COVID-19 Observer
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COVID-19 Observer

The Special Grief of COVID-19

By Stewart Lawrence

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an enormous toll on American society — not just the nearly million dead, most of them elderly, that have perished thus far, but the millions more, mostly close family members, that have watched their loved ones perish, virtually overnight in many cases. It’s a modern tragedy, but one made even more painful by the pattern of death and its aftermath. Many spouses have perished together, or within hours of each other, and their surviving relatives have not always had an opportunity to say good-bye or to properly grieve their passing.

Consider the case of Joseph and Kitty Sasson, a married couple of 56 years living in Los Angeles, both hospitalized and suffering from COVID-19 died on the same day in January 2021. Kitty, who was 99 and just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday, died first. Joseph, 97, died just 12 hours later. Accounts of much younger surviving spouses succumbing to the virus within weeks or months of their spouse’s death have also been reported. And in some cases, more than one generation of the same family has been affected.

For example, in early 2020 Nicky Leake, a 45-year old mother of three who worked in administration at MedStar Hospital Center in Washington, DC, had been visiting her parents at their house when she developed a nagging cough and soon tested positive for the coronavirus. Shortly afterward, both her 40-year old brother John and her 74-year old mother Leslie also tested positive and were hospitalized. Sixteen days later, as Nicky was being laid to rest, John and Leslie died, just hours apart.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

But it’s not just the pattern of death that’s distinctive. It’s also the pattern — and intensity — of the grief that afflicts those left behind. In the case of terminal conditions like cancer, spouses and families become accustomed to watching an ill spouse or parent grow sick over many months and can better prepare themselves for their eventual death. But death from infectious diseases like COVID-19 comes suddenly and unexpectedly, amid lingering fear and uncertainty over how many other loved ones might also succumb. These circumstances can add greatly to the shock and trauma of family grief, research shows.

And the nation’s response to the pandemic has only made matters worse, it seems. For example, mandatory social distancing and prolonged quarantines throughout 2020 and much of 2021 precluded or restricted in-person interaction with dying relatives in hospitals and nursing homes. Unable to provide care and comfort, spouses and other family survivors have been left to experience their grief alone, often wondering if their reduced presence somehow contributed to their loved one’s death.

Along with their grief, some survivors also carry a heavy burden of guilt and shame over death circumstances that were completely beyond their control.

COVID-19 distancing restrictions have also affected grieving at the collective level. Throughout 2020 and most of 2021, families eager to travel and congregate for funerals and other collective memorializations of their deceased family members were told to stay home. When authorities designated these events as potential “super-spreaders,” they inadvertently stigmatized time-honored rituals of mourning and remembrance While some have turned to online ceremonies to fill the void, without the restoring power of human touch, they have lost the opportunity to regain their sense of family connectedness, leaving them in a state of “grief purgatory.”

Pandemic-related deaths that involve multiple family members perishing together, like the Leakes, can further compound the burden of traumatic loss, research shows. The need for collective mourning is especially strong during these episodes, especially in extended family settings where the ravages of COVID-19 have left entire communities feeling bereft and under siege. Rituals of mourning and celebrations conducted over many days allow communities to recover their dignity and to reaffirm their staying power, reassuring children and young adults of their future safety and security.

Research shows that prolonged and unresolved grief can have powerful psychological and social effects over the long term. The anger, sadness and confusion of facing traumatic loss alone adds to the more immediate loss of emotional and financial support when family elders die. These bereavement effects, which may not become apparent for years, can include chronic mental and emotional health problems that lead to increased substance abuse, self-harm and domestic violence as well as higher school drop-out rates and diminished educational attainment.

Buffering the Experience of Grief

How can our nation work now to limit these effects? It can start with a more sustained acknowledgement by our federal health agencies, including the CDC and HHS, that the issue of COVID-19 grieving is an urgent national priority.

Second, let’s commit to generous new funding for public grief education and outreach to seniors and other vulnerable demographic groups, especially those in isolated areas or in difficult-to-reach, at-risk communities.

Third, let’s commit collectively and individually, to support not just our grieving relatives but those of our friends and professional associates. Those of us that never suffered family losses know others that did, and we can still offer our support, when asked. This was, and is, a national crisis; in fact, any one of us could have died at the hands of such a deadly foe.

And that foe is still lurking. The pre-vaccine days when bodies piled up in morgues and COVID-19 was a source of sheer terror may be gone, but the deadly virus is still with us and will remain with us, in some form, for years. More painful family tragedies await, but with courage and fortitude, we can better learn how to grieve them, growing stronger in the process.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Grief: A Rite Of Passage…And a New Beginning

Grief support groups have evolved and mushroomed in recent years. Even before COVID-19 the “graying” of the U.S. population was transforming death and dying. More and more families have been seeking solace and support outside their immediate families and often finding it in rapidly proliferating online grief support communities.

These are genuine communities that provide more than just a sympathetic ear from a single hotline volunteer. Those hotlines still exist but the new virtual communities offer members ongoing mutual support from sufferers just like yourself. They not only hear your stories and help you mourn and honor the memory of the deceased; they also provide resources that allow you to see death and dying as the passage to a fresh new beginning for you and your loved ones.

Here are several resources that grieving spouses (and other family members) can take advantage of to create a new life of loving spiritual fellowship that can sustain and revitalize them during this important passage and for many years beyond.

● WIDOWS CONNECTION

https://widowsconnection.org/

A virtual community site that allows members to participate in ongoing support groups

that meet throughout the week, offering solace and support for new hobbies, vocations, travel, relationships and other bold new ventures.

● GRIEVING.COM

https://forums.grieving.com/forum/94-covid-19/

Rated the #1 grieving website by Very Well Mind in 2021. There are discussion

forums for every type of grieving issue imaginable, from miscarriages to pets to

COVID-19. Readers post a concern and await replies from like-minded parties

● GRIEF IN COMMON

https://www.griefincommon.com/

A live chat group that encourages users to post personal profiles to find the right “match” for the type or stage of grief they are experiencing. Chats are monitored to ensure confidentiality and to deter inappropriate and abusive exchanges.

● GRIEF.NET

https://www.griefnet.org/support/SGform.html.

Grief discussions are conducted through confidential group emails. Interested parties register and agree to abide by group guidelines including no discussion of religion and spirituality and no independent communications outside the group email framework. $10 subscription per month.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a trained sociologist and a Washington, D.C.-based consultant and policy analyst. He writes frequently on science and public health issues with a special focus on at-risk communities.

Have you visited the Wall of Memories?

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The Observer uses human stories, medical news, trends and culture to tell the story of COVID in America. The Observer is the news page of the website www.covid19wallofmemories.org.

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COVID-19 Wall of Memories

COVID-19 Wall of Memories

COVID-19 Wall of Memories memorializes the lives of COVID-19 victims while serving as a source of information about its impact on the United States.

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