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Grief and Mourning during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

In general, death and mourning are sensitive and difficult times to navigate for mourners, family and friends seeking to provide support and comfort. The subject of death, regardless of mortality, is discussed infrequently and often taboo. In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, the subject of death and loss is now front and center. At a time of loss, all individuals grieve and mourn differently.

Stages of Mourning

In the 1960’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross established a model of how people emotionally respond to grief. It was originally presented as a five stage model of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It is best to understand these emotional responses as normal although personal loss that can hit us all in different forms and ways. More recently, psychologist William Worden, who views grief not as stages to pass through but rather tasks to manage through the loss. First, Worden states that we need to accept the reality of the loss. Second, we need to process the hurt and pain caused by the loss. Next, we need to find a way to adjust to the “new normal” now that our world has changed. And finally, we need to find an “enduring connection” while moving forward. When it comes to the death of a loved one, this last task is about finding a way to incorporate your memories of the person with finding room in your life for new activities that are meaningful and give us pleasure. In terms of loss in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, it means finding a way to create and develop meaning in our lives in the midst of the uncertainty.

How Coronavirus Affects Mourning

In light of the Coronavirus, there are new government restrictions rapidly being introduced for public health and safety reasons that impact the timing and manner of funerals. As such, individuals who are mourning their loved one may face an additional level of stress and grief associated with the planning and coordinating of the funeral and burial services. In the near term, there are sweeping changes taking place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The breadth and length of time the restrictions remain unknown, but the practices of social distancing are in effect across the United States. Many families are understanding about the situation. That said, this additional consideration or change in practices does introduce a new type of grief.

Changes in Traditional Funeral and Burial Impact the Grieving Process

A funeral and burial is a part of the grieving process that provides mourners an opportunity to outwardly express feelings and emotions about their loved one. As a result of public health and safety concerns, gatherings are now limited in size to avoid spreading of COVID-19. For those who pre-planned, made final arrangements in advance with wishes of a public funeral and burial surrounded by friends and family this creates an additional stress, anger and grief. Funeral homes across the United States are working to offer services that help. Included in these services are video streaming of funerals, postponement of burial, and future use of the funeral home chapel for a memorial service.

Impact of Coronavirus on Viewings, Wakes, Shiva and Memorial Gatherings

Viewings, Wakes, Shivas and other memorial events involve a gathering of family, friends and the community who are expressing condolences and providing comfort. In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, gatherings are either cancelled or limited to 10 attendees which is unprecedented and introduces the potential for extended grieving and a new type of grief. As a result, bereaved families are electing to hold a memorial service at a later date. With this impact on gatherings and other celebrations of life, it is important that extended family, friends and the community remain engaged and offer other means of support to comfort those grieving a loss. The use of technology, phone, and social media (ie. Facebook) to engage and communicate with mourners is helpful and generally appropriate. In addition, there are ways to express condolences by sending appropriate commemorative gifts, including planting a tree in the Holy Land, commemorative plaques, and even certain meals and sympathy baskets.

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