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Part 2: Ritual and Grief in the Time of COVID-19

Posted on 05/11/2020

In a two-part blog series, Kelly McCutcheon Adams, LICSW, discusses the issue of preserving rituals and honoring grief in the unprecedented  COVID-19. In both pieces, she explores how we can adhere to normalcy as much as possible in order to help us resist surrendering sacred practices to the pandemic. In part one, she encouraged readers to support the bereaved by helping them to connect to rituals of meaning in their culture and family. Here, in part two, she offers various ideas for those who are grieving and how they can process their loss while social distancing.

In the past few weeks, as I have connected with friends near and far about the dramatic changes in our lives in the time of COVID-19, I have heard the same issues recurring: frequent crying, insomnia, exhaustion, changes in eating habits, anxiety, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, feelings of isolation, clumsiness, etc. In other words, daily life in this era looks a lot like grieving the death of a loved one.

We are indeed grieving. For my school age children, time with friends, their joy in school, and entire sports seasons ended in a flash. The night that a two-week school closure became a “schools will not reopen this school year” order there was a grief in our home that rivaled the night a few years back when our beloved family dog died suddenly. Loss of routine, loss of income, loss of security, and loss of normal connection with friends and family sits alongside exacerbated health challenges, canceled vacations, a vanishing of rituals like graduations and weddings, and fears about what the future holds. Truly, we are all grieving.

But then, amongst us, there are those who are also grieving the death of a loved one. The over 80,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 leave behind a wide web of mourners across the country. Alongside them are those grieving deaths that are not COVID-related – diseases, accidents, and interpersonal violence continue though we might think they should all somehow pause.

The work of grief is difficult enough without the strictures of social distancing. The normal actions that loved ones and neighbors might take to comfort someone in mourning feel suddenly off the table – will anyone be able to bring a casserole? Will there be flowers delivered? Will anyone be able to hug me? Can there be a service? Will we have calling hours? Sit shiva? Be allowed to wash the body of our loved one? The rituals of our respective cultures are deeply influenced by social distancing and it can feel like everything has been taken away at once.

Here are some ideas for those who are grieving:

  • Recognize that you are in a time of compounded grieving as you navigate the death of a loved one in a time when you were already grieving the loss of security and normalcy. Challenges you were already experiencing from being in social distancing may now feel much more acute as you grieve and mourn.
  • The speed of social media can make expressions of sympathy feel like scrolling flashes that fade too soon. If you would like to receive mailed cards, phone calls, waves from your front lawn, please ask when people who want to help ask what they can do.
  • People who were already on your team before the death – doctors, clergy, therapists, friends, neighbors, family – really want to be on your team now. They may not be able to be physically present with you but through technology including telehealth programs, online therapy sessions, virtual pastoral visits, phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. it is possible to see and by seen by those we need support from.
  • It is tempting of course to push formal funerals and memorial services out to the future when social distancing is not in effect. However, that date is not known, and the rituals of mourning have existed across the ages because they serve an important social, spiritual, and psychological function. Consider a both/and approach when making decisions about funeral planning – is it possible to assemble people in the very near term for an online gathering and then gather in person in the future (perhaps on the death anniversary) for another service. If the technology seems too daunting, then perhaps is there a neighbor or niece/nephew or clergy member who could help with the details. The effort does not need to be elaborate to have meaning.
  • Many support groups have now gone online with their meetings which can create more options for attendance even for those in small communities. A local hospice might have more information about what is available in your area.
  • For some grieving people, taking in adequate nutrition can be a challenge. As people may feel hesitant to be pro-active in bringing food to you, things might not play out as they usually would. If someone offers, please ask for what feels useful to you and the version that helps you feel safe (It would be lovely if you brought me a lasagna if you were willing to wear gloves and a mask when transporting it from your kitchen to my porch.)
  • There is no right way to grieve in such challenging times but if you are concerned for your well-being whether due to sleep disruption, thoughts of self-harm, or an increased reliance on alcohol/drugs, please contact your doctor right away for help.
  • The terrible constraints of social distancing will not always be our way of life. You are in an extremely difficult time with a double effect of grief, but it will not always be this way.

Click here for additional resources about optimal strategies for helping people develop new rituals to honor those who die during the COVID-19 era. These resources, developed by the Global COVID-19 Relief Coalition’s Virtual Funeral Collective, include an extensive report, guides for laypeople and professionals and dozens of links to resources, with videos forthcoming. And check out Reimagine: Life, Loss and Love, a worldwide virtual festival being held through July 9. 2020 on embracing life, facing death, and loving fully in the face of COVID-19.

What have you found to be helpful during this time? Add your suggestions below.

Kelly McCutcheon Adams, MSW, LICSW, a Director at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement since 2004, focuses on critical care and end-of-life care. She is a medical social worker with experience in hospice, nursing home, sub-acute rehabilitation, emergency department, and ICU settings. Ms. McCutcheon Adams has also served as faculty for the Organ Donation Collaborative of the US Department of Health and Human Services and for the Gift of Life Institute.

21 Responses

  1. Hello. The virus complications are only the beginning for me. I am male, age eighty-seven, widowed since 1985 and living alone. I am grieving the losses of my life and the lifestyle they provided me. All the peers and relatives I invested in are dead….I attended more than thirty funerals, held their hands and suffered nightmares. I learned the hard way all beginnings come with endings watching my wife untimely at her age fifty-two. My traditional belief failed to provide any comfort so I searched and searched for some way to survive and continue working until I retired in 1998. Depression is my constant companion when flight or fight are not options facing imminent death. My doctor says meds are not helpful in my situation of aging challenges and family stress, so I work daily on ways to face my own inevitable death. I don’t fear death, but I fear the preliminaries. I don’t seek the virus but I would not resist it. Thanks.

  2. Smith Ford says:

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  3. The world has suffered a lot of due to covid 19. We should stay together and keep supporting in the tough time where many businesses suffering.

  4. Jenny Astor says:

    Thanks for sharing a nice article

  5. It helps me out with covid-19 time so keep it up!

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  7. Ritual and Grief is an amazing topic on which you have explained a lot of thing related to the topic.

  8. In Covid-19, the deathly situation, everyone is troubled about their health and Covid-19 disease. After the Covid vaccination, everything can resume like school, school, organizations, and public spots.

  9. Websitesol says:

    Helpful supporting hand in the time of COVID-19 struggle

  10. Most of the people become more religious during the time of covid. Most of them stated visiting religious places.

  11. During covid 19 pandemic people suffered a lot and some of the started visiting religious places and it give them relief.

  12. Thank you for sharing very informative article.

  13. factserp says:

    This Covid situation is getting worse. Hope mankind will sort this out soon.

  14. Razia Sultan says:

    keep calm and stay safe by maintaining social distance

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