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Patients and Caregiver Stories

Some Thoughts for Coping with Grief During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Oh, only for so short a while you

have loaned us to each other,

because we take form in your act

of drawing us,

and we take life in your painting us,

and we breathe in your singing us.

But only for so short a while

have you loaned us to each other.

Aztec prayer, source unknown

The journey through grief is painful at any time. It seems especially heart breaking today during the COVID 19 pandemic because of the social distancing we are asked to maintain and the inability for some of us to see our loved ones in hospitals who are dying or who have already lost the battle with this virus. Our usual ways of mourning are not available to us right now. There are no funerals or memorial services unless they are held on-line to keep people safe. There are no hugs from friends and family who share our grief, no telling of stories that bring tears as well as smiles. This new reality seems to only magnify the pain we are currently feeling.

One of my cousins recently died from cancer in my home state of California. As I was feeling the loss of her life and missing the family gathering that is being postponed until next fall, I remembered the families of residents or patients at the facility where I work who have also recently lost loved ones and wondered what I could offer to help ease their grief (and mine as well). The following came to mind:

  1. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Grief can bring on such a complex mixture of feelings sometimes and trying to deny them or cover them up just isn’t helpful. If you feel sad and feel like crying, cry till you feel cried out for the time being. You might feel angry at the person, the timing, the illness, the doctors, the hospital, the circumstances, the politicians, etc., and that is OK. Feel the anger and find something to do with it, e.g., go for a walk or a run or a bike ride; write a letter; throw rocks, in a safe place, of course. If you feel guilt, let that feeling wash over you. It is a natural feeling. How many of us feel we coulda, woulda, shoulda after we’ve lost a loved one? Just don’t dwell on beating yourself up. It won’t help. Instead, talk to your loved one (maybe with the aid of an image) and tell them you are sorry for _______. I’ve been feeling some guilt for not staying in touch with my cousin after her mother died two years ago. I knew she was in pain because I knew how close she was to her mother. I have asked her for forgiveness for not reaching out to her and I hope my remorse and vow to be more responsive to those I know who are grieving will release my regret.
  2. Give yourself some time to resume your “normal” schedule. Don’t go back to work (if you are working from home or have to go to an essential job) right away, if you can help it. You really are not back to “normal” right now, so don’t try to pretend that you are. If you are a person who needs activities to feel balanced, then find some things to do that are calming, e.g., if you are a knitter, knit something simple; if you like to cook, fix a favorite comfort food; if gardening is your thing, plant some seeds or pull some weeds. These kinds of activities are also paths to prayer – for yourself, your family, your loved one, the world……. No need for wordy or elaborate prayers, either. Simply saying “Thank you” or “Bless her/him” are profound prayers. I know that God hears you.
  3. Find a comforting ritual and either do it alone or invite others to join you. In my family of origin’s Mexican Catholic culture, we would say novenas after the death of a loved one. Invite family and/or friends to pray a novena with you (at a distance, of course, or online) for 9 days or 9 weeks. (See the attached or find one on-line that feels comforting to you.) Another example of a ritual that is common in my family’s culture, is the creation of a small altar somewhere in your home where you can put a favorite picture of your loved one, a candle, a favorite item or food, and/or flowers. My mother died 11 years ago and we still commemorate her birthday, Mother’s Day, etc. with flowers and her favorite candy - Milky Way or Sees’ chocolate. The planting of a tree, bush, or plant that held some significance for your loved one is another wonderful ritual – an “altar” in nature. Saying prayers as you plant it and/or blessing it with holy water afterwards makes this ritual even more healing. Every culture has some form of ritual regarding commemorating loved ones. This is a great time to revive those practices or create new ones.
  4. Feed your body, mind and spirit. Deep grief is a shock to your whole system. I know that taking care of yourself right now may be the last thing on your mind. Yet, now is an important time to pay some attention to what you need in order to be able to function. I am sure someone in your circle has emailed or called you and reminded you to eat something. You may not feel like it right now because your body probably feels bruised from crying or numbed by the shock you have experienced. If someone has left you a casserole at your doorstep or ordered you a pizza, have at least a bite. It was given to you in love. Remember to try to eat healthy foods – quality protein, complex carbs, fresh fruits and vegetables. Your weakened system might be urging you to chow down on chips, chocolate, cookies, pastries, and/or your favorite fast food, e.g., McDonalds or Dairy Queen. After my mother died, I convinced myself that my body needed the salt in the potato chips and Doritos I was eating all day long because of all the salty tears I was shedding. Needless to say, I ended up gaining weight and feeling bloated. Once in a while or in small portions is fine – just don’t give in to those temptations every single day. Your body needs and deserves good nutrition.

