grief candles

When Deidre Boyd asked me to write a short essay on the holiday grief and loss in Covid 19, I was humbled, yet I wondered how long-winded me could write a brief article. As Deidre knows I am not a newcomer to death having experienced five sudden deaths in my lifetime that propelled into a lifetime of work helping people who experience losses – from the loss of a job, loss of a business, loss of a home to the loss of a loved ones. As a young girl, I experienced the death by suicide by my natural father, the loss of my stepfather’s business by fire at age 16, the loss of my third child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SID), the sudden deaths of my first husband, my mother and stepfather. Along the way ,I did my doctoral dissertation on woman who were widowed at a young age the privilege of working with the New York Fire Department during 9-11 and have always been the social worker on the spot to help friends, families and clients travel their way from grief to transformation. Towards that end folks know they can count on me in a crisis and I will be present.

According to the Center for Complicated Grief , the burden of bereavement from Covid 19 deaths will be higher than the death toll by any other. Each death leaves roughly nine times as many bereaved albiet a grandparent, sibling , spouse or child. This is further complicated by the reality that many of the deaths appear to be sudden unexpected and for the most part loved ones die alone as others are prohibited to visit hospitals. Funerals , burials common cultural customs are altered and exacerbated by financial insecurity, the inability of grieved to be together and experience of loss is magnified in silence. Zoom becomes one of the vehicles to draw people together and share their grief.

What is grief? Explained eloquently by internist and psychiatrist, Dr. M. Katherine Shear, Founder and Director of the Center for Complicated Grief, Sept.2020, grief ,“is a natural complex multifaceted response to loss- the form love takes when someone we care about dies or we lose something precious to us”. There are no predictable stages of progression and as such grief is unique to each person. This is in contrast to Elizabeth Kubler Ross schema that long was held as the gold standard which suggests people travel a myriad of emotions from denial to anger- to bargaining to acceptance.

With death and loss, there are always mixed feelings and confusing thoughts for example:

1. Folks in many ways welcome the emotional anguish yet in another want it to go away
2. While we need other people during this time, we have a hard time connecting. Somehow, we feel as if we are different, a bit tainted .
3. We know that the person died yet somehow, we cannot connect with the reality – it is all to surreal
4. We crave the connection to the person yet want to avoid reminders of them.

Further, it has been postulated that Grief is the form of love one takes when someone we love dies. If that is the case, then our job as behavioral health experts are to help our clients our families find ways to restore themselves to wellbeing.

In doing so we help others.
1. Learn to accept the reality of the loss and the permanence of grief
2. Accept the changes that accompany loss
3. help them to forge a new relationship to the person, the place ( Home, Job etc that they have lost )
4. Acknowledge that we do nothing grieve well alone. Isolating which is something we are asked to do in Coved is counter productive we need others to share our grief with

Our task as behavioral health care experts, (which parenthetically is not simple in this collective trauma bubble we are all living in) is to help restore our clients well being. In doing so we explore with them how to
1. Restore purpose and meaning in their lives
2. Establish a sense of competence in this new world
3. Develop meaningful relationships

At the same time as essential workers, behavioral health care specialists , we must also process our own feelings about the death that we see all around us. We must engage in our own selfcare and not be afraid to seek out our own help in these trying times.

It is equally important to acknowledge that grief expresses itself on many ways from folks being so preoccupied with their own losses that they non intentionally unavailable to others, to crying spells that pop up out of nowhere like a jack in the box. There are also sleep disturbances ,supernatural occurrences and appetite changes .Every person and every member of a family grieve at a different pace and feelings can collide like meteors on a desert landscape when the emphasis is on rebirth. Social media can fuel the fire online making it look like one is missing out on one big party.

If you have experienced loss in this holiday season or are feeling memories of someone who has died , here are 12 things adapted from the Harvard Health Letter and my own experiences that you can do during the holidays to help:
1. Start a new tradition. During holiday dinner, light a candle, set sail, see a show or watch a holiday movie, have a favorite food or say a few things of remembrance. Make sure if the person you are worried about is alone, invite them to a zoom meeting, surprise them with a healing box, or a basket of fruit. Let them know you care.
2. Change the celebration. Go out to dinner instead of planning an elaborate dinner. My first husband for example loved Chinese food so we went to eat Chinese food instead of making a big
fancy turkey. Think of what you can do to celebrate the person without having making it all consuming.
3. Give yourself a hall pass. If you don’t feel like doing something, then don’t. It’s okay to have some down time For example, don’t send out holiday cards if it makes you feel bad that you are sending alone. There is no right or wrong.
4. Have an exit strategy. Sometimes going to a party or being with friends can be wonderful, other times you can feel like you are out of your league and want to crawl in a hole. I remember feeling I was “different” somehow tarnished when I became a widow and that I did not belong. Having an exit strategy so I could learn to be okay with myself was very important. Covid 19 actually gives you a built-in excuse to not go.
5. Don’t apologize. You don’t have to feel guilty about your grief. You have not done anything wrong and when you apologize you send a message that you have done something wrong.
6. Seek professional help. When death is new and fresh there are so many things that happened and lot to do. Having a professional who understands what the process is like is helpful. Some people like grief groups, others do not, some prefer talking one on one with another widow or widower, or parent, or like chat groups. Find what works for you.
7. Express your needs. You do not have to answer every text or phone call and if you don’t want to go don’t go. Everyone is not an expert on holidays , grief and loss. You may not know exactly what you want and talking it through may help. You don’t have to do everything. You are allowed to scream.
8. Help Others. You may have a job or a volunteer position that satisfies you or it may trigger you. If you have a service dog and your loved one died in hospital or hospice be clear that going is a trigger and only you can decide if that will help you by doing something for others. After my son died of SIDS death, I did learn to help other families who experienced the same but that took time. There is an increase in online support groups these days and being of service can make a world of difference
9. Change your mind. You have the right to change your mind. What might have been a great idea a few weeks ago may not be the best idea now. The best present you can give yourself is to take care of yourself. If you are able to go for a massage, getting your hair done, going to the gym is a better idea than going to the party.
10. Stay away from major shopping plazas. Since I like to shop this is a hard one for me. However, I remember walking into the local grocery store, CVS and department store with arms aching and a dazed feeling in my heart, talking everyone’s head off who would listen. I also remember loving my friends who would show up and take me places when I was in this state. Cut your spending by 25%.
11. Use social media wisely-Zoom can be helpful to reach out to others
12. Create Your Own sanity pack – or spiritual corner. Fill yourself with a goodie bag or place in your home that is just yours.

Please know in this holiday season your presence whether it’s in person or by zoom is your present to someone else.

Lastly, this is your journey, along the way there will be people who show up and people who disappear. Above all be gentle with yourself, engage in celebratory rituals, know that it is okay to feel your feelings and that I as your friend, relative or professional am holding you in my heart.

This article was originally published in Recovery Plus Journal.