Grieving in the Time of COVID-19

I went to a funeral last month for a 98 year-old mainstay of my synagogue who died of COVID. The immediate family, rabbi and cantor stood at graveside. I sat in my car, parked on the perimeter of the burial site, along with people in at least 25 other cars. We could not hear what was being said but we could say our own prayers and access our own memories. My husband played the Jewish memorial prayer—El Molei Rahamim—on his phone, and it set the appropriate somber tone. We reminisced about the deceased and said how pleased we were to see so many present under these very strange circumstances.

At the end of the service, we were allowed to go up to the grave, one at a time, to place shovels-full of dirt on the casket in accordance with tradition—if we wanted to do so. We were masked, standing 6 feet apart. We acknowledged each other with nods but did not speak. We hoped that the family would gain strength from our show of support. We gained strength from being together in this new, strange way because we shared our love, respect, and sense of rightness in being in the cemetery together.  Over the weekend, the synagogue held a Zoom memorial service that was attended by at least 100 people where stories were told and reminiscences shared.

This is grieving in the time of COVID.

We are already grieving the loss of a normal life. The loss of a loved one hits us even harder because the normal rituals of grieving are not available. As illustrated above, these difficult times call forth creativity and a search for new ways to come together to show respect, to grieve, and to share memories.

In these unusual and unprecedented times, I will share some of the wisdom I have gained as a chaplain leading bereavement groups for more than a decade and as a human being living with the grief of many in this time of COVID.  While my focus is on those who are grieving, I hope relatives and friends of the bereaved may also gain insight.

FEEL YOUR FEELINGS & BE KIND TO YOURSELF: Remember that there is no time limit on grief. Mourning the loss of a loved one is forever, but it also changes with time. There is no “right way” to grieve or “right timeline” for grief. Grieving does not happen in a straight line, it is experienced as waves that come and go.

In these surreal times of social isolation, it may be harder to accept the reality of the death of a loved one—that is normal. It also may not be possible to take time out for the mourning you want to do at this time, there are young children at home, or a job that demands all your energy and attention (this is particularly true for all front line responders, though everyone going out into the COVID world is living in a time of incredible stress), or you must attend to your own health or that of others.  Do what you have to do and do not be afraid that you are not grieving “properly.

HONOR THE MEMORY OF YOUR LOVED ONE: There are many ways to find the comfort that usually come from traditional funeral practices (shiva, viewings, etc.). Use Facetime, Skype and Zoom to connect with loved ones singly or in groups. Create memorials or electronic collages on Facebook or other platforms, these can continue indefinitely into the future. Plan a memorial for your loved one for the time when it will be possible to be together again. Pick up the telephone to call each other.  Send emails with pictures and stories. You don’t have to be technologically advanced to make the connections—just do whatever you can. A friend’s father died this past week of COVID. I did not know his father well but I would have attended the funeral, instead, I asked my friend if he would tell me stories about his father on the telephone.  He eagerly agreed. I plan to continue our phone conversations over the coming weeks and months.

CURRENT GRIEF BRINGS UP PAST GRIEF, REMEMBER YOUR PAST STRENGTHS: It is also normal to revisit many past losses while experiencing a fresh grief. This can be very painful, but it also can give you an opportunity to remember how you dealt with grief in the past—what helped you get through the unimaginable. One of my cousins is having flashbacks to her father’s death many years ago, she is using her COVID social isolation time to reach out to family members, share stories, and document family connections. The pain of loss is very fresh to her, but she also is finding new coping mechanisms that give her love and support.

STAY IN TOUCH: For the mourner, it may be hard to reach out and even harder to know what is wanted or needed. Friends and relatives may need to be more proactive than usual in making calls, sending cards, bringing or sending food, or offering any kind of comfort that is possible. It’s important to take action without being asked. This is another opportunity for creativity

SEEK PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING: Connect one-on-one with a JFCS counselor for individualized support and tips during “Drop-In” Hours, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 10AM-12PM, Tuesday and Thursday 5 PM-7 PM. Call JFCS at 609-987-8100 and dial 0.

Beverly Rubman, Chaplain & Support Group Facilitator

Handling the Holidays in Time of Crisis When You Are Grieving

We are all dealing with grief now—loss of normalcy; loss of connection; fear of economic toll, nervous anticipation of the future. For those in our community who are mourning the loss of a loved one, the grief is intense and even more isolating because we do not have the traditional community supports to provide some sense of stability. As holiday times approach, the Empty Chair has become the Empty Table and the Empty Room. What are some tools that can give you the support you need?

A VERY IMPORTANT REMINDER:  Everyone experiences grief in his/her own way. There is no right or wrong. Give yourself permission to do whatever feels right, and please be gentle with yourself.

Suggestions for Handling the Holidays:

  • Nothing is normal for anyone this year. Think about what has helped you since the loss of your loved one; don’t do what you think you should but what feels right to you.
  •  Connect, connect, connect—to your friends, your family, your community (of faith or otherwise).  Take advantage of technology old and new:  telephone calls, email, text, Facetime, Skype or Zoom.  JFCS will provide resources for virtual Passover seders, as well as other services and celebrations, in a future post.
  • Tell your family and friends what you need, whether or not they ask. Don’t be shy—this is not a time for false reticence, you ARE strong but you still need others for support and help.
  • Think of rituals that have meaning for you and turn to them as often as necessary—these can relate to the holiday or not. There won’t be a big family meal this year (that would have raised other issues for you as you grieve), but you can make dishes that you love or that bring back happy memories. You can share recipes, perhaps using technology as you go about your preparations, or sing songs together or tell stories of holidays past. Or you can do none of the above.
  • Turn to prayers or readings from the holiday that have special meaning for you. Repeat them as often as needed for consolation.
  • Sing special songs relating to the holiday as you wash your hands (for 20 seconds). In fact, listen to or make music as much as you can. Music leads to activity in multiple parts of the brain where we process emotion, memory, awareness, and attention. It can help short-circuit sadness by using these brain areas to bring up happy emotions and joyful memories as we tune our attention to the song. We also know that music can bring strong emotions and heartfelt tears to the surface, which can help us process the complex emotions we are experiencing at this time.

NOTE:  Memories, with their sweetness and their pain, are important tools for healing. You know that your loved one will never be forgotten. Relationships don’t end with death but, with time, they will become transformed. And there is nothing wrong with crying.

  • Breathe.  Focus on all five of your senses, perhaps with particular reference to the upcoming holiday.  The sweet smell of a favorite food, the texture of special clothing, tablecloths or a reclining pillow, the sight or feeling of one small item related to the holiday that warms your heart, the clink of glasses of wine. Memories of holidays past will, of course, be painful without your loved one.   Try to access the positive ones.
  • This is the time for spring holidays, with their connection to nature. Go outside as much as possible, if you can. Savor the sights of flowering trees or plants. Smell the smell of fresh green grass. Move your weary muscles. Remember that we are all part of the cycle of life.

Beverly Rubman, Chaplain