Grieving, Mourning, and Honoring Loved Ones in Social Isolation
Grief often begins acutely, painfully, and with maximum intensity. And then slowly, as psychiatrist and bereavement researcher Dr. Kathy Shear understands it, we adapt to the world and ourselves without the person we’ve lost. It takes time. We begin to comprehend and accept the finality of the death. Our grief transforms: We find a way to integrate it—our love for the person who died—into a new reality without them physically in it. Grief is a permanent presence; our relationship to it gradually changes.
An early and critical part of that adaptation to loss usually involves ceremony, with or without the body, to mourn and honor and seek comfort. Those rituals not only bring us together, Shear says, but also remind us of the love that remains. They show us, when our foundation is most devastated, that the world is still spinning and—crucially—that we’re not alone in it.
Now we find ourselves in a moment when those rituals are more difficult than ever to execute in an ideal way. We asked Shear to help us make sense of what we can control, how to cope with acute grief during a pandemic, and the best ways to help friends who need it.
A Q&A with Kathy Shear, MD
In our country, the rituals are variable depending on your cultural or religious background, and we have so many. Most people usually have an opportunity to honor the body of the person who died in some way. In some groups, it’s washing that body. In others, it’s simply being with the body, for example, in a church or a funeral home. But a lot of what we do in the beginning does involve, ideally, some kind of presence with the body of the person who has died. That is an important part of the ritual of beginning to adapt to the loss of someone close.
Those rituals are not just with or for the main person who has lost someone—they’re with the whole family, and that family can be fairly large sometimes. Then also close friends and even not-so-close friends, people who want to honor the person who died. And that group will gather together in various kinds of ways. We rely on a funeral or some kind of a memorial service with people gathering.
Grief is a full-body experience—one that changes as we adapt to the loss. Grief therapists think of grief as being the form love takes when someone we love dies. It starts out very, very acute. It starts out very painful, and very intense, and very dominating of the person’s life. As we adapt to the world and ourselves without that person in it, gradually grief is transformed and integrated. What we say is that grief finds a place in your life; it never ends. If grief is the response to loss of death, it’s permanent. You have some response to that loss forever. That is how I understand this.
That adaptive process is the one that we have to help along because it is a process and it’s not easy. Not only have we lost the person themselves, but almost always their loss brings all kinds of other changes in our lives. We have to start to adapt to a whole new world without the person who died.
These rituals that we’re talking about are an important part of physically being with people and comforting them and starting that process for them. They start the process of saying, “Okay, there’s still a world here and you’re still loved. You’re still cared for, you’re still admired, and we’re here for you.” Knowing all that is part of what helps us move forward in our grief.
What we’re seeing now are some very creative ways of making connections online. We’re seeing some disappointment with that, too. But people make do. The human spirit is so resilient. People are gathering in small groups with adequate physical distancing, where there might be some physical presence but there is no hugging or touching. Physical touch is an important part of what we usually offer one another, and it does have direct physiologic effects on our body to calm us down. And it also, of course, helps us emotionally. So we are missing something, and that specific thing cannot be replaced. You need someone to be able to do that.
But we need to make the best of what we have. We need to try to accept the situation that we’re in. Many people do understand that. They’re getting together in an acceptable way: They’re playing music together; they’re listening to music together; they’re having services together online. Those are some of the things that I’ve heard about.
Another way that people are dealing with this is by postponing some of it. There is not one way to do this correctly. Everybody is different. Whether you’re the one who’s trying to comfort or the one who’s trying to be comforted: Be in touch with your own heart as much as possible and open it to different possibilities.
It’s always true—no matter whether things are normal or not—that we grieve in our own ways. Even though we have some more ritualistic parts of our grieving, it’s still a pretty individual thing.
Some of us really do need to have other people present with us, and it is perfectly reasonable to postpone any kind of ceremony or funeral until that part of the process can happen. What’s really important is that you don’t get caught up in the disappointment, the frustration, the anger, or the guilty feelings that might come along with not doing things the way that you would ideally want to do them.
I would not recommend trying to totally ignore a loss or not allowing yourself to grieve in some way. But you can set grief aside—people do this all the time when something is too pressing in our daily life. If something is unusual and very immediate in our daily life, we do have the ability to set grief aside.
The thing about grief is that it’s going to last forever. Pushing it aside for a while is not always the best thing to do, but you have to find the best way for you. And what’s most important is that you don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t fall into thinking that there’s some right way to do this and some wrong way to do this.
Unfortunately that is absolutely happening to some people. One of the things about losing someone very close is that it is essentially like an earthquake that shakes the very foundation of who we are. It’s very disconcerting, disorienting, and intense. And then if that is added on to other deaths, it can feel as if the world is coming to an end.
The thing to remember is that even though it feels like the world is ending, we are adaptive. That’s what living things do. We adapt to changes in the world. Even when we don’t feel like we possibly can, we actually can, and we do.
If you’re feeling that way, take advantage as much as you can of the people around you: It always helps to share that pain to the best of your ability, however you can. Whether it’s by the telephone, whether it’s by the computer, whether it’s video or just audio, or whether it’s by writing letters. Any kind of physical communication like that—joining together, singing together—is often very, very helpful.
Sharing the pain is one thing I would suggest in this situation. Work through this with the people you love and the people who are there for you. And also maybe having time for your own private pain. You want to balance that. A lot of grieving is balancing: balancing the pain and making sure that to the best of your ability you get some moments to give yourself some respite. Where you allow yourself some respite. And sometimes that comes in the form of really taking the time to remember the things you love about the person who died. In the early days, that can be sad, but it also can be comforting. Letting yourself be distracted is another thing that you can do to help.
When you would be going over to someone’s house, call them up. Or ask them whether you can have a video call. It’s very important to reach out to people to tell them you want to be with them and talk to them.
A lot of times, grieving people want to be invited to tell the story of what happened. Some don’t want to tell the story, but a lot of people do. If you think about going to, for example, a visitation when someone has died—if you don’t know exactly what happened, the person often does want to tell people and does want people to know.
It’s a little hard to answer that question with a list of things to say. But the principle is to be there, to be present, to listen, and really to not to provide advice that’s not asked for. If someone says to you, “I’m feeling so bad about something, I can’t figure out how to think about this.” If you’re good friend of theirs, you might respond, “Do you want me to help come up with ideas to help?” You want to start really gently. You don’t want to say any of the platitudes. You don’t want to give advice. Because none of us knows what it feels like to be that person with this loss.
The main thing is really doing your best to take care of yourself, which means letting yourself have whatever kinds of relief, respite from grief, and positive emotions you possibly can. And understanding that some of these really difficult aspects of the COVID situation are things that we need to find a way to accept, because we cannot change them.
We can’t change the way things have happened or are happening right now. The virus has really been in charge, and we can’t change that.
It’s very natural to start thinking of all kinds of “if only” scenarios or to feel angry, frustrated, or even guilty. It’s natural to feel all those things and to think things like that. You want to just gently remind yourself to keep your eye on the things that you can do to honor the person who died, to let them start to live with you in a different way. That’s not going to happen right away, but over time it will be able to happen.
And let other people in to help you, because that can sometimes be hard, too. Take care of yourself in those ways and try not to get too caught up in what you can’t do and what you can’t change.
An internist and psychiatrist, Kathy Shear, MD, is widely recognized for her work in bereavement studies. She has developed a targeted psychotherapy, complicated grief treatment, for people unable to move forward after a loss, which has proved to be efficacious in three NIMH-funded randomized controlled trials. She is the founding director of the Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia School of Social Work.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.