Is grief from a distance our newer “new normal”?

By arhospice on March 27th, 2020

Guest Blog by Simone Brock, Arkansas Hospice Bereavement Specialist

“Services will be private due to State Mandated Restrictions concerning COVID-19.” This is the latest closing line in Arkansas obituaries. Last Sunday, I read that Italy is no longer being allowed to hold funerals, and as a bereavement specialist and non-practicing funeral director, I felt a strong reaction to this. The look and feel of funerals are changing daily, and with each day comes more restrictions. When I hear this, I immediately think about grief. Can grief be fully experienced by the bereaved when the usual things we do to cope and move forward are so severely inhibited right now? We must find ways to collectively support each other without being the physical presence we typically know and depend on. Grief is a healthy reaction. It can still be healthy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic if we attend to it.

While our usual way of doing things is certainly being changed, it is also altering our traditional way of saying goodbye to our dead. As a sophisticated society, we honor our loved ones and pay respect in whatever way best suits our family and belief system. No matter your choice, what you do is considered a funerary rite. It serves the ever-important psychological task of allowing the griever to begin to accept the reality of the loss (one of the Tasks of Mourning by J. William Worden). For many people right now, this is proving to be a challenge. Some families are this very second trying to find ways to say goodbye to the dying while COVID-19 prevents their physical presence. My own dad died just a month ago and because of FaceTime my brother was able to talk to my dad one last time, and it was precious. This won’t be possible for everyone. Unexpected deaths bring these same challenges; death may not look like what you had imagined in a best-case scenario image.  All of this makes me wonder how people experienced grief at other critical times of change in our society such as during the Spanish Flu pandemic and the Black Death plague. Certainly, people in those times faced challenges similar to what we are now facing.

But as life goes on, so does death. And so, we must adapt and find new ways to express our grief in perhaps non-traditional ways. I’ve noticed on social media the amount of creativity that people are displaying right now. Dealing with our immediate need to grieve can be just as creative.

People still need support, perhaps more now than ever before.”

For the immediate family: If you can have some sort of ceremony now, do it. Maybe it’s just for yourself and two or three family members but do it. Understand that you are holding a sacred ritual for this person you are saying goodbye to. We must continue to make meaning for the living. Consider a livestream of the service. Print an obituary and pay tribute now even if you choose to have a memorial service in the future. Family and friends will want to support you now, and an obituary is a traditional way of telling people. Get memorial folders and mail to those that couldn’t attend. Keep a guestbook with a list of everyone who reaches out. Designate memorials in their name. Put together a photo slide show and share on social media. Whatever you do, don’t neglect your need to grieve.

Hand-written notes add a personal touch, especially during periods of social distancing.

For friends and other family: People still need support, perhaps more now than ever before. Send hand-written cards. Make memorial contributions. You may be able to send a floral arrangement to the home. Send over a meal while keeping socially distanced. Call ahead and drop it at the doorstep. Remember, you are no longer feeding the masses so a small meal or something freezable may be better. Blow kisses or share a moment of silence from your car while you’re there. Most importantly, pick up the phone and call the person. Keep in mind that the bereaved likely has more alone time than usual right now, so being present in this way is critical. Real conversation is more crucial than ever. Texts are good too, not as a substitution for personal conversations, but can be a nice supplement. Remember that as people anticipate death, they begin to assimilate what life will look like. They begin to make plans and afterward they accept social invitations, they get the car serviced and do routine things they’ve neglected. They attend church or groups that restore and heal … all these things we normally do now have newly imposed limitations. As a world, we are all kind of stuck in place for the time being. We do not want people to feel stuck in their grief, too, so do anything you can to provide support. And remember that when life returns to whatever “new normal” we must continue to reach out. Invite your friend for coffee or lunch when we can safely return to this. Help them begin to do the things they would have done but couldn’t.

Technology can bridge the gap for staying connected with others who need grief support.

Many people are learning new ways of expression right now. Just about everywhere, we find that even the technologically challenged are learning to use FaceTime and platforms like Zoom. Get a group together and hold a virtual memorial, tribute, or just laughter and stories. As you grieve, embrace the solitude through things like writing (poetry, journals, letter-writing to the deceased), reading (for information or for pleasure), drawing or anything artsy or productive. Watch church on TV or other means since many are closed. Listen to music or books, dance, exercise, walk, and just move. Rest if you need it but try to regulate your sleep schedule. Meditate (there are many apps like CALM that are great for this). Be leery of turning to vices for coping. They may be especially tempting at this time. Reach out for help when you need it by connecting to a virtual support group.

I’ve heard from many of my funeral director friends saying they feel grief themselves in their inability to fulfill family wishes to the fullest. Collectively, we still grieve. The concept doesn’t change, but we do. Perhaps with intentional thought about how we approach this time, we can continue to nurture one another in the richest sense.

If you or a loved one are dealing with grief or loss, Arkansas Hospice offers community-based grief support for anyone.  CLICK HERE to visit the grief support page on our website for resources and more information.

14 Parkstone Circle | North Little Rock, AR 72116
(501) 748-3333 or Toll Free (877) 713-2348
Arkanas Hospice Arkanas Hospice Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 71-0846826