Grieving in the Era of the Coronavirus
How Erieites can find help coping in exceedingly difficult times
Coronavirus has catapulted us into a world of loss. We've given up hugs and handshakes. We've stepped away from physical contact with family, friends, and coworkers. Many people have also lost jobs and, of course, their health.
For those grieving a death, whether recent or long ago, the pandemic poses new challenges.
I asked three Erie people to share their reflections on mourning in the time of coronavirus. I hope their perspectives will offer some solace to mourners, as well as some helpful suggestions for those who are comforting those who grieve.
Sister Mary Ellen Plumb, a Benedictine sister, is on the staff of Monasteries of the Heart and Benetvision in Erie. When she worked at Villa Maria Academy, she led a support group for students who had lost a parent. My son Marc became part of the group after my husband Pat died on Thanksgiving night in 1994; Marc was a junior at Villa, which was co-ed then.
Kristie Nosich is program manager at Highmark Caring Place in Erie, which serves grieving families, children and adolescents. Fred Rogers served as honorary chair of the Caring Place when it started in Pittsburgh in 1996. Erie's Caring Place, which opened in 2001, offers six support groups a year. Between 70 and 100 people participate in each group, facilitated by staff and volunteers. There are also Caring Places in Harrisburg and Cranberry.
Nancy O'Neill is the retired owner of the advertising and public relations firm of Engel O'Neill in Erie. Her twin daughter, Chelsey, was killed in a car accident on June 17, 1994, just before Chelsey's second birthday. Despite her own pain, Nancy reaches out to people, including strangers, who have lost loved ones, especially children. She comforted me after my husband's death and after my oldest son, Pat, died from an aneurysm on Oct. 1, 2001, 26 days before his 27th birthday.
This angel statue is in a section at Calvary Cemetery where children are buried. Photo by Liz Allen.
[Sister Mary Ellen's words are verbatim - indicated by italics. The other comments are based on phone interviews.]
By MARY ELLEN PLUMB, OSB
"Never! We never lose our loved ones. They accompany us; they don't disappear from our lives. We are merely in different rooms right now." – Paulo Coelho
"Those whom we have loved and lost are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever they are." – St. John Chrysostom
Grief is a very private experience and yet, it is also a time when we most need to be surrounded by love and care and support. The grief of a loved one is especially hard – but we can grieve a lost opportunity, a lost job (even retirement that we chose), a lost normalcy, with some of the same intense feelings.
We find ourselves now in a very public grief, with the fear and anxiety of "Will our family be next? How bad will this get before it gets better? How can I hurt so much for the loss of people I don't even know?" it exacerbates all the feelings associated with loss of any kind, but most particularly of our own precious losses.
So we find ourselves, in the middle of this pandemic, horrified at the number of deaths across our country (knowing the count has only begun) and deeply sad for those who have lost a loved one to this disease and were unable to be near them in those last moments, could not be there to comfort and express all the love and gratitude of a lifetime before letting them go. Grief comes to a magnitude and reality that is unimaginable.
And even if we have yet to be affected personally, this common and universal experience brings to mind and heart our own history with grief – memories, sweet but painful, surface in ways that surprise us.
So, how do we cope? How do we embrace the experience without being overwhelmed by it?
Why does it hurt?
When you have loved someone enough to consider the world empty once they depart it, our own lives will never be the same. Be grateful for grief – it is an infallible sign that we have loved someone deeply enough to miss them forever.
The truth is that for all of us right now, COVID-19 is a brutally painful reality, particularly if one is coping with the recent (or long past) loss of someone such as a parent, child, sibling or other loved one. Each of us is in a fragile place, to be sure. Honor that first of all.
There is a period when the parts of us that died with the death of those we love rise again in the recollection of past moments and the tears of tenderness. But that process takes a long time and comes in different waves and in various levels until it culminates in a welcome place. A public tragedy like this present one is one of those waves.
It is important to remember that, as everyone grieves differently, your feelings about the pandemic sweeping our world will also be as individual as you are. And there are no ordinary days to bring comfort or stability because nothing feels normal for now.
Honesty will free you to move as you must through the days ahead
Perhaps most importantly, acknowledge that the upcoming days or weeks (even months) may well be stressful and anxious in a way you have never experienced in quite the same way before. Stating that out loud, or even to yourself, validates its impact on your being. Embrace your own feelings – whatever they are, however they come.
Honor your grief and your fear. Trust your own reactions. If you find yourself saying, "That doesn't feel right for me right now," then go a different way. Expect to have some pain. Talk about it when you can or write about it or find some creative way to express it for yourself. Let people know if you're having a particularly tough day.
Everybody needs space differently. Just as grieving, in general, is different for everyone, so is grieving a public and common pain. Some may choose to be alone more often, while others may desperately need social support and distraction as the best cure. Within your own family or with your housemates, work out together how to try to address each individual's needs in this extended time together.
