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Grief and COVID-19: How to cope with the first anniversary of a loved one's death

One of the country's leading grief counselors offers advice.
Like countless Americans, Kristin Urquiza will be marking the first anniversary of a loved one's death from COVID-19 this year. Her father died last summer.
Like countless Americans, Kristin Urquiza will be marking the first anniversary of a loved one's death from COVID-19 this year. Her father died last summer.Courtesy Kristin Urquiza/Marked By COVID
/ Source: TODAY

Kristin Urquiza calls it a pandemic of grief.

Her father died of COVID-19 last year — one of the more than half a million Americans killed by the coronavirus since the crisis started, leaving behind millions of family members and friends who will be marking the first anniversary of their deaths in the coming weeks and months.

Many are still just trying to survive that year of awful firsts — the first spring after the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without a loved one.

“Every day is hard. It's our birthdays and their birthdays or holidays or other days of significance,” Urquiza, a San Francisco resident and co-founder of the advocacy group Marked By COVID, told TODAY.

“Coming upon the one year mark and seeing just how many more people have passed over the course of the year is like drowning in grief and sorrow.”

Mark Urquiza died from COVID-19 on June 30, 2020, at the age of 65.
Mark Urquiza died from COVID-19 on June 30, 2020, at the age of 65.Courtesy Kristin Urquiza/Marked By COVID

David Kessler, one of the country's leading grief counselors, has been struck and concerned by how different the mourning experience has been during the crisis.

“Usually what happens in that (first) year is there's the death, there's the funeral, there's the support,” said Kessler, author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief."

“But so many people weren't able to have the funeral or the support they need. Grief must be witnessed and we haven't had that. People have been islands of grief at home.”

Some have suddenly lost several people — relatives, friends and neighbors — to COVID-19 in a short period of time, compounding the trauma. Many are haunted by the fact they weren't able to be with their grandparents, parents or spouses when they died, or couldn’t attend their funeral. Navigating online grief groups on his website, Kessler sees COVID-19 mourners in so much pain.

As countless Americans mark the first anniversary of a loved one’s death, here’s what he wanted them to know:

The first year can be a blur that keeps going

The first 365 days are a time where people are just trying to get their arms around the reality of the situation — they’re in shock, submerged in a grief fog and on autopilot trying to get through, Kessler noted.

Don’t expect something different to happen at 366 days.

“There is a myth that after that first year, we're done with grief,” he said. “We have this expectation that somehow everything gets wrapped up neatly in that year.”

He often refers to the first two years as early grief. For some people, the second year is the hardest because that’s truly when they realize their loved one is gone forever — a hard reality to come to grips with.

It’s understandable to dread the first anniversary

The word bereaved comes from a Latin word that means “to be robbed,” Kessler said.

“It’s like you’ve been robbed of your right arm and I think that the first anniversary is a return to the scene of the crime,” he noted. “We go back. The time of the year is the same, our bodies know things are the same, we feel it. And yet, our loved one is gone.”

When people tell him they’re suffering from post-traumatic stress, he tells them they’re not in the “post” phase yet because the traumatic stress isn’t over. They’re still in the midst of it.

How to prepare for the day of the anniversary:

Realize the lead up can sometimes be worse than the day itself. There’s a lot of anticipatory pain, which is very normal, Kessler said.

He recommended reaching out to friends and loved ones ahead of time, and making a direct request: “Next week is the anniversary of my loved one’s death. Can we get together? Can we hop on a Zoom? Can we have a call and talk about it?” People assume everyone is going to remember the date, but many don’t.

Make plans for the day if that feels right, but be willing to let them go. Then, “let the day be the day,” Kessler said. If you're sad, be sad. If you're angry, be angry. If you're OK, just be OK. Let the day be whatever it is.

Mark the day:

The best way to do it is different for everyone. It can be getting together — virtually, if need be — and sharing stories. It can be a meal in the person’s honor or going to his or her favorite place.

“It's not so much what you do, it’s that you acknowledge that day. To me, it's a day that we psychologically let our loved ones know they'll never be forgotten, their life mattered and their death mattered,” Kessler said.

If you know someone who is grieving, reach out

As people get vaccinated and venture out more, he advised contacting those who have lost a loved one and saying, “I know the anniversary of your mom's death is coming up. Could I take you out? Could we take a walk?”

“So many times, we look over at our loved one, our family member or our friend and think, ‘They look like they're doing OK. I don't want to remind them of that day,’” Kessler said. “And I tell people, they haven't forgotten.”

Your grief doesn't know a calendar

A year — or many years — later, the death of a loved one can still feel like it happened yesterday. Or, on the flip side, some people feel guilty that they’re getting further from their loved one as they begin to let go. You're not grieving wrong, Kessler said.

“Grief is something that we will live with for the rest of our life. It doesn't mean we will always be in pain, but there's no magic day that grief ends,” Kessler said.

“I remind people we may be getting further from the date they died, but not further from our loved one. Our loved one is always going to be with us.”

Plant the seeds of finding meaning

Think about how you’re going to remember your loved one and what their legacy is going to be.

“Many times, people say, ‘When my loved one died, a part of me died with them,'” Kessler noted. “And I always remind people that a part of them lives on in you. Finding meaning is nurturing those parts of your loved one that live on in you.”