As much as we don’t like to think about death and dying, the reality is that death is a part of life. After almost a year of this pandemic, with the death toll still mounting, we have more grievers of all ages, from cancer to COVID, from heart attacks to suicide. Behind each statistic is an individual human being whose absence on earth echoes somewhere in the universe. Even the person who wasn’t tightly moored to a family at the time of death was, in fact, somebody’s son, daughter, brother, sister, neighbor, friend.
When grief hits home, when it’s your parent who died, or your friend’s parent, it’s hard to figure out how to get through the hours, days, weeks, months, and yes – years of grief, longing and missing your special person. Each of us has to find our own way, our own style and pace of grieving; there is no one right recipe or formula, no matter how reassuring it might be to look for one or how many well-meaning people try to give you advice.
Despite death and loss being a central event in all of our lives, at some point or another, (and more likely at multiple points), we contort our language and behavior to avoid using the words “death” and “died.” Unfortunately, our discomfort and avoidance actually contribute to the sense of isolation that grieving people experience, even when they are ensconced in a caring family or community. Think about it this way: If people around you can’t tolerate or think you can’t tolerate speaking of death and what you miss and how hard it was to go through the experience, then the walls stay up, connection is limited, a sense of alienation builds. The opportunity to bear witness to someone’s pain is lost.
The Power of Storytelling in a Socially Distanced World
Humans are wired for connection, and at times of tragedy and death, community and family support become more important than ever. Those relationships can provide a protective factor for our physical and emotional health, both in the near and long-term. Tragically, the current pandemic is disrupting our most basic human needs for comfort, touch, connection and ritual, depriving us of those balms at the very time when we most need them.
Lately, there have been news reports of depression symptoms rising among children, teens, adults, and seniors. Families, friends, and caregivers are struggling to find alternative ways to cope, heal, grieve, and support each other while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
So, what are some concrete things we can we do to better support each other at times of grief and loss? To help the people we care about to feel less alone, especially when we can’t physically see each other?
Sharing stories is an age-old healing ritual that can help us find meaning and connection along the many difficult contours of life. In Maya Angelou’s wise words, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” At a time when pain and fear are compounded by isolation and alienation, there is a distinct power in storytelling that can transcend time and unite us in something bigger than ourselves.
Sharing stories can take place over a phone call, Zoom, or an online support group, with another person bearing witness by listening. Cards, letters, texts, or emails offer more options for connection, if not physical hugs and holding a hand. Making a collage about the person who died can also be a creative way to collect and organize images and words that connect you to their memory – their absent presence. Drawing, painting, and other expressive arts are also great ways to channel and convey memories and emotion.
The ritual of writing can help replace some of the rituals that aren’t possible presently. That piece of writing, in whatever form it takes, can remain private or be shared. It can be rough and unpolished and still serve the purpose of feeling connected to the loved one. This is an example of continuing bonds, a relatively new way of understanding what helps people adjust to their changed world and relationship to the person who died (a concept developed by Dennis Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven Nickman).
This strange time we are living through is pushing us to be more creative in how we honor and remember the person who died or may be dying without the benefit of visitors coming to say goodbye. Children and teens can be great resources to suggest ways to create a meaningful ritual, which may involve music, drawings, dance, or interacting with nature. Involving them also helps move them from a more passive position to an active one, countering some of the depression that can result from feelings of helplessness.
When you try to communicate with your friend, family member, or colleague whose loved one died of cancer, Covid-19, or anything else, you may also be reminded of your own past losses. A common fear of prior grief resurfacing and enveloping the present might deter some people who would rather avoid thinking about their past losses. The internal self-talk might be something like, “I don’t want to open up old wounds.” After all, there are so many societal messages we have internalized about what you should or shouldn’t do or feel after a death – about getting over it, moving on, completing the often-cited five stages of grief.
Uncovering the Opportunity in Grief
Despite these societal messages, the experience of new loss of one’s own or in a friend’s life can actually be an opportunity to feel more connected. It can open doors to recall memories, or maybe even reach out and share memories with someone who knew and cared about the same loved one, or family members who didn’t get to know that person or were too young to remember. It’s also an opportunity to check in and correct any misperceptions about death or self-blame a child, teen, or adult may be carrying.
As hard as conversations about grief can be, avoiding the topic drives home the unhelpful, even harmful, message that grief is a bad thing, or that the feeling or topic of missing someone is to somehow be avoided. Grief is not bad. Rather, grief is a form of love. Grief means the person meant something to you and that you remember them.