Grieving a Coronavirus Death: Help for Special Circumstances

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

If someone you love has died of the novel coronavirus, it is likely that you are facing a number of challenging circumstances. Grief is always difficult, but it is especially difficult whenever a death is sudden, unexpected, and unfolds in ways that violate our expectations and puts up barriers to the cultural grief rituals that help us through.

I have been a grief counselor and educator for over forty years, and this pandemic is unlike anything I have encountered. I am sorry you have been so deeply affected by this hardship.

First, it is important to understand that grief is always normal and necessary. It is part of our love. But in complicated loss situations, the grief that follows often gets complicated, too. It is essentially normal grief in an abnormally challenging loss situation.

If this is where you are finding yourself right now, I hope this article will offer you some affirmation, comfort, and hope in the weeks to come.

If you couldn’t be with the person who was dying, or if you couldn’t view or spend time with the body after the death

In most cases, infectious-disease protocols are keeping loved ones apart from those who are critically ill or dying. Whether you were across the country or just down the road, you probably felt frustrated and maybe even distraught that you couldn’t be by your loved one’s side. While the enforced separation may have been necessary, you may understandably feel cheated of precious last moments and goodbyes.

Sometimes hospital caregivers have been able to use technology to help families communicate with loved ones dying of COVID-19 (or other causes during this period of restrictions). I hope this was true for you, but I also realize that these measures are not the same as being there.

Holding the hands of the dying and spending time with the body afterward are ways that we as human beings acknowledge the reality of a death and begin to embrace the pain of the loss. These are two essential mourning needs that will be naturally more difficult for you to meet in the weeks and months to come.

I encourage you to talk out your thoughts and feelings about these circumstances with people who are good listeners. When the time is right, I also encourage you to reach out to the hospital and/or funeral home staff who cared for your loved one and ask them to tell you anything they can. If you can reconstruct what happened even a little bit, you will likely feel better. Often our minds are searching for a few details and assurances, and when they’re provided, we can rest a little easier.

If a funeral wasn’t possible or has been delayed

Funerals are essential because they help us begin to meet all of our mourning needs. The mourning journey often takes years, and a good funeral sets us off on a good path.

Funerals help us acknowledge and accept the reality of a death, share memories, convert our relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory, give and receive social support, express our grief out loud, consider the meaning of life and death, and help us start to think about how to live life forward with meaning and purpose.

Yet I realize that in this pandemic, many gatherings have been rendered impractical or impossible. I’ve been encouraging funeral directors and families to try to have a brief immediate ceremony, even if only by Zoom or Skype, followed by a larger memorial service once the restrictions are lifted. Some people have also been holding an informal, intimate service in their own homes to mark the death and honor the person who died.

Please know that it’s never too late to have a ceremony, and especially if you weren’t able to be with the dying person or the body afterward, holding several ceremonies is a good idea. Ask a clergyperson, celebrant, or friend to help you. You will find that people who were unable to support you at the time of the death will want to provide you the support you need and deserve. And inviting friends and family to support one another is something you will always be glad you did. To achieve the goal of multiple ceremonies, you might have an immediate candle-lighting service in your home, a graveside or scattering service as soon as possible, and a tree-planting ceremony on the anniversary of the death, for example.

Essentially, ceremony and ritual have the power to partially fill some of the holes created by the COVID-19 death circumstances. And it’s never too late to use them.

If you’re separated from your support systems

While most of us are sheltering in place, we’re apart from the people we would normally talk to, hug, and hold close during a time of great loss.

If this is true for you, I urge you to use all the technology tools you can to reach out to the people you care about. Video calls are probably the best substitute for face-to-face conversations. Voice calls come second. After that, emails, texting, and social media work too. And don’t forget the power of the handwritten letter! The point is to stay connected as much as possible AND to be open and honest in those communications about whatever it is you are feeling or struggling with at the moment. Your candor will encourage others to be honest as well, creating the opportunity for mutual support and kindness.

In addition to creating a lifeline in the time of separation, these tools will help you maintain and build your important relationships so that when gathering and travel restrictions are finally lifted, you will have the strong connections and good momentum you need. Everyone will be on the same page and ready to support one another in person. You can even use this homebound time to plan ceremonies, build online memorial pages, and gather photos, video footage, and memorabilia of the person who died.

If you’re angry, anxious, self-blaming, or feeling guilty

In complicated grief circumstances, these feelings are especially common. They’re normal! Feelings aren’t right or wrong—they just are. Please don’t make it even harder on yourself by judging your feelings or thinking that you’re abnormal.

Maybe you’re angry about how the person who died contracted coronavirus or was cared for while ill. Maybe you feel anxious that you or someone else will get the disease (and perhaps die), or maybe the death has given rise to anxiety about finances and other life realities. Maybe you blame yourself about some aspect of what happened. And maybe you feel guilty that you are still living while your loved one is not.

