Grieving in the age of COVID-19

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Children with Camp Dragonfly do an activity during the March weekend camp. The camp, which is held twice a year, provides services to youth and children who are coping with loss and grief.

Over the past year, many aspects of life have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is little in life that hasn't been affected in some way by the disease, which has claimed more than 550,000 lives in the U.S. and 359 Grayson County residents.

This includes how people grieve, and as the pandemic has restricted how people gather, local grief specialists say some people are struggling to navigate the process of grieving when many of the avenues are unavailable. 

"I think that it (grief) is different (today) because people like to connect with others, and at a funeral people have the chance to gain closure," said Nancy Jackson, director of community development for Home Hospice. "For many people, that didn't happen this past year."

Camp Dragonfly is among the services that Home Hospice offers children and youth experiencing loss. The weekend camp, which happens twice a year, offers campers the chance to reflect on the lives of the recently departed with peers experiencing many of the same feelings.

The latest class, which met last month, was among the largest group to ever go through the program, Jackson said. While the children came from different backgrounds, many shared one traits: the majority had lost a family member to COVID-19.

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

Common thoughts that came from this year's campers included a lack of closure. Many felt their friend or loved one was cruelly taken away from them quickly by some unseen, untouchable force. Others expressed guilt at the loss, Jackson said.

"A couple of them felt like they had caused it because they had COVID before and some family member told them it was their fault," she said.

While many avenues for grief have changed in the past year, Jackson said there are still many healthy ways to deal with grief. However, above all else, it is important to know that there isn't one solution that works for everyone.

"You will see a lot of people who will tell you how to do or what to do, but every person in their grief is unique. Maybe it worked for me, but maybe it won't work for you," she said.

Another important aspect of coping is to find a support group of people who are willing to hear your story repeatedly. Home Hospice recently restarted its in person support groups as a way to provide that sense of community and support.

"A support group isn't perfect for everyone, but what a support allows you to do is find of group of people going things similar to what you are going through," she said.

The Very Rev. Don Perschall of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Denison said that Texoma is fortunate in that the pandemic didn't hit the region as hard as other, more populous areas. While the level of loss has been significant, it hasn't been as high as other areas.

Still, many people were put in unimaginable situations where they were kept away from their loved ones in their final moments, which only expounded the level of grief they felt.

Children gather for Camp Dragonfly, a weekend camp for children and youth experiencing grief and loss, in early March.

"If we do not deal with it in a healthy way, it will come back and it will get us," he said. "We have to face grief in a very healthy manner."

Perschall said his church still has continued to have funeral services, with many streamed online for those who are unable to attend in person. While this can provide some relief, it lacks the community support that many need during times of loss.

"People can literally tune in on our Facebook page and join us for a worship service for their loved one," he said. "I find that to be a substitute, and sometimes that is enough, but for some people it isn't enough."

Another healthy way to cope can come through individual counseling, Jackson said. While many mental health providers limited in-person services during the pandemic, some are starting to come back. Others continue to be available online.

"Sometimes, when you tell a stranger, they hear it differently than a friend or family member," she said.

Journaling and writing one's thoughts down can also provide some level of catharsis, she said.

Other options include continuing the traditions and activities that they did with their loved one. As an example, Jackson said some families continue to set a plate for the departed during holiday meals and family members will share their memory of the loved one.

However, Perschall warned that the process of fully grieving is not a short one and can take at least a year in ideal circumstances. However, given the current pandemic, many of those stages are taking longer. 

 "Now multiply that with the pandemic, where we don't have any support at all, where we don't have that family support network," he said.

Both Perschall and Jackson agreed that having some of those closure moments, including memorial services, funerals and spread of ashes once the pandemic has passed can lead people to finally finding the peace needed to move on.