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Grieving Is Hard. Grieving During A Pandemic Is Even Harder.

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Without rituals, or a communal gathering, the the loss of a loved one can be felt even more keenly (Dzana Serdarevic/Unsplash)
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I recently lost someone who, in a lot of ways, was like a second mother. She didn't die from COVID-19 but pandemic regulations still stand. It's not safe to have a memorial for her.

Grief is never easy. I'm having trouble processing her loss for a few reasons but a big one is that Mama Sue was a mother to a whole lot of people, and being unable to gather with all of them in her honor has me feeling kind of stuck in my grief.

Dr. Katherine Shear says rituals surrounding death are an important part of the health process. "Without those rituals we struggle a lot more with coming to terms with the loss, which is of course what we have to do," said Shear. Ultimately healing requires us to "regroup and find our way forward."

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PROLONGED GRIEF

Shear teaches psychiatry at Columbia University and specializes in prolonged grief, something she's seeing a lot more of these days. Grief is considered prolonged when the feelings disrupt everyday life beyond what's considered a healthy degree and amount of time. Symptoms of prolonged grief, also known as complicated grief can include extreme sorrow, isolation, and an inability to feel joy long after suffering a loss.

For many, it's not only about missing out on the ritual and sense of community. It's also about not being with someone when they die. Shear says separation from loved ones during the dying process can also make healing more difficult.

"Those things contribute to the processing of the reality of the death," said Shear. "That's a part of what we have to do - accept the reality. And then we have to find a way to restore our capacity to feel well-being."

ENORMOUS NUMBERS

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Demographer Emily Smith-Greenaway teaches sociology and spatial sciences at USC and has quantified the impact of COVID-19 fatalities on its survivors. She says "each death results in about nine Americans grieving the death of a close relative."

Based on that projection, 225,000 people in California were personally affected by the death of someone from COVID-19 in 2020 alone. "The size of the population grieving, and grieving very intimate losses, is just enormous," said Smith-Greenaway.

Fellow USC professor Diane Blaine specializes in thanatology which is the study of death and its impact. She says there are ways to find solace in creating our own rituals to help the healing process...

"Write a letter, light a candle too, you know, I have a little altar, and to just sit and weep," said Blaine. "We can still do those things."

FUTURE GATHERINGS

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Many are finding ways to connect with other mourners. Zoom memorial services and online religious ceremonies are being frequently held. If you're still struggling though, Blaine recommends talking to a grief counselor or support group.

The challenge is that there are a lot of communities where mental health services are hard to access and they're often the same communities with high COVID-19 mortality rates. An emerging idea is to train people already trusted in the community like barbers and church members to give support.

Most importantly, Blaine says to remember that grief doesn't have a timeline.

"Even though right now there might have to be a forestalling of whatever form of grief process, it can continue and it can continue on even for years."

Blaine says we will be able to gather in the memory of those we've lost again at some point. And that can be healing whenever it happens.

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For what it's worth, I think I'll light another candle for Mama Sue tonight.

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