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COVID, grief and the holidays: How to handle the loss of a loved one

Older woman looking lonely Photo: Getty Images

The holiday season is upon us. But this year, you aren’t excited. The COVID-19 pandemic has left you and many others with an empty place setting at the table. How can you celebrate when you’re grieving? 

Here are some guidelines from the VCU Health Spiritual Care Department to provide comfort and wisdom, as well as a list of online resources, to help you manage the holidays while navigating grief.

Holidays can be especially challenging when faced with grief 

If there has been a death — or even multiple deaths — in your family due to COVID-19 or other factors, you may experience emotional wounds that can be particularly hard to deal with during these times of warmth and cheer. Feelings of isolation and loneliness can magnify.

With planning and forethought, it’s possible to get through these times. The following suggestions may help:

  • Realize this a new holiday, unlike the holidays of the past.

  • Acknowledge the absence of your loved one, and choose a ritual in remembrance of this person. Visit the cemetery or memorial site, plant a tree, and cry and smile in remembrance.

  • Create a special way to memorialize the person you've lost. Whether you decide to light a candle every night or eat your loved one's favorite food, honoring your loved one can serve as a tangible reminder that although your loved one is gone, the love never dies.

  • Engage in spiritual activities that are comfortable for you.

  • Do things because you want to do them, rather than because your loved one “would have wanted it that way.” Do what you are comfortable doing.

  • Initiate activity. Plan your own holiday. Make phone calls to relatives and friends.

  • Be gentle with yourself. All wounds take time to heal. Realize you will feel sad at times. You might feel joy, guilt and sadness all within a few minutes. Allow yourself to feel those emotions without judging yourself or thinking you should be happy or you shouldn't be laughing.

  • Take time to identify and take care of your needs. Get adequate rest and exercise.  Be aware of the increased accessibility to sugar, caffeine and alcohol during the holiday season, and guard against overuse of these substances.

  • Look at the holiday season as the beginning of a new journey and starting a new year. Enjoy the gifts of the season found in special memories and visits, whether in person or virtually, with family and friends.

  • Plan extra time for quiet and reflection.

Find emotional support

Grief can often feel like a solitary activity — perhaps even more so during a time when physical distancing is necessary to keep us all safe. Many of the groups you’ve relied on in the past for support may be temporarily inaccessible. Below are some suggestions on finding support during this difficult time.

Social support

It is often helpful to identify key people who will be supportive in your time of grief. Consider calling friends, family members, faith leaders and others who can dedicate time to listen to you without imposing their own thoughts or judgments. Find people who will help build up your energy and strength. Give yourself permission to politely decline conversations or interactions with those who drain you of energy.

Online resources

The following websites, apps and videos may provide the comfort you need this holiday season and through the years to come.

Websites

  • rvagrief.com. This website is a resource for local grief support options in Richmond. Go to the “resources” tab to see many links to individual counseling.
  • fullcirclegc.org .The website for this Richmond-based organization includes a powerful bereavement resources manual (located in the “Resources” section) with lots of helpful information. This organization continues to offer support via telehealth for both individual and group needs.
  • forums.grieving.com – This website and app offer discussion boards and communities for people going through grief.
  • sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/grief – This web site helps young children grieve. It includes video clips, resources for answering difficult questions, and activities that help with grief.
  • whatsyourgrief.com. This website was developed by mental health professionals with 20+ years of experience in grief and bereavement. The site provides blog posts containing practical guidance for those experiencing the death of a loved one.

Apps

  • Headspace. This app provides guided meditations to help manage stress. You can also sign up for grief-related support.
  • Ten Percent Happier. This collection of guided meditations, podcasts and practical teachings can help you work through the intensity of your grief.

Podcasts

  • Coming Back. Free grief conversations that tell the truth about coming back to life after death, divorce, diagnosis and more.
  • Dealing with My Grief.  Darwyn M. Dave lost his father in 1978 when he was just 10 years old. Even though that was a long time ago, as an adult, Darwyn realized he was still not "over" his father’s death. He started the Dealing With My Grief blog/podcast to discuss how he has been coping with grief and bereavement ever since.
  • Grief Works. Death affects us all, yet grief is profoundly misunderstood. In this podcast, hosted by Julia Samuel — a grief psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience working with the bereaved — we hear stories from those who have experienced great love and loss, and survived.
  • Terrible, Thanks for Asking. You know how when someone asks "How are you?" you just say "Fine,” even if you’re totally dying inside, so everyone can go about their day? “Terrible, Thanks For Asking” is the opposite of that. Nora McInerny asks real people to share their complicated and honest feelings about how they really are. It’s sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and often both.
  • The Art of Dying Well. These monthly programs aim to make death and dying something we can talk about openly without discomfort or fear. Each month the host interviews a guest on a key topic and engages in a little ‘death chatter’ before getting the “View from the Chaplain’s Chair.”
  • Where’s the Grief. Death is an inevitable part of life, and yet it can be difficult and uncomfortable to talk about the process of grief among one's peers. In this podcast, comedian and bereaved sibling Jordon Ferber helps shine some light into the darkest parts of our own existence and encourage a more open discussion about the effects of grief. He offers coping mechanisms to those suffering grief through open and honest conversations with other comedians and performers who have unique perspectives on the grieving process.

Meditation videos

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