge coping mechanism.”
A Balancing Act
It’s not a matter of denying or minimizing the really difficult changes – what we’re missing and what we don’t have right now - because those are real things. It’s more about balancing what we can’t do or don’t have with what we can do and what we still have, Bickford said.
If somebody you know is having a really hard time around a specific loss, it’s important keep reaching out to that person, even if it is just a weekly phone call to check in, he said. It is also important to refrain from giving them pep talks or advice. Don’t try to make it better. Instead, acknowledge what they are going through and meet them where they are.
“I learned a long time ago that people are extremely protective of their grief because their grief is the most powerful connection with the thing that has been lost,” Bickford said. “People are not going to walk away from their grief very quickly, so we have to be aware of that.
“We will continue to have good days and bad days. We can be in the midst of having a bad day and having tough emotions but it’s so important to understand that feelings and emotions are transitory. They go through us. We can have a horrible day or two, but we’ll bounce back if we allow ourselves.”