More than 425,000 people have died from the novel Covid-19 virus in the United States. That’s very nearly the population estimate of Oakland, California, or more than the entire population of Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to recent data at Census.gov.
A recent study out of USC showed that for every single Covid-19 death, at least nine people are left to mourn. At the time of the study, last July, just over 137,000 people had died of the virus — leaving more than 1.22 million people in mourning. At current rates, the USC multiplier, as the researchers call it, indicates that 3.825 million Americans are currently grieving.
Robin Siegal is an Adjunct Professor at USC and a therapist. “Covid has robbed us of our normal grieving rituals,” she says.
Phyllis Kominsky is a psychotherapist and author who focuses her work on loss and grief, and she also says that the pandemic has affected the way we mourn.
“We are not meant to grieve alone,” Kominsky says. “When we lose someone we love, it stands to reason that we look for other connections to give us solace and remind us we aren’t alone in the world. We seek out reassurance and comfort and in the current circumstances, and we can’t do that in the traditional way that we have done it in the past.
It’s one thing to talk on the phone and have a Zoom call and emails. It’s another thing to be held and soothed and have someone look you in the eyes and say, ‘I feel for you.’ You can’t underestimate what is lost when we lose the ability to connect physically and gather for the purpose of remembering someone who has passed. There is a reason we have always gathered to remember. Traditions serve a very important purpose. They offer the time and space to receive comfort from other people. The pandemic has deprived us of many things, but when it comes to grief, it’s deprived us the opportunity for comfort.”
The basics of mourning
At its core, mourning is a ritual that we use to mark the death of someone close to us. Mourning has been a part of human culture since the advent of the tribe in our early social evolution. It’s a natural progression of letting go of a loved one and simultaneously requesting help and support from your community, and it’s a vital part of the grieving process.
“There’s an intuitive, instinctive connection between love and loss, and that has to do with the fact that we attach to another person,” Kominsky says. “As soon as we do that, we are setting ourselves up for the risk of loss and pain. We take that risk because it’s what we are made to do and born to do. In a way, grief is just as inevitable as love and attachment are.”
Grief is generally considered to be made up of five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It is of note that not everyone will pass through these phases. While it may seem like the stages are linear, they are not. You can cycle through one or more of these stages and loop back to others at any point in the process. After all, human emotions don’t follow logical patterns. The act of mourning, however, generally helps us all move through to the acceptance stage of grief because it allows us to express our sadness, and by expressing it, solicit help and support from our community.
Yet during these strange and socially-distant days, we cannot have conventional ceremonies (like in-person funerals, days of sitting shiva in-person or merely having an end-of-life celebration event) to mark the passing of a loved one. In many cases, we can’t even visit a loved one in the hospital because of the danger of the virus, and our mourning process, in many ways, has been put on hold.
Siegel says that it’s also essential to recognize that mourning can also take shape around the loss of many things, including jobs, divorce, and death. “We carry these feelings of loss with us,” Siegal says, “and if they are not acknowledged or go unexpressed, some people will experience a variety of difficulties. The more one can acknowledge the loss and express the feelings as well as develop rituals, the more it can help work through stages of grief.”
How to support someone with a sick relative
Stress and grief manifest in a variety of ways for different people. Some become irritable and angry, while others may become withdrawn and depressed. In either case, moods can and will likely shift rapidly and ebb and flow with the ups and downs of daily or hourly reports. The stress of having a sick loved one can be particularly acute during this pandemic, as well.
“The reality of having someone you love fall ill is difficult in normal times. It’s one thing if you can go and stand on the other side of a glass enclosure, or go in and have contact, but for people who are really at a distance from loved ones and have no opportunity to see them, the only contact they have is maybe a Zoom call or phone call. For those facing this situation, we can offer a place for them to talk about what that is like, and offer them space to simply discuss their feelings. Don’t underestimate how important it is just to give people a place to vent and talk,” Kominsky says.
We really do need to be prepared for the fact, not only that the pandemic itself isn’t going away any time soon, but that the mental health impact of what we have all been through is not going to evaporate overnight.
