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“We had to take her to the Emergency Room and she was admitted to the hospital…we never saw her again.”
My co-worker recently relayed the story of his mom’s death last September during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. My heart broke. It has, again and again, these last 15 months.
We’re nearing 600,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States. According to recent research, there are approximately nine people grieving for each person who died from Covid-19. That’s over five million people! It’s a startling statistic that indicates the effects of the pandemic will linger for a long time after the virus mortality rate is ended. And it’s only part of the story.
We have all lost. None of us have escaped unscathed from the last year and a half.
The pandemic has taken our loved ones, many of whom died alone and isolated from anyone they knew. It has been tragic.
Covid has stolen other things. It has taken our milestones: weddings, anniversaries, funerals, birthdays, graduations, long-planned trips. It has taken our ability to gather in person—for meeting new family members and seeing aging ones, for togetherness as community, for cheering and singing and dancing. It has taken our health and our well-being—some still bear lingering physical symptoms from the virus, too many bear the lingering psychological symptoms.
Loss after loss after loss.
These losses add to the losses we’ve all experienced over the course of our lives.
And with each loss comes grief.
Grief is an acute pain that results from severed attachment. Sometimes it results from our purposeful letting go, but most often it comes when something is ripped away from us. Grief is a universal process, but the emotions and thoughts are as unique as the individual experiencing them. They may include sadness, anger, relief, regret, fear, among others. It’s our inner experience of loss.
Externalizing those feelings is called mourning.
It’s the crying, the counseling, the memorializing. As Alan Wolfett, Ph.D. notes in his book Understanding Your Grief, “Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.”
Why do I need to mourn my grief? Won’t it just go away on its own?
Grief is painful and hard—physically, emotionally, spiritually. We don’t jump in willingly. But it’s a road we must walk if we hope to heal. We can’t go around, or above, or below. We must walk through. Unprocessed grief can lead us down unwanted paths and manifest in unhelpful ways like:
>> unexpected anger, depression, anxiety
>> addiction and substance abuse, anything to numb out
>> physical symptoms: pains, infections, complications outside normal physical symptoms of grief
>> compound grief through future loss.
Only you can ultimately know what you need in order to mourn a loss in your life. Listen to your heart. Even when it’s ripped apart it knows the way. I’d highly recommend working with a trained grief therapist who can support your journey if you can.
Loss is part of life; we will experience it again and again.
Here are six ways to support your mourning process and help you move toward healing:
(These focus primarily on loss through death, but some can be applied to other losses that we experience. They all need mourning.)
1. Honor the Reality of your Loss
Most of the world does not want to hear about your loss. Those who aren’t grieving often struggle to hold the space for those in grief.
I recognize it when I tell people that I work in hospice. There are two responses. Those who have had loved ones die and are working to honor their grief offer words of appreciation or curiosity and want to relay their own experiences. Those who haven’t lost someone or who have disavowed their grief nod their head and utter something like, “That’s interesting,” if they are polite, or, “Sounds depressing,” if they’re not, before exiting the conversation as quickly as possible.
Most people don’t want to talk about death. It raises their own anxiety. They worry about their own finitude. They feel awkward and don’t know what to say. It feels taboo in our death-denying culture. So they run away. They offer unhelpful platitudes. They try to change the narrative.
Soon after attending the funeral for his beloved grandfather in 1970, Jimmy Buffett wrote “The Captain and the Kid.” The song captured loving memories of his grandfather and allowed him to channel his grief. A record executive he talked with about recording the song asked him to change the ending so that the old man didn’t die in the end—to soften the blow of the song and make it less sad. Buffett refused, saying, “But he did die!” He knew that to bury our truths is anathema to burying our dead. Honor the reality of your loss.
Grief can be so isolating. Lean into supportive family and friends who can help you honor your loss when you can.
But what about when it’s time to seek support outside of your circle? If most people don’t want to hear about your loss, where else can you turn?
2. Join a Support Group
One answer is grief support groups. Periodic group meetings can be established by churches and community centers as well as hospitals and hospices or other organizations. Nearly every hospice has ongoing grief support groups and welcomes participants regardless of whether they used the hospice services.
When I was running a weekly grief support group many years ago, a woman came up to me smiling after a meeting. I asked her why she was smiling and she said, “It’s nice to be with people who speak the same language.”
Not everyone in a group will have the same loss—spouse, parent, child…but often, several will. And while each loss is individual, those who share in a loss type will be able to empathize with you while others who care may only be able to sympathize. Seek out people who “speak your language.”
With Covid restrictions easing in some places, more groups will be gathering in person soon. Otherwise, Zoom options may be available.
3. Lean into Favorites
I remember when my best friend Brian died, I desperately clung to anything that reminded me of him. His signature on birthday cards, his notebooks. I was beside myself when I couldn’t find his voice on our answering machine tape, knowing I could never recreate it.
I started listening to mixtapes he created and still to this day put on special songs he loved. They bring him back to me. They make me smile, they make me cry. Connecting with favorite things from those we’ve lost can help us renew feelings of connection. Wearing items of clothing or precious jewelry allows for an emotional and physical connection. You can put up some of their favorite artwork in your home, or maybe your favorite picture of them.
Sometimes people will hold a dinner and cook a favorite meal of their loved one—go ahead and add your favorite side dish to complement.
When my grandfather died, I took his favorite shirt and had a hospital volunteer create a Memory Bear from it that I gave to my mom. We look at it and remember him fondly.
You don’t have to be a professional to create something. You just have to be an artist. And we are all artists.
Creative expression sometimes allows a deeper part of ourselves to speak and mourn. Grab your colored pencils or pens or paints and let your inner artist speak. Some find mandalas to be both a creative and meditative experience.
