The Added Weight of Coping With Loss During the Pandemic

Photo: Stocksy/Jimena Roquero
Alicia Hough, 32, remembers the last conversation she had with her best friend, 35-year-old Bianca (whose last name is withheld to protect her family's privacy). "She was one of the earliest cases of COVID-19 [contracting the virus in early March] and I only found out she had the virus when she called me a few days before she passed away," Hough says.

During the few days Bianca was in the hospital, the two video-chatted several times. "I kept telling her to hold on and be strong," Hough says. During their last call, Bianca told Hough that she felt at peace, fine with how she lived her life. "She asked me if I would adopt her dogs," Hough says. "That was her dying wish."

Experts In This Article
  • Jill Gross, PsyD, clinical psychologist and grief counselor living in Seattle, Washington
  • Nancy Howard Cobb, Nancy Howard Cobb is the author of In Lieu of Flowers: A Conversation for the Living and has widely spoken about grief, mourning, and living with dying.

There was nothing fair about this loss. It's unfair someone so young died so suddenly. It's unfair Hough couldn't squeeze her friend's hand or hug her goodbye. It's unfair she had to call Bianca's parents and tell them their daughter passed away days after contracting a mysterious virus no one seemed to know much about. And it's unfair there couldn't be a proper funeral. Instead, Hough was present at her friend's cremation.

What makes coping with loss during COVID-19 even more difficult

Losing a loved one is never easy. Even when a funeral is possible and phrases like "a long, well-lived life" are said, it's still difficult. But grieving during a pandemic has unique obstacles that, in many ways, make it even harder, delaying the healing process.

After Bianca died, Hough started to feel extreme anxiety, to the point where she was having anxiety attacks. "I just couldn't lose [a second] person to this virus," she says. She became extremely careful about protecting herself from the virus, and called all her loved ones to tell them just how serious COVID-19 truly was. "I always use Bianca's unfortunate event to remind people to keep safe, and it's difficult to be reminded each time that my best friend is now gone for real," she says. Hough says that her anxiety has overtaken her sadness in many ways, and prevents her from truly processing her loss and grieving the death of her friend.

Ebun Oluwole, who is 27 and lives in Manchester, England, lost her grandmother to COVID-19 and, like, Hough, was unable to attend the funeral. "My grandmother lives in Nigeria and because of the virus, it wasn't safe for me to fly there to attend it," she says. "It was so, so stressful not being able to be near my family during this time," she says. Her family in Nigeria hosted a Zoom call during the funeral, but Oluwole says it was emotionally difficult not being able to grieve in person with her mom, dad, and other loved ones who knew her grandmother. Oluwole says she hasn't told many people outside her family about her grandmother's death. "I couldn't really talk to my friends about my grandmother's death," she says. "While I could have WhatsApp-ed or Zoom-ed them, it didn't really feel right. I wasn't in the right headspace to take to anyone."

"My dad died in April, and I finally went to see [my mom] in June because it just got to the point where I needed to see and hug my mom." —Alina Rubezhova

Alina Rubezhova, who is 30 and lives in New Jersey, is also grieving alone. Her father was in a nursing home when he passed away from COVID-19, so for safety reasons, she was unable to visit him during the pandemic or at the hospital before he passed away. "My mom wasn't able to see him either, but she would stand outside his window at the nursing home and talk to him that way," she says.

Her father died only one week after contracting the virus, and Rubezhova says it happened so quickly that it was hard to even process. Besides not being able to see her dad, she says one of the hardest aspects of his passing was being apart from her mom. "Since I live in a sizable city that's right outside New York City, I was worried about giving her COVID-19, so we only FaceTimed," she says. "My dad died in April, and I finally went to see her in June because it just got to the point where I needed to see and hug my mom." As in Hough's case, there was no funeral to attend, though Rubezhova says she and her mom may have a ceremony in the future.

