In the midst of a pandemic, it can be hard to escape the feeling of overwhelming grief. Covid-19 has claimed the lives of millions of people around the world, and for many, these deaths have hit close to home. One in five Americans has lost a close friend or family member to the disease, according to a poll conducted even before the deadly winter surge.
The pandemic has also resulted in an avalanche of related losses—jobs, housing, businesses—things that we sometimes don’t even realize can induce grief. “We grieve so many different types of things, whether it is the loss of a human or the loss of a pet or a job or a relationship,” says Shaina Garfield, an artist who specializes in grief rituals. At this point, she says, “If you haven’t grieved one thing, I invite you to reevaluate that.”
This constant experience of loss has created a heightened awareness of our own mortality as well as the fragility of so many other things we may have previously taken for granted. Among them: dining out at a favorite restaurant, going to a concert, or simply hanging out with friends. The pandemic has also fundamentally disrupted the way we process death and grieving. Big in-person funerals have been replaced by scaled-down or virtual versions, and saying goodbye to a loved one sometimes means staring into a phone screen.
But despite the obvious obstacles, advocates say there’s never been a better time to rethink how we manage grief, end the cultural stigmas around it, and make coping mechanisms more accessible (not to mention, socially distanced). As a result, there are more ways than ever to find the personalized support and resources that feel right for you—including from the comfort of your own home. Here are a few ways to get started.
Grief has such dramatic effects on the brain—it impacts our ability to make decisions, process information, and regulate our emotions—that some researchers have likened it to a brain injury. “We’re just kind of out of it. Some people have described it as having a concussion,” says Amy Hyun Swart, a psychotherapist specializing in grief and trauma. “Our amygdala is impacted, which simulates perceptions of vulnerability and threat, and we can feel extra sensitive.” Her advice? Go easy on yourself, acknowledge that your brain is probably doing some pretty weird things, and “if you need to lie in bed for a morning or a day, just allow that.”
Of course, not everyone can afford to take time off from work, and corporate bereavement policies hardly account for the reality that grief doesn’t magically disappear after just a few days. That our culture often fails to accommodate grief—or rather, treats it like a fleeting moment in time—might be all the more reason to cut yourself some slack. “One of the biggest aspects of helping yourself through grief is having self-compassion and knowing that grief is not a linear experience,” says Garfield, who recommends making space for meditation and getting plenty of rest. “A huge aspect of that is being able to forgive yourself and to honor yourself for whatever feelings come up.”
So maybe you’ve spent all day lying in bed, and the last thing you want to do is get up and exert yourself. But moving your body, even in very minor ways, might just make you feel better. “Just try and introduce movement, whatever that looks like to you,” advises Sula Johnson, a New York City–based death doula who facilitates home funerals and other end-of-life services through her care group Peacing Out. “I know for myself, I was like, I just need to refamiliarize myself with my body. Maybe that’s stretching for five minutes, maybe that’s going for a jog.”
To Johnson, it all comes down to energy. When you lose someone close to you, she believes, “the energy that would normally go into that relationship, it’s missing a direction, it’s missing a channel, that’s kind of what grief is.” Thus, moving your body, she says, “helps move the energy that is stuck feeling lost and feeling so painful.”
Of course, there’s no magic remedy for the nonlinear and occasionally completely debilitating experience of grief, which manifests differently in everyone. “There’s nothing that can take away the pain of loss, and I hate saying that because it’s so uncomfortable often,” says Johnson. “But there are things you can do to connect with that person and connect with yourself and keep your body just here in this moment.” For example, she recommends talking out loud or writing a letter to the person you lost to help process unresolved feelings and emotions.
We tend to think of rituals as being reserved for formal ceremonies with big groups of people and rigid sets of rules. But any activity—even those you can perform solo at home—can become a ritual as long as it’s performed with a specific intention behind it. That’s according to Garfield, the New York City–based artist who offers macramé weavings and memorial services under the name Leaves With You. She suggests that developing a ritual could be as simple as cooking a meal, listening to an album, or watching a movie that held special significance to the person you’re grieving.
“If you put intention into that moment, of ‘OK I’m about to perform this act, this is what I want to work through, this is what I want to feel, this is the experience I want to have in that action,’ that creates a ritual,” she says. “You repeat it over time, and you see how your relationship to that changes. That’s an ongoing ritual, and that’s where the healing can come through.”
Swart, the San Francisco–based psychotherapist, adds that taking up a favorite pastime of someone you’ve lost is another way to honor them and help keep their memory alive. “Perhaps if you know they were really into art, maybe see what it’s like for you to pick up some paint brushes,” she suggests. “If they loved to make lemon bars, make lemon bars.”
During the grief gatherings she hosted before the pandemic, Swart would light candles, invite a sound healer, and instruct her clients to sit in a circle together. Now, these grief gatherings look and feel a little different—the circle has been replaced by a grid of squares on Zoom—but the idea behind them remains just as essential: “We really need community when it comes to grief,” Swart explains.
The benefits of talking about grief in a communal setting, she adds, are twofold: to feel a little less alone through the support of others, and also to destigmatize grief itself. While Zoom might lack the intimacy of an in-person gathering, it does offer a few notable perks. Among them: the comfort of being in your own home surrounded by your own familiar objects, and the ability to mute yourself or turn off your camera if you need to take a moment to regroup, or you feel like you don’t want to be seen at the moment.
If enlisting a therapist isn’t quite your thing, there are plenty of online communities that offer grief support in a more casual setting. One of them is The Dinner Party, an organization focused on creating space for twenty-to-fortysomethings to talk openly about loss. “One of the principles that our work is really based on is that there’s deep power in peer care. These conversations about grief aren’t just ones that should be held within the confines of a therapist’s office,” says Mary Horn, a community manager at Dinner Party, which went fully virtual—and ditched the whole dinner thing—last year.
The groups, which typically meet once or twice a month on Zoom, are aimed at facilitating otherwise difficult conversations among people who all share at least one thing in common: the experience of having lost a loved one. “People come to The Dinner Party wanting to talk about their loss but really not knowing people in their age range with whom they can talk about it,” says cofounder Carla Fernandez. “Having a space where everyone is there because they want to have a conversation allows it to happen more freely.”
Besides, she adds, “There’s power in being able to talk to people who don’t come from the same family as you” and aren’t in the same stage of the grieving process. “I think what happens around the virtual table is kind of like collective problem-solving, so it’s the ability to really get into the specifics of what’s going on in someone’s life.”
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