Keep a journal. Use it to express your grief. It will allow you to see where you are in the healing journey. You can write letters to the person you lost. You can write letters to yourself. You can even write letters to your grief—just start with, “Dear Grief,” and write away. Perhaps poems or prayers will come from your pen to help you mourn. I’ve written many over the years. If you’re a musician, write a song.
Pick up a musical instrument, start a scrapbook, decorate a rock, fold an origami crane. Let your inner artist help you mourn.
5. Support their Legacy
Two of my close friends have lost family members to suicide. They both honor their loved ones through living memory. Bonnie attended Survivors of Suicide conferences for many years after the death of her husband Bob and continues to promote its work. She still receives signs from him through feathers that she finds. Craig has supported The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention since his cousin Nathan died three years ago. He knows that by supporting this organization, his cousin, through him, is continuing to make a difference in the world and help other people holdfast.
Other friends who have lost family members have started scholarships in their honor at their alma maters to do the same. Every year they award a scholarship they see appreciation and promise and hope. It’s good for the soul.
Still others have started 5K races/walks in their loved one’s honor, held annual fishing competitions, or sponsored recurring neighborhood movie nights, just to name a few.
For nearly 30 years, I’ve attended the annual mass that my friend Brian’s parents hold to honor him. They bring together community and celebrate who Brian continues to be in our lives. A gift of Joy lives on.
6. Utilize Rituals
Most religions and cultures have rituals to mourn loss built into their traditions. They often involve the reading of sacred texts, the recitation of prayers, the singing of songs, the movement of dances, or the wearing of specific garments.
A central ritual where these practices often take place is a funeral. While there are formal practices for traditional funerals, one need not belong to formal tradition to hold a funeral. I’ve facilitated services that were high church services complete with an organ and choir to a backyard barbeque with beer coolers and Willy Nelson tunes—and everything in between. Design a funeral that feels right and helpful rather than what feels expected of you.
It was tragic during the height of the Covid pandemic having people’s ability to hold funerals suspended or severely curtailed. It certainly impacted people’s ability to mourn. With restrictions easing, my father-in-law just recently held an outside memorial service for his son Matt who died tragically in a car accident last October. It was a paddle out and spreading of his ashes in the ocean, a place he dearly loved. A Presbyterian pastor, Jameson shots, and lots of stories were all part of the healing balm of that afternoon.
Participating in a ritual can be as complex or simple as needed. The use of intentional action is the key. Rituals can be sacred and healing. Water, rocks, earth, fire, thread, markers, bells—really any item used intentionally can ground an action and be used in a ritual. Be creative and design your own.
Rituals have the ability to transport us and transform us. They can be used when we are alone, but they hold special power when performed with others. Sometimes the intentional space created is enough.
I remember years ago tending to a few last-minute setup items as we readied the conference room for the annual memorial service at the hospital. I glanced over at the second row of chairs which moments ago had been empty. I saw the back of a middle-aged man who appeared to be slightly shaking. As I approached him I saw that he had tears streaming down his cheeks but that he was quite calm. I asked him if he needed anything and he responded slowly, kindly, and deliberately, “No, this is just the first time that I’ve been able to cry in public.” I was stunned by the reality set forth before me. We have so few chances to express our grief in public, and yet we need it so badly.
Aside from individual funerals, community memorial services are often held periodically through hospices, hospitals, and nursing homes, or loss-specific support organizations. Find the space that you need to mourn. Grief support groups, noted above, often utilize rituals as well.
Mourning can help us to remember those we’ve lost and that’s an important part of the process. But “ultimately our goal is integration. It’s working to bring the person we’ve lost into right relationship with ourselves and who we will be going forward,” says Mission Hospice Bereavement Coordinator Kathryn Conklin, MA LMFT.
A loss of someone close to us is like a big, bloody wound that with proper care and the gift of time will become a scar. Initially, it’s pink and puffy. But, as it reintegrates back into the skin from which it came, it comes smoother and whiter. It’s always with us though, a reminder of the pain. And the healing.
Remember that grief is mysterious and nonlinear. In On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross did not intend for her now famous Five Stages of Grief to be used as neat, progressive categories. They were actually pulled from her research with the dying themselves, rather than the grieving others. We often bounce between and revisit stages of grief, along the way to meaning-making and integration.
No one can tell you how long your grieving process will be or how long your mourning should take. My own father waited 20 years to spread his father’s ashes on the beach dune of their home on Lake Michigan. He just knew when it was time. I’ve met people who have packed up their loved one’s clothes and donated 10 bags to Goodwill the day after they died. And I’ve known people who have not moved one item of their loved one’s clothes for over a year. Trust your heart and your process.
One caution, if you notice that your grief is impacting your ability to function or participate in normal activities of daily living after several months, seek out professional counsel. It’s normal to feel like you’re going crazy. Just not forever.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Mourning is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life. And trust that if you keep mourning your losses, one day, healing will come, even if it feels a million miles away.
I’ve chosen to companion the dying and grieving and be surrounded by loss every day through my work as a hospice chaplain. But I’ve also been swallowed up by the horrible waves of grief personally. I’ve almost drowned. I’ve felt the weight of darkness, the burning tears, the aching heart, the strangeness of the world, the loneliness. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who has helped me mourn my losses and who continues to help me refill the well so I can do the same for others.
We’ve all been crushed with loss over the last 15 months of the Covid pandemic (which is still ongoing, here and all around the world). These losses have compounded all the other losses we carry with us.
Let’s work to mourn our grief and support each other, bringing healing to ourselves and our world—one tear at a time.