Grief in the Time of COVID-19, by Susan Angel Miller - Imagine NJ

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Grief in the Time of COVID-19, by Susan Angel Miller

Susan Angel Miller holding a bookGrief is painful and exhausting during normal times. And now, with the social distancing restrictions of the pandemic, mourners might feel as if they’re walking a tightrope without a safety net.

In an effort to stem the spread of the virus, family members are being prevented from sitting at the bedsides of their dying relatives. Tears come to my eyes when I imagine spouses and children having to say goodbye to their loved ones through a video call. Or, having to stand six feet apart at the gravesite. An absence of physical and emotional support when it’s needed the most.

I still remember the dizzying emotions, more than a decade ago, when my 14-year old daughter Laura was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. When she was declared brain dead four days later, we were stunned. Our previous life assumptions had been shattered, and the world unrecognizable. 

We had suffered every parent’s worst nightmare. We could have crawled under the covers and wallowed in our misery, but we still had two daughters to parent. Sara and Rachel had already lost their older sister, they didn’t also deserve to lose our love and daily attention.

We stumbled through the first few days and weeks by relying on age-old grief observances and focusing on the things we could control.

Here are some hard-earned grief and loss insights that apply in both ordinary and extraordinary times. 

Focus on Emotional and Physical Basics

My grief therapist often reminded me that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. She encouraged me to prioritize my own wellbeing — to put on my own airplane oxygen mask first  — so that I’d have enough energy to meet my family’s emotional needs. 

I tried to follow the acronym HALT – not get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Eat healthy foods. Acknowledge my emotions without judging them. Reach out to friends. Take naps when all else fails.

Give Yourself Permission to Feel What You’re Feeling

I would need to accept the feelings of despair – as well as the unexpected moments of joy. I could tear up when seeing a photo of Laura and also be happy that it reminded me of her. Conflicting emotions can be experienced at the same time. One does not cancel out the other. 

I learned that feelings – especially the most painful ones – must be felt in order to transition from grief to a place of eventual acceptance. 

Accept Help

I wanted to be self-sufficient, but my sorrow was too overpowering and disorienting to say no to well-meaning friends and family.

I readily accepted friends’ offers to pick up groceries and bring over dinner. Meals still can be left at a cooler placed at your back door.

When I would become especially low, I would text or phone friends. These same options exist today. Physical distancing shouldn’t prevent healing human interactions.

Talk About Your Loved One and Record Your Memories

I mentioned Laura’s name often and talked about her with anyone who would listen. I was (and still am) her proud mom.

I’m grateful for having scribbled down thoughts about Laura in those first few weeks. And, by struggling with the meaning of Laura’s death and creating my memoir Permission to Thrive, I better understand the therapeutic benefits of writing. It’s actually been shown to decrease anxiety and provide a sense of the person being present.

Create Private Rituals and Celebrate Your Loved Ones’ Life 

I’d encourage you to share the news of your loved one’s death with your circle of friends and family and make plans to hold a memorial service when allowed. 

Right now we can remember our loved ones in private ways – lighting a candle, meeting up with family and friends virtually, or bringing up their name in normal conversation.

Grief is not a linear path. Like the children’s game Chutes and Ladder, some days we move ahead on the board and on others we stumble and fall down the slide. On these darkest days though we have to remind ourselves that at least we’re courageous enough to “play the game”.  

Regardless of what’s happening around us, now or in the future, we all have the capacity to survive, and even thrive, through the choices we make.  

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