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Handling grief in the midst of a pandemic

During the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, what were considered norms have been pushed aside in order to cope with the situation. Rituals and traditions have been changed to accommodate the “new normal.” Having to delay those ways in which people mourn the loss of a loved one until some semblance of normal returns may alter the grieving process.

“Grief, even under ‘normal circumstances’ is such a complicated and dynamic process and then you throw all this other stuff on top of it,” according to Megan Hollick, grief and bereavement coordinator at Susquehanna Hospice.

“If you’re not really in a situation where you can exercise the traditions or the things that we’re so used to being able to do to gain closure or to begin that process of healing, I think the most obvious thing is, that grief could amplify basically from normal grief,” she said.

Although grieving is a process that is not always linear and it is different for each person, there is no way to circumvent the process, Hollick said.

“It doesn’t follow a perfect time frame. There’s no instruction manual … if you do A, B, C and D, then you’re good to go and you can check that off the list and move on,” she said. “There really is only one way to cope with our grief and our loss and that is to go right through the thick of it.”

Many times people just want to get grief over with, to find a way to get around it and move on as quickly as possible, she said.

Although there are stages of grief, such as denial, acceptance and depression, those stages can circulate, said Margie Plotts, a therapist who works with people who are grieving.

“It is not just first the denial, then the depression,” she said.

Early in the pandemic, with rules for social distancing and limiting the number of people gathering in one site, rituals such as funerals or memorial services for those who had passed away were changed. Loved ones who lived out of the state or even out of the area were discouraged or not even permitted to join other family members in their collective grief.

“Part of the funeral process, having a funeral, is sometimes closure in some sense, although it takes a while for closure,” Plotts said, adding that a funeral allows people to grieve together.

“Delayed grief in the pandemic can cause anxiety in the individual and tension in the family. Without closure, it deepens and extends the grieving process,” she said.

“It is important for the family to rely on one another and allow for each one to grieve in their own way,” Plotts stated.

Even though families may not be able to get together to share their grief, Hollick suggested that it is good to get together when things open up again to continue the process.

“I think there’s a value in being able to revisit the loss and connection with your loved ones or whatever would have naturally happened when that loss occurred,” Hollick said. “I think you absolutely have to see that through in some certain way and to some sort of extent.”

Hollick stressed that although no two people are exactly the same in how they grieve the loss of someone, it is important that they allow themselves to grieve, even if significant time has passed.

“I do absolutely believe that there is a value to going back and addressing (it) because if you just sort of push all this down or tuck all of this away and leave it unsettled and unaddressed … it will manifest in other ways eventually. It may be five years, 10 years, 20 years down the line, but I think that if it’s left unchecked or unopened, it will absolutely come back,” she said.

Hollick said it is important if someone is struggling with grief that they should seek outside help either through a counselor or a grief support group. She noted that during the pandemic groups are still meeting, following rules of social distancing and wearing masks. Counselors are also offering remote sessions or by phone for people seeking help in handling the loss of a loved one.

“I think it’s important to be easy with ourselves, to take our time and to say to other people, it’s okay whatever you feel. You know grief can bring on such a varied range of emotions and physical reactions. You know it affects us emotionally, spiritual, physically. It’s such a huge encompassing thing,” Hollick said.

“I think it’s just that people should take it easy on themselves and not be too hard on themselves when they’re going through the process,” she added.

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