You can also offer to help support friends with a sick loved one by helping out in a socially distanced way. Siegal suggests that if you live nearby, you can offer to order or pick up groceries or other necessities for them and drop them off. You can also offer to run small errands for them, too.
You can also use your talents and skills to help make their days easier. Say you are a yoga teacher and want to offer a special class online just for them. Perhaps you’re a photographer, and you can put together a small photo book for their loved one. Maybe you are a really great musician or stellar at putting together a playlist, and you can offer music for your friend or their loved one. No matter what you offer, the goal is to simply hold space for your friend and allow them to experience their feelings as they come.
How to support someone who has lost a relative to Covid-19
If someone close to you has lost a loved one to Covid-19, they may feel a variety of emotions, according to Kominsky. These can range from feeling a deep sense of guilt for not being able to be there when a loved one passed to feeling lost and alone, and they will likely cycle through these emotions. Again, the key in these situations is to, first and foremost, offer to simply listen to what the person might need.
When the initial loss happens, the mourner is often inundated with calls, messages, and support, but one thing that Siegal points out is that the mourning process extends well beyond just the first few weeks after the loss, however.
“Don’t just call the person the first month,” Siegal says. “Even weekly phone calls or more could be very helpful. Try asking for times of the day or week that they are the most vulnerable, and then be sure to connect at those times.”
Kominsky seconds this idea. “We talk a lot about offering to do things for someone who has suffered a loss,” Kominsky says. “It’s better to make a specific offer. Don’t just say, ‘please let me know if there’s anything I can do.’ It’s nice to say, but it doesn’t do much in terms of helping the person. Instead, suggest concrete things that you come up with, rather than relying on the person in mourning to come up with something. It’s important to make an offer of regular contact.”
Another note that Kominsky makes is that if the loss is also close to you, you should do your best to not inundated the mourner with your own emotions and not try to “heal them,” yourself. “I think it’s very important to realize that when someone is grieving, we as humans perceive that they have a problem, and we, even us professionals, cannot solve this problem for them. They have a wound that has to heal from the inside. So, if you’re trying to help someone who’s lost a loved one, know that you don’t have to solve the problem and that you can’t solve it. What you can do is encourage someone to talk about whatever feelings they have and not try to talk people out of their feelings or whatever emotions they are experiencing.”
You can also offer to help support a friend who’s lost a loved one by offering your own skills up as well, much in the same way you support those who have a loved one who is sick in the hospital. Drop flowers off on their front porch, sit a Zoom Shiva, offer to help them put together a slideshow that they can use to remember their loved one by — there are plenty of options out there if you put your mind to it. As Siegal points out, it’s also important to offer the person who suffered the loss, the opportunity to talk about memories of their loved one and share stories.
“Recognize the person mourning is going to likely have ‘anniversary’ emotions too,” Siegal says. “So the first Christmas, the first Passover, the first Easter, may all be difficult for the person suffering the loss. Even years later, people will still experience a sense of sadness and grief, and it’s important to offer support during these times, too.”
The long-term effects of loss
The truth is that researchers and care workers don’t yet know what the longer-term impact of the vastness of loss might be. The longer the pandemic goes unchecked, the more death and sickness will touch us all.
“We really do need to be prepared for the fact, not only that the pandemic itself isn’t going away any time soon, but that the mental health impact of what we have all been through is not going to evaporate overnight,” Kominsky says. “The pandemic has shot a hole in the assumptions we have about how life goes. All these assumptions that we have taken for granted have really been undermined, and the uncertainty and fear along with the grief are going to be with us for a while.”
It’s not all bad, though. As Kominsky says, “I think that sometimes a situation like this forces us to slow down and do with less. We really do have a sense now of what is most important to us. There’s this immersion in the consciousness that death is a reality, and the only defense we have is to love the people who we love while they are here and to live our lives fully, in the knowledge that life has an endpoint and is finite. If we can let the reminder of the finality of life let us be more determined to live fully, then we will have learned something valuable.”