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How the coronavirus has changed the way we grieve

As the pandemic continues to keep us physically distant, we must embrace new ways of expressing grief and memorializing our loved ones.
Portrait of young woman in her apartment
“That need to express our grief, our sorrow, and to honor the person who died is intrinsic to us as humans,” says Morgan Ban-Draoi.Getty Images stock

The coronavirus has really changed the way we grieve. Not only are the distancing measures we’re taking to prevent the spread of infection keeping us from being with our loved ones in their last moments, this pandemic has completely changed the way we mourn with others.

New rules for grief

In many places, houses of worship are closed and funeral services can’t be held at all. If they are, they’re live-streamed or limited to small numbers — or observed from afar. Even the business of arranging for a burial or cremation has become far less personal. What used to involve a warmly sympathetic in-person meeting has been replaced with phone calls and visits to virtual showrooms.

Gathering together in large groups, or sometimes even small ones, isn’t possible (or safe) anymore. Hugging and touching, talking without a mask and being in close proximity with each other — all things we’re naturally driven to do to comfort each other — are strongly discouraged because of the threat they pose.

But as COVID-19 claims more lives (over 60,000 in the U.S. already) and people continue to die from non-coronavirus causes, those left behind are finding new ways to deal with death and dying. When possible, video chats and phone calls are being used in hospitals and care centers to connect dying people with loved ones who can’t physically be with them. Wakes, funerals, memorials and shivas are being held virtually with the help of video conferencing technology.

In one New York City suburb, the body of a man who’d been struck down by COVID-19 was driven around his neighborhood in a hearse. Families stood out on their lawns at the sidewalk’s edge as the car passed, holding vigil, separately but together, honoring their neighbor.

The importance of grief rituals

“That need to express our grief, our sorrow, and to honor the person who died is intrinsic to us as humans,” says Morgan Ban-Draoi, a licensed mental health counselor specializing in grief based in Central Massachusetts. During this time, we’re grieving over other things as well, says Ban-Draoi, not just the loss of people. “We’re grieving the loss of jobs, the loss of our daily routines. We’re grieving things that aren't ever going to be, as well as things that were, and things that we've lost.” Rituals can help us acknowledge all of that sadness and help us to move on from it, she says. “They help us mark those changes.”

Alan Wolfelt, a grief counselor and educator and the director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, explains that after a significant loss, everyday words and actions can’t match the weight of the circumstances. “They’re simply not ‘big enough,’” says Wolfelt, adding that when someone we love dies, it often shocks and disorients us. “We need to be held up by structure and established actions,” he says. “We also need the support of friends and family that’s provided through rituals such as the funeral.”

The pandemic is making the grieving process even more complicated, say both experts. “You can't do all of those things that societies and our culture have done for many, many years,” says Ban-Draoi. “That really isolates us and exacerbates feelings of grief.”

Wolfelt adds that when people are forced to cope with the deaths of loved ones from a distance, “it makes it much harder to acknowledge the reality of the death and embrace the pain of their loss. It’s also giving rise,” he says, “to heightened feelings of helplessness, regret and disorientation.”

But we can still find meaningful ways to support each other and honor our loved ones during this difficult time, say Ban-Draoi and Wolfelt. Here are a few things that may help.

Dealing with an end-of-life scenario

It’s absolutely appropriate to ask to communicate with your loved one by way of a video chat or a phone call, even if someone on the other end needs to hold the device for your loved one. It may not be possible for the facility to accommodate you, but both Ban-Draoi and Wolfelt encourage making the request.

Ban-Draoi also says you should let the health care staff know if there are any important end-of-life rituals that should be observed. Some people may want last rites, even if over the phone. “In some faiths,” she says, “opening a window when someone dies is really important so the spirit can leave.”

Managing grief during the quarantine

Ban-Draoi and Wolfelt both recommend holding more than one remembrance ceremony. One should occur right away, even if it’s a virtual one, they say. Wolfelt says this helps people “acknowledge the reality of the death and embrace the pain of their loss.” When the quarantine is lifted, plan another with all the family and friends who couldn’t be together in person at the time of the death. Wolfelt also recommends holding at least one other — perhaps a tree-planting ceremony on the one-year anniversary.

Wolfelt urges people to use all the technology tools they can to reach out to those they care about after experiencing a loss. “Video calls are probably the best substitute for face-to-face conversations,” he says. “Voice calls come second.” He also recommends writing emails (or even letters), texting and using social media.

“Social media is a real gift at a point like this,” says Ban-Draoi. “It enables you to connect with relatives and friends across the country who are also isolating.” Whether you start a private group or post a public tribute to your loved one with photos and stories, the point is to stay connected with others as much as possible.

Quarantine-friendly options for celebrating the life of a loved one

It’s not the same, but virtual gatherings and memorial posts, video tributes and memorabilia displays are an important part of the grief process these days. “In some ways,” says Wolfelt, “I think [people] are taking more time and making more effort to connect, so even though connecting via technology can never replace in-person support, I find hope in their efforts to honor those who’ve died and help one another.”

To set a virtual memorial up for success, Ban-Draoi suggests doing some prep work ahead of the event. Ask guests to be prepared to share a story about the person who passed, along with photos and mementos. Additionally, she says, designate someone in the family to be a moderator to help keep things moving and make sure that everybody gets a chance to share what they’ve brought — without getting talked over. And finally, don't forget the little ones. “Children grieve too,” she says, adding that you should help kids feel like they're part of the community by letting them share their own stories or drawings. “That's really important,” she says. “And sometimes helping the little ones helps the big ones too.”

People who lose loved ones during the quarantine will have fewer opportunities to express their grief around the time of the loss, says Ban-Draoi. And by the time people can gather again, they may expect those closest to the person who died to have gotten over it. But that may not be true, so be sure to be compassionate. Even under normal circumstances, our experts say that grief never really ends —it becomes part of who we are. The inability to reconcile grief through rituals can prevent grief from settling though.

“These are such hard times,” says Ban-Draoi, “and anything that we can do to make them a little easier is really helpful.”