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Grief and Healing After Loss

Has COVID-19 deprived you of someone or something that was important to you?  Perhaps you have lost a family member/friend or employment.  A result of the pandemic may also be an altered sense of self due to financial upheaval, cancellation/modification of a major life event, activity restrictions, or the general sense of uncertainty which accompanies current daily life. Grief is a person’s inward response to this loss of someone or something of significance.

Grief which accompanies either a potential threat or actual experience of loss creates discomfort and stress, which are generally viewed in a negative manner by society.  Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, states “Sadly, many people, caregivers and lay public alike, have come to regard grief as an enemy.”

A couple of approaches may be utilized by people who are trying to defeat this “enemy.”  They may   avoid their disturbing feelings by minimizing or ignoring them.  Some may attempt to distance themselves from their distress through increased activity or “keeping busy,” while others look for methods to “fix” their feelings.

Viewing grief and mourning (the outward expression of grief) as a problem diminishes the value of this natural process which helps us adapt to the pain of loss. The path which people take to learning to live with a loss is very individualized; and is influenced by culture, the circumstances surrounding the loss, the significance of the loss, and personal disposition.  Even though it is individualized, supportive interactions with others are a valuable piece of this process.

There are no right or wrong ways to grieve.  The experience of grief involves thoughts, physical symptoms, and behavior as well as emotions.  Sometimes these elements can vary widely, and involve unexpected moments such as an angry outburst for no apparent reason or extended laughter in response to something mildly funny.   It is very easy to become critical of one’s own or another’s grief reaction or to wonder if it is normal.  Compassion for oneself or others is essential to healing. Dr. Wolfelt compares grief to a “wilderness of the soul” and emphasizes the importance of allowing the person to experience the journey without expectations for a certain course or outcome.

The grief process may sometimes require specialized intervention.  Intense grief which occurs over an extended period of time is called “complicated grief.” Professional assistance may be beneficial for those who find themselves having difficulty adjusting to the loss and moving forward with daily life. 

The current pandemic is turning the grief process upside down for many individuals.  The sudden illness and death of otherwise healthy individuals, a higher than normal death rate locally and nationally, the extreme financial impacts worldwide, the upset of usual daily routines for a large portion of the population, and the separation required by quarantines have had an impact on the experience of loss, death, and grieving.

Loved ones may experience increased feelings of guilt for the inability to be physically present to nurture the dying and the lack of opportunity to say goodbye.  Attempts to make sense of why some who become sick recover while other don’t makes acceptance of death more difficult to obtain.  Those who are mourning a death or a significant loss (such as employment or a home) cannot receive traditional forms of physical and emotional support from friends and family members, such as shared time together, hugs, and food.  Funerals, memorial services, and burials/scattering of ashes are delayed or look very different from usual expectations, creating a void in the grieving process.   

Ageism becomes an additional concern for older adults who are grieving. The belief that older adults are “near the end anyway” may lead to a perception since loss and death are expected at that stage of life, the pain of loss will not be as great.  A result of this erroneous thinking is that their experience of grief may be overlooked or pushed aside, thereby amplifying their suffering.

Of the many lessons we have learned during this worldwide crisis, may we remain sensitive to the variety of losses which so many have experienced and the diversity of ways in which grief reactions are expressed and losses are assimilated into daily life. Are you able to support someone who is grieving, or are you in need of grief support?  Resources can be found through local hospices, health care networks, and funeral homes.  Online programs, information, and support groups are also available.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN