Loss and Grief Amidst Covid-19

My family appreciates everything that was done for our mother during her illness. We especially want to thank your Activities staff, who scheduled FaceTime visits with mom during her final days. We are so grateful for all the staff who cared for her over the years.

Family of a Heritage Manor Nursing Home resident, May 2020

Before COVID-19 changed the world, grief was processed individually and as a community. Family and friends shared memories, wept, prayed, and offered care and support through words, and a hug or a handclasp.

“Coronavirus has severely disrupted the grieving process,” says Rev. Phyllis Palsma, Director of Pastoral Care at Christian Health Care Center (CHCC). “It’s harder to come to terms with the reality of death.”

Lack of closure is one of the major impacts.

“Due to quarantine restrictions, many have been deprived of a final goodbye. Doing so virtually or by telephone is helpful, but it’s not the same as sitting and holding your loved one’s hand as the last words of grace, gratitude, and love are spoken,” Rev. Palsma says. “Even individuals allowed to visit their loved one are limited by time, social distancing, and protective personal equipment (PPE). Wearing a mask, face shield, gown, and gloves creates emotional and physical barriers that can hamper the tender embrace and quiet words people envision. On top of that, lack of closure may be complicated by feelings of guilt or regret because you weren’t able to be there to support your loved one through the final moments.”

Lack of ritual adds to the complications.

“Rituals are vital to the grief process. Not only do we mourn the loss of our loved one, but COVID-19 causes us to mourn the loss of gathering with all our friends and family for funerals or memorial services, praying familiar prayers, hearing biblical words of hope and comfort, singing meaningful hymns, listening to heartfelt eulogies and remembrances, sending flowers, and sharing food at a repast,” Rev. Palsma says. “And social distancing prevents physical gestures of support. Smiles are hidden behind masks, and hugs and handshakes are replaced with a distant wave or an elbow bump.”

Further complicating the grieving process is the traumatic nature of COVID-19.

“Grief with trauma is more complex, and requires more time and processing,” Rev. Palsma says. “We have experienced traumatic grief in the past – 9/11, Superstorm Sandy – but we were able to grieve as a community, and then pitch in to clean up and move on. There was an end in sight as lives and buildings were rebuilt. We don’t know when we’ll be able to ‘move on’ with COVID-19. So we continue to grieve, live with precautions of mask-wearing and social distancing, and wonder ‘Why did this happen, Lord?’

“The ‘why’ questions are accompanied by feelings of survivor guilt. ‘Why did I recover and my loved one did not?’ ‘Why didn’t I get sick?’ ‘Did I pass it on to my loved one?’ These questions are pastoral challenges. People want answers, and there may not be answers.”

Despite the complexities, it is possible to cope with grief and loss.

“First and foremost, take care of yourself. Eat healthy, stay hydrated, get enough rest, and exercise. Don’t pressure yourself to ‘get through this.’ Maintain spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and scripture reading. Trust that even when God doesn’t feel close, His promises tell us He is always near. God weeps and grieves alongside us.”

Remember, too, that grief is personal.

“There is no right or wrong way to feel. Grief has no timeline,” Rev. Palsma says. “Work through your feelings at your own pace. Some find that keeping a journal about feelings, experiences, and losses, as well as how you are managing these events, is a healthy outlet.”

Reach out to friends and family.

“Talk to them. Write to them. Connect with them on social media. Share pictures or videos. These are ways to memorialize your loved one. Though a large physical gathering may not be possible, an emotional connection to family and friends can still occur.”

Many who are struggling with grief find that talking to a clergy person or mental-health professional can be helpful. Throughout COVID-19 restrictions, CHCC’s Pastoral Care Department reached out virtually or via phone, and Christian Health Care Counseling Center temporarily transitioned to a telehealth platform. CHCC’s monthly Faith & Grief Luncheons also temporarily shifted to an online option at FaithandGrief.org.

“The Pastoral Care staff focuses on being present and listening, listening, and listening. We invite the telling of stories. We affirm that grief is personal,” Rev. Palsma says. “Clergy are accustomed to being present at the time of death or through the grieving process. Presence has taken on a new meaning through this pandemic since phone calls or social media may be the only way to ‘be’ with someone in grief.

The entire CHCC staff join Pastoral Care in comforting families and friends during COVID-19 restrictions.

“We do everything we possibly can do,” says Maureen Braen, CDP, CPXP, Care Experience Coordinator at CHCC, and Person and Family Advisory Council Chair. We hold residents’ hands. We communicate with their families and friends virtually or via phone. We are the bridge. It is about humans caring for humans. Our actions are from the heart.”

For more information about Pastoral Care, Christian Health Care Counseling Center, contact Karen Hockstein at (201) 848-4463 or khockstein@chccnj.org.

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