In my forthcoming book, Untangling Life After Loss: A Griever’s Guide to Creating a Self-Care Plan, I offer suggestions for how to approach grief in your everyday life. COVID-19 has turned many of those suggestions sideways as social distancing measures throw a curve into what could be termed “normal” grieving processes. An experience that once required stepping back a bit from life’s busyness now must be recontextualized to fit a pandemic lifestyle built around confinement and distance. How do grieving practices translate for this new normal?
Human connection is a strong component of the grief process. When struggling with loss, nothing may feel as good as a hug from family, friends, or a significant other. Even just being in the company of loved and trusted people can be calming. While living within the boundaries of social distance, the need for human connection when grieving will largely go unmet. Some of us live with significant others, children, or roommates. While these relationships may provide some solace, not every person we live with will offer emotional comfort. Others of us live alone and remain deprived of the opportunity to give or receive comfort during an emotional crisis.
What we’re left with is the necessity to make virtual connections.
Though far from ideal while grieving, our twenty-first century video conferencing tools allow us to connect at a pivotal time such as loss. Imagine what the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1920) was like when families could not connect, except through letters. Now we can utilize video chats, email, instant messaging, and photo/video sharing platforms to connect with family and friends instantly when we need human contact. While it may not be the type of connection desired (or even fitting for something like loss), when social distancing and self-isolating video conferencing may be the best option we have.
How can we use video conferencing to help grieve during a pandemic that requires social distance? Consider the following options:
- Schedule regular virtual get-togethers that everyone can count on as much needed connection during grief. Set up a family dinner, coffee/snack hour, or even a TV watching time (where you all just sit and watch the same movie or show). Services like Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Skype allow for multi-person calls. Zoom offers a free 40-minute session, while longer periods require a paid host account. (I’m not sure whether Hangouts does as well.) The purpose of these virtual get-togethers is to check in with one another, see who needs help with what and figure out how best to send that help. Having a regularly scheduled event can give everyone something to look forward to as days and weeks begin to blur. Knowing that there will be contact is important to bolster emotional and mental health.
- Remain open to whatever emotions come through in a virtual get-together. The non-verbal ways we usually communicate empathy, compassion, and sadness are unavailable right now. There is no chance for hugs, pats on the back, a meaningful handshake, a hand on the shoulder. Because of that, expect that virtual encounters may be more emotional than a face-to-face encounter. A lack of face-to-face comforts, combined with our prolonged isolation (which brings stresses of its own) may bring our emotions closer to the surface, making us more sensitive. Grievers (yourself included) may be shorter in temper than usual and typically reserved people may display more emotion than expected. Understand that self-distancing measures may likely exacerbate our emotional expression. Be patient with yourself and other grievers, and be prepared for unexpected emotional encounters.
- Focus some chats on specific grieving themes. Rather than gathering to chat and see what people bring up, plan some virtual time around themes dedicated to your lost loved one. For example, plan a chat where you share your fondest memories of your loved one or the funniest or most poignant moment you shared together. Ask people to look for photos that expressed their experience of your loved one and do a show-and-tell night where you share photos and stories that go along with them. Share poems or short readings that express your emotions and help you all reflect on your grief. By having dedicated chats, you can help focus people’s grief and channel it into something productive and healing. This will also give people a chance to discuss things that they might otherwise keep to themselves during a more free-form chat (perhaps because they don’t feel the time is right to reminiscence).
Regardless of how you choose to use your video conferencing time, be sure to find some way to laugh. Serious chats are important when grieving, but so is laughter. Find a way to lighten the mood, whether it is virtually watching a funny show or movie together, or sharing the most ridiculous stories of your loved one you can think of. We are already in a stressful time, grief only increases that stress and you may need more light moments to help offset the stressful ones.