Stay hydrated - drink lots of water, diluted juices, mineral water, etc. Try to stay away from sugary drinks or excess alcohol. Any of these in moderation is fine, of course. Just think of how much worse you might feel with a hangover on top of the headache you already have from crying. Try to do some form of exercise.Going for walks, especially on nice days (remember to social distance!) can feel very soothing. Gentle stretching, indoor exercising on stationary bikes or treadmills also help your body to relax more. It doesn’t have to be for long. Even ten minutes is helpful. Read books or articles on grief, when you are able to read.It can be very reassuring to learn about others’ experiences and help you realize that while your grief is unique to you, you are not alone. If you aren’t ready to read those kinds of materials yet, find a novel, a People magazine, a book on gardening, or, my favorite, a cookbook. This is a great way to relax and escape, at least for a little while. Meditate, pray, do yoga. There are many guided meditations available online for free. Simply sitting with feet flat on the floor, arms at your side or on your lap, taking 3 or 4 deep breaths and releasing them slowly is a good start. Reading poetry can also feel very comforting and can feed your soul. Many people I know who are grieving have favorite Psalms or passages from the Bible they are turning to for comfort.

  1. Hold on to hope. As hard as it may seem to imagine, a day will come when you will not hurt as much. Think back to other times in your life when you have faced loss. What helped you through it? How long did it take before your pain eased? What did you learn from the experience? Your heart will still ache at some memories but, hopefully, some of the happier memories will come as well.
  2. Ask for help. Call a family member or friend and simply say that you want to talk for a bit or listen to his/her voice. Or maybe you just want someone you know and trust to simply sit with you in silence for a while. This is doable with face masks and social distancing or even over the phone. Of course, it doesn’t feel the same as having a person right next to you, but at the same time, remember that these are extraordinary times. Giving you love and compassion is the most important thing your friends and family can do right now.

It is hard during this quarantine to connect with people when we are hurting. But while they probably can’t physically come visit or give you a hug, they can perhaps learn how to set up a Zoom or Skype call and send virtual hugs. And if someone asks you what you need, have a list ready. Maybe grocery shopping is just too hard right now. Or you don’t have the energy to cook meals or mow the lawn. When people ask how they can help, tell them. This is no time to think you don’t want to bother people or be a burden. Friends and family do not offer unless they want to do something for you. It is a way to show their love.

If you are unable to sleep, call your primary care physician and ask for help. You might also consider going to a grief counselor or joining a grief group. I went to a counselor after my mother’s death and found those sessions very helpful.

  1. Focus on love. I’m convinced that the depth of our grief is equivalent to the depth of our love for our deceased loved one. That is why it is so painful! When you focus on the feelings of love that you shared and the many times you did things out of love for each other, it reminds you that this love was and continues to be a great gift. Remember the Aztec prayer that so beautifully tells us that we are only loaned to one another – precious gifts on loan to one another for however long we have to be together. Just think of all the people who love you right now and focus on that feeling and appreciate it. You are worthy of all of it. Love is a powerful healer.

Finally, know that someone somewhere is praying for you right now and knows how hard it was not to be able to say a final goodbye if that was the case. Maybe that someone is a family member, friend, co-worker, or even a person you may not know – like me, for instance. This pandemic has impacted all of us around the world. It is a very human thing to feel you are alone in your grief. You are not. We are all feeling it in so many ways. As a person who believes in a Divine Presence, I know that Presence (God, the Creator, the Supreme Being) is right alongside each of us, grieving too. I pray that you find some comfort knowing that you are loved and held during this painful time.

* Image by Andrew Martin from Pixaby