Saying goodbye: COVID has changed the grieving process

Chad Frey
The Kansan
WIth funerals mostly on hold and support groups struggling, grieving has changed in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Cheryl McCart, Compassionate Friends chapter leader for Harvey County, has noticed a change in how people grieve — and where they turn to for support — following the death of a loved one. 

Like so many things, COVID-19 has changed how people grieve. 

In addition, the number of support groups has dropped. In the case of Compassionate Friends — which is specifically for parents who have lost a child, grandparents who have lost a child or grandchild, or those who have lost a sibling — chapters are getting harder to find. 

Only three remain in the state of Kansas. The Harvey County group has a mailing list of 300 for the organization newsletter. About 15 people attend meetings regularly which have been moved to an online platform for about a year. 

For most, funerals have been put on hold — and that can lead to a slowing of the grieving process. 

"A funeral is one of those things you have to have for healing to start, and start the grieving process,"  McCart said.

By putting off celebrations of life to wait out the pandemic, "the whole thing has really put a hold on grieving," McCart said. 

"In grieving, you heal. So many who have lost people have not been able to be on the path to healing because of the coronavirus." 

Dr. Cynthia Beevers, LP, a therapist at Prairie View, said the need for funerals is very real — and that the process of grieving and mourning a loved one is slowed when there is not a ritual observed to say goodbye. 

"The main challenge I hear is that some are not able to say their goodbyes in person," Beevers said.  "This can leave some people feeling like they did not get closure or can feel angry for not being allowed to see their loved ones in their last moments. While some are able to say goodbye via phone or video chat, others don’t have access to either or cannot travel to see their loved ones."

Beevers said that leads to some to become angry, bitter and searching for the meaning of their loved one's death. 

"For some, the funeral provides the closure that many people seek after loss. Additionally, the funeral and other cultural practices around death also provide additional opportunities for people to process their grief and connect with others," Beevers said. "The grieving process, for some, could be prolonged without the ability to engage in these rituals and practices."

She encourages people to seek out mental health counseling or a support group — though there are some real struggles that come with both avenues. 

In-person meetings are few and far between as the pandemic continues. The lack of person-to-person interaction is creating a struggle. Compassionate Friends of Harvey County has hosted online meetings, and also socially distanced meetings when possible. 

But there is always something missing from those meetings — human touch,  something that McCart says is soothing and therapeutic. 

She's not the only one who sees a problem with moving to online forms of meeting, which lacks a human hug or hand on the shoulder. 

"[Meetings now are done with] Masks, six feet away and no hugs. One of the things we have found over the years is the importance of human touch when it comes to grieving," McCart said. "... You can't do that with COVID." 

"Physical touch is a human need that can be healing," said Brent Ide, LSCSW with Prairie View. "It is based in a biological need. We grieve the loss of someone who has touched us both physically and emotionally, and it is difficult to not be able to hug or touch loved ones during this time. Typically, a hug can calm us, give us a sense of security, and allow us to feel some kind of relief. The loss of human contact can complicate grieving, especially for people who are comforted by physical touch."

Ide said when humans connect with each other physically, their brains produce dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which are "feel-good chemicals."

"When we can’t touch, we lack these chemicals, and we can feel more depressed, anxious and stressed," Ide said. "It can make us feel more isolated."

Ide encouraged people to make plans to meet loved ones outdoors — there is value, he says, in being able to talk and have real eye contact. 

"You may be tiring of video calls by now, but seeing your loved ones and speaking to them can release some of those feel-good chemicals. Other options may be to use a weighted blanket while you sleep or cuddling with pets," Ide said

Beevers and Ide both said as a society, how grief is felt and dealt with has changed during COVID-19, and that has led to other issues. 

A recent Harvey County 911 report showed an increase in the number of mental health calls — up 117% over the previous year —  as well as calls concerning domestic violence and suicide attempts. 

"There is no endpoint to grief. There is no timeline to grief. Healthy grieving means that we allow ourselves to feel what we feel, and that over time the intensity of these feelings should decrease and occur less frequently," Beevers said. "If that does not seem to be happening for you, seeking help from a mental health professional or a grief support group could likely be helpful. Most importantly, stay connected with others and do not grieve alone."

There are ways forward — Compassionate Friends is planning to resume in-person meetings at the First Nazarene Church of Newton this month. The group can be found online at compassionatefriends.org

And, there are other steps that can be taken. 

"I think the best thing that we can do to support people who are grieving is to check-in with them, in person or through technology," Beevers said. "Checking in can include talking about their grief and loss, as well as regular conversational topics. Also, in general, it is typically more helpful to just listen to the person discuss their grief and loss, and avoid providing opinions or advice."

Beevers said finding a way to say goodbye is important — but so is maintaining daily life routines. 

"It is important for people to formally acknowledge the loss in some way and reflect on the meaning of the person’s life, in general, or specifically to them," Beevers said.

"At the core of most grief practices and rituals, the intention is to provide comfort for those grieving the loss. ... There are many different ways that people can process their grief and cope with the range of emotions that come with grief. On a daily basis, it is important to continue maintaining their own lives by continuing to work, connecting with friends/family, and attending to basic needs," Beever said.

And, she said, there is no "quick fix."