Regardless of cultural beliefs, there are certain rituals and practices that come with losing a loved one. Whether it’s a celebratory occasion with song and dance, a religious service conducted at a place of worship, or simply having a meal with common friends; honouring the death of someone has had one shared commonality, that of social connection. In the wake of COVID-19, adhering to physical distancing and keeping gatherings to five people or less has been especially challenging for those grieving. The bereaved are left to navigate grief, possibly further isolated than grief already is and without the salve of human connection.
The experience of rituals often begins well before a funeral. For many people, the days and hours at the end of a person’s life are filled with moments of physical proximity to the dying, communicating memories, wishes or expectations, providing physical comfort and implementing cultural practices to aid the person in transitioning. Moreover, community rituals in dying and the early days following the death often include the family, friends and community at large rallying around the bereaved with visits of support, acts of comfort and offerings of food.
With strict isolation measures in place in most hospitals worldwide, people are unable to participate in these final farewells. While it is imperative to slow the spread of COVID-19, these measures make it difficult for those grieving to come together to mourn. So, as people experiencing the new reality of physical distancing, how do we find a way to cope with grief when the rituals and practices that we are familiar with are so drastically changed?
- Acknowledge that this is not what you wanted: We often remain silent about emotions like heartbreak, grief and disappointment, in the belief that talking about them will evoke these feelings in others. This stifling of emotion does little to relieve our stress. In fact, not expressing ourselves can lead to feelings of disconnection with others who may experience this lack of communication as a barrier. Talk openly with people who care about you, acknowledge that this is not what you would have wanted to do to honour the person who died. It may be comforting for you and the person who wants to be supportive of you.
- Technology can help us to stay connected in times of distress: The simple act of picking up a phone has long been a ritual for those that could not be close when someone died. In 2020 our access to technology has increased exponentially and we can now see people in addition to hear their voice. FaceTime, Zoom, Skype and a host of social media platforms have allowed us to keep in touch in ways that weren’t possible even a decade ago. While a virtual funeral, memorial service or celebration of life was unimaginable just months ago, it can provide an opportunity for people to acknowledge the person’s death through that act of being present. By extension, a virtual reception can allow mourners to share stories of the deceased and express their condolences to the family.
- Finding creative ways to commemorate the person who died: Many funeral homes have long been providing a virtual condolence book where you can leave an expression of sympathy and/or a memory to be shared with friends and family. Virtual albums can be posted to social media platforms to honour the person that died. Create a space for reflection and memorial by planting a tree or a memory garden. Create a time capsule with items of significance, such as pictures, clothing and add thoughts or memories to remind you of the person.
- Allow people to connect with you who are helpful and supportive: Not everyone is going to provide you with the support and comfort that you need or deserve when you are grieving. Identify those people in your life who are capable of being empathetic, attuned to you emotionally or capable of practical support and ensure you allow them to support you. It can be appealing to insulate yourself in solitude even within a pandemic, however being cared for during times of grief can enhance our physical, emotional and psychological health. Additionally, providing support can be an expression of grief and healing for those that surround the bereaved.
- Practice mindfulness exercises and meditation: In times of dealing with prolonged grief, it is completely acceptable to take time to check in with yourself. If sitting in silence and chanting doesn’t seem like it could be helpful to you, create your own way to meditate. Draw or paint something, spend time in nature, read a set number of pages a day. Create a way for yourself to tune out the background noise of anxieties and distress and re-center yourself.
- If you need it, don’t be afraid to seek out professional help: We may be tired of hearing that this is an unprecedented time, but when it comes to death, dying and bereavement, this couldn’t be more true. It is understandable to have difficulty navigating grief any time, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. Most counselling services have moved to a virtual model, where counsellors can “meet” with clients by phone or video. Expressing our thoughts and feelings in a supportive space can provide us with the relief we may need to navigate the day to day. If you believe you could use additional support speak with your health professional or contact a counselling practice near you.
Remember that during this time we are doing our best to navigate our new realities, and in doing so we can give ourselves permission to change course or do something differently at any time. Memorials do not have a timeline, while we may enact a form of ritual or practice during COVID-19, when we emerge from this pandemic, we are allowed to memorialize the person that died in whatever way we need, individually or collectively.
Ambika is a former administrative assistant at Calming Tree and currently enjoys her work at a local addiction treatment centre. She is driven to make positive changes within her community and intends to further her field of study by pursuing Social Work. That being said, in lieu of posting her social media links, she has linked the Black Women in Action (Toronto Chapter).This organization supports the advancement of Black women in Toronto through educational tools, economic opportunities and cultural content. https://blackwomeninmotion.org/