Mourning in a pandemic is complicated. But it’s important to do it, even if that means finding a new approach.
Gathering to honor the lives of those we’ve lost is an essential piece of the grieving process. “Rituals and structure provide a framework or a scaffolding over the intensely emotional and disruptive experience that grief naturally is,” says psychiatrist Kathy Shear, founder and director of the Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia School of Social Work in New York. “When you’re in the middle of emotional turmoil and it seems like your whole life has just been turned upside down, it’s reassuring to know what you’re supposed to do. I think a ritual can do that.”
Depending on the culture, mourning rituals can involve spiritual practices and prescribed prayers, or jubilant celebration-of-life events. In some parts of the Caribbean, mourning activities take place over multiple days before burial, and friends and family gather for “Nine Nights” of feasting, singing and storytelling. Other cultures observe mourning periods after the burial, such as the Muslim three-day remembrance period and the week-long Jewish practice of “sitting shiva.” When Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in 2016, the country entered a year-long mourning period, throughout which most citizens dressed in black.
“Rituals and ceremonies give us a focus to honor the life of our loved one, they provide an outlet for the community to acknowledge our loss and to also pay their respects to our loved one’s life,” grief expert and equine-guided learning facilitator Gail Carruthers writes via email. “There is comfort in the process.”
Given that many mourning rituals involve shared experiences, how do we mourn now that we can no longer gather?
The first step, Shear says, is to shift our focus away from what we can’t do. “We have to operate within the bounds of reality,” she says. “It’s not helpful to focus on what we can’t do, and if you can accept the reality [of the current restrictions] and be open to your own heart, that can facilitate creativity and innovation. And from that place, you can often see opportunities.” Here are some options.
Social connection and support are important and can still be achieved in a variety of ways, says Ajita Robinson, grief and trauma therapist and author of “The Gift of Grief.” Although we aren’t able to physically connect, she recommends using online platforms to create a sense of togetherness. Robinson says whether this means creating a virtual ceremony, reading poems or conducting rites of passage, joining an online support group or even hosting a Netflix Party to simultaneously watch the deceased’s favorite film and discuss in real time via a chatbox, the important thing is to “create a sense of togetherness” that can help the living mourn, honor those who have passed and ensure the bereaved aren’t isolated from systems of support.
Create new rituals
For those who may not have access to online tools or prefer to keep their rituals offline, Shear suggests creating “a common service” or ritual. It doesn’t have to be extravagant; designate a time and activity, and then invite others to participate wherever they are. Italians and Spaniards have been singing from their balconies to boost morale. Locals in Kahaluu, Hawaii, recently hosted a physically distanced “quarantine concert” in their neighborhood. And New Yorkers have been cheering health-care workers at 7 p.m. each evening. You can do something similar, Shear says, or even read poems or tell stories.
“Storytelling, being with others [even virtually or in spirit], and memorializing are important activities, because they ground us in the reality that this person is no longer [physically] with us,” Robinson says. She explains that such rituals, which could be as simple as lighting a candle at a certain time of day, help us “name the loss,” and that, in itself, is a valuable ritual. Whether you express it privately, communally or with a therapist, “it’s important for us to name the thing or person we have lost and the impact it’s having on us, because then we can begin the healing process.”
Robinson says “sharing the narrative [of the deceased]” through artistic expressions — such as songwriting, journaling, creating photo books or collages — can be cathartic as well. Carruthers also suggests preparing a virtual slide show of their lives to help you process the end of the physical relationship. You need not be a pro, so don’t worry about producing something “artistically or aesthetically pleasing,” Robinson says; the point is to honor the person and the loss.
With our lives upended in many ways right now, Robinson also points out that you may discover opportunities for new rituals that you wouldn’t have necessarily associated with mourning. “Grief and loss help reorient us to what really matters,” she says. Gaps in our lives may become amplified, so “sometimes in the face of loss, we might decide to change something about the way we are encountering life, . . . and one of your [new] rituals might be to check in with someone more often because that’s part of how you might honor the way your loved one lived.”
Plan an in-person event for a later date
If a service or ritual isn’t possible right now — for financial reasons, distancing requirements, other obligations or otherwise — and you feel strongly that you need to be with family, friends and spiritual leaders to fully mourn, Shear says, “it’s perfectly reasonable to set it aside” and plan a ceremony or celebration for a future date.
Knowing that, sometime down the road, you will have the “opportunity to engage in the rituals [you’re] missing right now” can provide some comfort in the interim, Robinson says.
But all three experts advise the bereaved to be mindful of sinking into denial. “Don’t rush [processing grief], but don’t avoid,” Robinson says. Ignoring your grief may not only negatively affect your mental health, but it can also manifest in physical ways.
“Grief is a full-body experience,” she says. “And especially because right now we’re not able to tap into some of the emotional and social supports that normally help us, we’re seeing a lot more physical symptoms, . . . an increase in digestive problems, loss of energy and sleep.”
So, even if you prefer to plan an in-person event for a later date, it’s important to find some way to begin mourning. “We are resilient, and we certainly can utilize that [resilience] to keep the day-to-day pieces going while we slowly unpack the grief work,” Robinson says. If we don’t, we might, for example, end up with an illness that forces us to slow down — “the body’s way of trying to repair itself.”
She also encourages people to be aware that “re-grieving [at a future gathering] is normal and likely to be part of the journey. It’s not a setback; it might just help us revisit the grief, and we’ll probably need additional support and time to walk through it again.”
Give yourself grace, not guilt
The following tips apply to mourning in general and may be especially key to keep in mind now. Robinson says we should reject the myth that there’s a time frame for grief and mourning, and should be aware that cumulative grief from previous losses may affect our reaction. “Seek support, and give yourself permission to not just push through it. Give yourself permission to grieve in ways that your body is asking for, in ways that honor you.”
Shear says it’s important that you “don’t criticize yourself. It’s tough, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that.”
Robinson also says to keep in mind that the responses and rituals of those who are bereaved will not look the same. “People may not be grieving the way we think they ‘should.’ And they may appear [to us] to not be grieving at all,” she says. “Give everyone and yourself grace around what grief looks like.”
Although our mourning rituals may need to be adjusted to the current crisis, and the work of grief can be difficult and never fully goes away, Robinson says, neither does our connection to our loved ones. “Grief gets easier to hold as we adjust to life after the loss,” she says. “Remember that although our physical connection with our loved one has ended, the relationship never dies.”
Fitzgerald is a writer and responsible travel specialist based in Honolulu. Her website is thisissunny.com.