Many of us have experienced grief in the last year, losing parents, grandparents, children or other relatives or dear friends.
Not all the lives that were lost were a direct outcome of the pandemic. Many deaths were a consequence of the pandemic – limitations caused by stringent hospital procedures, for example.
What is truly concerning however, is that our social media feeds have turned into obituary columns, where we seem to appease our lack of human connection by providing comfort to one another in 128 characters or less. Strangely, it seems to be enough, but it shouldn’t be.
This year I lost my beloved uncle. Though he was a doctor, at 72, he was shockingly unaware of his own deteriorating health condition. When he was admitted to hospital, he was unaware that the debilitating pain in his back and legs was not caused by weightlifting in his youth, but by acute myeloid leukemia. If we were not in a pandemic, could he have scheduled more regular health checks? Did he have a nagging feeling that his fatigue was due to something more sinister, but brushed it aside? I can’t help asking myself these questions because that’s what grief forces you to do. You have to try and make sense of your loss.
So, how do we deal with bereavement, grief and mourning in these unprecedented times and address the fact that families affected by loss have not been able to experience regular grief cycles?
A group of researchers has explored how quarantine policies have affected the five stages of grief, collectively known as the Kübler-Ross model, based on the work of the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Seyede Salehe Mortazavi led the research group, which looked at how grieving families have been affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder, a condition where individuals cannot move on with their lives due to “long-term and severe painful emotions.”
The five stages of grief in the Kubler-Ross model are:
In this stage, you typically try to resist the reality of loss by ‘emotional numbing.’ Not being able to follow spiritual mourning rituals, such as burial or other funeral practices, means that individuals are likely to stay in this stage for longer during the pandemic. According to research conducted by Vicki Lensing in 2001, conventional mourning practices are crucial for forming a mental image of the death of a loved one and to help in the process of acceptance.
This is the stage where you try to avoid pain by lashing out. In the pandemic, anger might be directed at individuals who might seem irresponsible or even at organizations who we believe should be doing a better job. The ‘anger’ stage can be overwhelming and potentially destructive but it is important. According to Kübler-Ross’s colleague David Kessler, anger needs to be deeply felt for healing to occur.
This is where you try to regain some form of control by posing ‘what if’ questions or pondering ‘if only’ scenarios. For example, you might fall into a cycle of negative thinking and obsess over whether certain measures could have been taken to prevent a loved one’s death. This cycle might be exacerbated if you or your family were accused of not adhering to precautions or hygiene measures. The social stigma that occurs as a result of a Covid-related death can be extremely distressing and prolong this stage of grief.
In this stage, you feel a deep sense of sadness. The unavoidable social isolation that occurs as a result of a Covid-related death is likely to increase the intensity and duration of this stage, which can last anywhere from six weeks to several months.
In the last stage of grief, you finally accept reality by allowing yourself to move on with life whilst tolerating the idea of loss.
Other researchers choose not to describe the grief process as a sequence of events. For example the American pediatrician Dr Richard Wilson proposed a model called The Whirlpool of Grief, rejecting the belief that grief is a linear process.
He argued that human emotions rarely conform to structure and thus a model of grief should allow for alternative experiences.
Regardless of how it is experienced, the onset of Covid has made the process even more complicated.
Thankfully, there are strategies that can ease the experience of grief. Asking questions such as “What has made it easier for me to navigate this part of the journey?” or “What are the most important things for me at this time?” can help regain some form of control and realign priorities.
If you know someone who has experienced loss, you have a responsibility to reach out and try to ease their experience.
How to help someone who is grieving
There truly is no substitute for face-to-face communication, so schedule that coffee date or take a walk with a friend.
Words of encouragement
Using the profound wisdom of Khalil Gibran, to whom I was introduced to in my teens by my dear, late uncle: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Remind them that this, too, shall pass, and there will be more room for joy after this.
Reach out to your elderly relatives more often. They need you now, more than ever. Remind them to schedule a physical examination, or better yet, make the appointment for them.
Call or send a voice note
A phone call or voice note is better than a text. If the laws of the country you live in have restricted funeral services, organize a virtual memorial by asking friends and relatives of the deceased to record memorial videos.
Finally, support the psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health providers in your community. They are the first responders to the mental health crisis we were warned about in the early days of Covid. Doing this will be crucial in addressing the waves of PTSD and prolonged bereavement cases associated with this pandemic.
Nadine Kamal is a science writer and educator based in Abu Dhabi. She has a BSc in Biology from the University of Waterloo and a Master’s in Education from the University of Dundee. Nadine has an avid interest in international education, refugee education and in the wellbeing of children and young adults.