Despite the difficulties Hough, Oluwole, and Rubezhova faced, they say there are some things that have helped them through the grieving process. For Oluwole, it was video-chatting with her family members about the memories they had of their grandmother. "I talked to my sister quite a bit, and before my grandmother died, we didn't talk much at all," Oluwole says. "It was really helpful." She also says that she has been prioritizing self-care. "I take really long showers and make the bathroom nice with lots of candles," she says. "I'll spend time in my garden or reading books, just simple things at home that can bring a little joy."

Rubezhova says after her dad died, she reached out to a friend whose mother had recently died of cancer. "Being able to talk to someone who went through a similar experience has been really helpful," she says. She adds that her boyfriend, who she lives with, has also been a great source of emotional support.

Hough says she's still struggling immensely with her friend's death, but she is taking steps toward healing by talking to her therapist about how she's feeling. "Bonding with my kids and telling them stories about their Aunt Bianca has also helped me heal and accept the fact that she's gone, but lived her life to the fullest," she says. "It's talking about her everyday that makes it easier to accept that life is precious and I am very lucky to have spent years of my life knowing her."

Expert tips for coping with loss during COVID-19

Funerals can be helpful during the grieving process because they provide a time for loved ones to say goodbye and honor the person who died, but grief counselor Jill Gross, PsyD, says there are other ways to say goodbye that can provide healing, too. She often advises clients to write a letter, either to their loved one who died or to themselves. "The letter can be a way to express your gratitude for the person and reminisce about your favorite memories, but it can also be a place to ask the questions you never asked when the person was alive," she says.

"There are often unresolved issues or unhealed wounds between people when someone dies, whether it's from COVID-19 or not," Dr. Gross says. "A letter can be a good place to ask for an apology if there's something you feel you want to apologize for, but it can also be a place to express anger, or to say that you forgive the other person for something."

Grief expert Nancy Howard Cobb, author of In Lieu of Flowers, recommends letter-writing, too. "There's something very emotional about the physical act of it," she says. "Our culture tends to sanitize death and grief to the point where we're afraid to even talk about it. But there's no right or wrong thing to say in these letters."

"What's most important is that you don't feel alone, because you're not. Even if you can't be together with loved ones right now, you are not alone in your grief. It's important to remember that." —Nancy Howard Cobb

Both experts also recommend doing exactly what Oluwole and Rubezhova did: talking about the loved one you lost with others—and, if you can, with people who knew them. "Even if you're unable to talk in person, you can still talk over video or phone and share memories virtually," Dr. Gross says. If you were unable to have a funeral where loved ones could gather, calls like these can be especially healing.

Dr. Gross says it can also be helpful to tell trusted loved ones about your loss. And if there's anything you need, don't be shy about asking. "It's an honor to help someone when they need it, and people are happy to do it," she says. She adds that friends often want to help but simply don't know how. So, if there's anything that would make your life easier—whether it's a takeout delivery or just someone to talk to—know that your friends will be happy you voiced your needs, just like you would be if the circumstances were reversed.

While there's no shortcut to healing, both Cobb and Dr. Gross say it's helpful to lean into things that provide at least temporary joy. Dr. Gross says it could be as simple as watching a good show on Netflix that you can get lost in for an hour each night after work. Simple joys play a big role in the grieving process.

Cobb adds that many people find spending time in nature to be rejuvenating, whether it's going for a walk or just sitting quietly somewhere. She is also a big believer in looking for spiritual signs and says spending time outside in nature can provide a good opportunity to do so. "In ancient Greek, the word for 'butterfly' is the same word for 'soul,' and after one of my close friends died, I started to see butterflies everywhere," she says. "I've heard so many similar stories from people. Someone who lost a friend who was a sailor told me they saw a seagull even though they live 200 miles from the shore."

Cobb says it may also help to connect with other people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, whether it's on Facebook or through a group therapy resource, such as MyWellbeing. Unfortunately, it's an experience many are going through right now.

"What's most important is that you don't feel alone, because you're not," Cobb says. "Even if you can't be together with loved ones right now, you are not alone in your grief. It's important to remember that."

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