Things to take into consideration
There is no right or wrong way to move through the reality of pain and worry. Expect to find yourself uncertain sometimes as to how to proceed. When that happens, try to discover for yourself what comforts you and what stresses you. Then, adjust your needs and your time to allow for both the acknowledgment of stress and the conscious decision to nourish and nurture comfort and refreshment. It is healthy to find distractions, to forget the pandemic for a while, to enjoy a good book or a comedy on Netflix, or take a walk in the woods to clear your head. You know best what makes you happy.
Decide what you want to do with this new reality, this new situation, this new schedule and rhythm (one day at a time). As much as possible, include those who are affected in decision-making together – even the children involved. You may want to schedule "quiet time" at some point during the day or assign everyone their own work/study space where they will not be interrupted. Mix in some new and exciting things to do together.
To help acknowledge when your own past griefs are moving into your heart (if they are), find a way to celebrate life. Cherish the memories once again of those you have lost, write notes to those you love and cherish, find ways to be kind and grateful and gracious and supportive of others – those will lift your heart as well. Look at past photos or read past letters. Let the tears flow but enjoy a good laugh as well.
Set realistic expectations for yourself. If you need help, ask for it. If you can't manage with daily chores, shopping or whatever it might be, it's all right to ask someone to help you. Be very gentle and patient with yourself and with one another.
And not least of all, turn to your own faith traditions. Be creative in ways you pray and reflect and meditate and praise whomever you believe God to be. Especially when you are unable to worship in a community setting, find creative and wonderful ways to celebrate prayer and ritual in your own space with those you love most.
Be safe, be creative, be loving and kind, be funny and sad as your needs dictate, be at home in your own soul.
Deaths trigger new fears
The March 18 obituaries in the Erie Times-News signaled one consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, as funeral homes started to announce that in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, there would be no calling hours, and that services would be private.
Since that time, Kristie Nosich, program manager for Highmark Caring Place in Erie, lost a former co-worker. The service was private but the funeral home streamed it. "I was able to be present the best I could, through Facebook," she said. "That was a wonderful opportunity that the funeral home provided."
Due to the coronavirus, the Caring Place is closed, but Nosich said there are still many ways to help each other mourn. Some of the grieving families who take part in Caring Place programs are encouraging their children to draw pictures or write letters to loved ones. At some point, those drawings and letters could be taken to the cemetery.
You can also reminisce about your loved one at home, just as you would at a funeral home. "Share memories with each other. Those are things happening at a funeral home that you can still do as a smaller unit as a family," she said.
But it's also important to acknowledge that with deaths from coronavirus in the news, fears will arise anew. "When someone in your family dies, there's a fear of someone else dying. People are afraid someone else will die. That is a fear that happens with adults, with children," said Nosich. That's a universal reaction.
Any death interrupts routines, and the coronavirus has interrupted life in similar fashion. "The kids are not going to school, people are not going to work or are working from home, people are not going to sports or to ballet lessons," Nosich said. Youngsters sense that the last time such interruptions occurred, it was due to a death.
The abrupt changes in routines can reopen holes in our hearts, reminding us that Dad isn't there anymore or prompting a child to worry because they can't visit Grandpa even though Grandma has just died.
"The reality is that after someone dies, our lives have changed forever. We don't try to fix that, because we can't, but what we try to do is to give hope to others that life can go on after death," she said. The relationship with your loved one changes, from "one of presence to one of memories," she said. "Have conversations and have that person in those conversations."
When someone dies, stay connected with those grieving, Nosich said. Call. Send a note. Reach out on social media. "Keep those connections, anyway possible."
For more information, including resources specific to COVID-19, visit www.highmarkcaringplace.com or the Highmark Caring Place Facebook page.
Children and families who have lost a loved one to death usually find support in person at Highmark Caring Place in Erie. Now those services are being offered online (contributed photo).
Please don't forget
Whether you are expressing your sympathy in person, through a note or a call or online, there are some words that you just shouldn't say, according to Nancy O'Neill. She knows how to distinguish between words of comfort and sentiments that hurt, because she heard both types after she lost her baby girl, Chelsey, in 1994.
"One lady told me that it was meant to be, that (she) was probably going to have some terrible misfortune," she said. Someone also said that her child would miss bad things in general in the future. But during this pandemic, "I believe she'd want to be home with me right now," O'Neill said.
On the other hand, she's also found continuing comfort from an acquaintance who called at the funeral home. "He just said she would not want you to be so sad," O'Neill said. "It's like it rang a bell," she said. "I've told that to people since, that (your loved one) would not want you to suffer so much."
In offering condolences, people often tell the bereaved person to call if they need anything. But when you are desperately unhappy and sad, the last thing you want to do is to initiate that call.
Instead, O'Neill found it comforting when someone would make a gesture on their own, even long after the funeral – sending flowers to honor the loved one's birthday or anniversary date; writing a note; inviting someone to lunch. Years later, O'Neill still recalls the thoughtful invitation from a woman who asked if she wanted to sing at karaoke.
Whatever gesture you make, you want the person in mourning to know "that your situation isn't forgotten and your child isn't forgotten."
LIZ ALLEN wrote this story after she began to experience reactions similar to those she had when her loved ones died, particularly an inability to concentrate. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.