Again, these and other feelings are normal and common in grief, and especially in complicated grief. Whenever you’re having an uncomfortable or “stuck” feeling, the key is to express it as much and as often as it takes for it to begin to soften. You express it by sharing it with a friend, writing about it in a journal, or talking about it in a support group or to a grief counselor, for example. Expressing your grief is called mourning, and mourning is how, over time, you step one day at a time toward healing.

I understand that right now, the traumatic nature of your loved one’s COVID-19 death and your thoughts and feelings about it may color every aspect of your grief. It is part of your grief, but it is not the totality of your grief. Other factors that contribute to your grief include the nature of the relationship you had with the person who died, your unique personality, your religious and cultural backgrounds, your gender, your age, your previous experiences with loss, as well as others. Your grief is a complicated blend of thoughts and emotions, most of which stem from your love for the person who died. Over time you will come to find that your grief is as much or more about the life than it is about the death.

If you are able to muster the courage to actively mourn and use ceremony, over time you will find a path to a renewed life of meaning and purpose. Remember, you are not alone, and there are no rewards for speed. I hope you will share your coronavirus story and grief tips with me at drwolfelt@centerforloss.com.

About the author

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is an author, educator, and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many bestselling books on coping with grief, including Grief One Day at a Time and First Aid for Broken Hearts. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and loss and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.

Pre Planning Your Final Arrangements

The greatest gift you can leave your family.

The holiday season has just passed and many of us shared in the season of gifts and giving. It was a time of family, life and reflection. Many memories were shared with one another and many new memories were made. Gifts are given in love to those we care most about, and we usually accepted the gifts as a token of that love we share. Planing for your final arrangements are not always thought of as a gift, but what greater gift can you leave with your family than the peace of knowing everything is taken care of when you pass away?

Soon after I began my career in funeral service I decided to talk to my parents about their final wishes. It was at that moment I realized, this is not an easy thing to do. They were both reluctant to talk about death at all and it shocked me. My thought was, we are all going to die, let’s talk about what to do when that happens. For me it was normal, but for most it is a forbidden subject. Finally, I got enough out of my parents that I knew what I would do when either one of them passed away. While pre-planning may seem difficult at the time, knowing ahead what you will do when your loved one dies will take an immense burden off the family at the time of death, and is truly the greatest gift you can leave your family.

What is pre-planning? Also known as preneed, it is simply planning for one’s final arrangements prior to death. When a death occurs going to the funeral home to make funeral arrangements and select a casket or urn is one of the hardest thing to do. To do this in advance is a tremendous benefit to the entire family. At the time of death a family (no matter how prepared or unprepared) goes into a state of shock. Instantly their minds become separated from normal life. For the next several day decisions will be made that are irreversible. This process can be made easier by planning ahead, and it takes the burden off of the survivors. Never once has a family said, “I wish our loved one would have never pre-planned their funeral arrangements.” In fact, families are often relieved when they realize they don’t have to come to the funeral home because mom or dad took care of everything years ago.

We encourage everyone, regardless of age or health, to pre-plan his or her final arrangements. Pre-arranging is very relaxed and can be done either at the funeral home, in the comfort of ones home, or even online. Pre-arranging is also personalized to meet the needs of everyone. There are several types of pre-arranging:

Pre-arrange only

To pre-arrange a funeral one would discuss with the funeral director his or her wishes regarding their final arrangements. This could and should include discussing type and location of service, pre-selection of the casket,vault or urn, and any other special requests there might be. Remember, in pre-arranging, you can do as much or as little as you want. In pre-arranging, it is not necessary to pre-pay at all. Most people who pre-arrange have the means to pay for their service at the time of death.

Pre-arrange and Pre-fund

This is the same as pre-arranging except the person makes financial arrangements as well. To pre-arrange the financial end of a pre-arrangement it is possible to lock in todays funeral prices for the future. This is usually done with insurance funded policies that are set up at the time of the pre-arrangement. A single pay policy would mean that the total funeral is selected and paid in one payment. The monies are put into a single premium insurance policy and the policy grows each year to keep up with our price increases and is guaranteed to pay for the funeral at the time of death. Another option is a monthly pay policy where the total funeral cost is set up on a monthly payment that is affordable to the one arranging, and is generally paid over a number of years. This type of service is also designed to pay for the total funeral at the time of death.

Pre-Fund only

This is for the person who wants to leave the final arrangements to their survivors, but provides the financial means to pay for the services selected. Simply put, one can write a check for a certain amount to pay or to be applied to their funeral at the time of their death. This can also be set up on a monthly pay payment plan.

Some things to remember when pre-planning are: don’t alienate your family from this process. Remember, funerals are for those left behind to grieve. You may think, all I want is the simplest thing available, while a spouse left behind may need a time of closure and the support of others. Services can be made simple and even private. Discuss these things with your family and let them be involved in the process. I have seen to many times grieving families following the wishes of the deceased and going against what they want or need, only to make the whole grieving process much more burdensome. Knowing that will open the door to discussion and ultimately making the right choices for everyone involved.

For more questions please feel free to contact Robert Nunnaley at 910.947.2224, or Robert@PinesFunerals.com

Robert is vice president and general manager of Fry and Prickett Funeral Home, Inc.