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How to grieve and heal during the pandemic

Offer support, practical help in the absence of the social soothing that mourning rituals provide

Experiences of grief are deeply personal; each person grieves in their unique way. Photo: Getty Images
Experiences of grief are deeply personal; each person grieves in their unique way. Photo: Getty Images

All of April and May, most of the sessions I did with clients were around grief. At the same time, some of my close friends and relatives lost their loved ones to covid-19. When clients or friends break the news about the loss of a loved one over a text message, there is a sense of helplessness, and as I begin to type, I realise that we struggle with language or vocabulary over text that feels so impersonal and distant. In sessions, clients have shared similar struggles and asked me what they can really say to help their friends or family in a way that’s sensitive—they also ask what they should avoid saying.

The reality is that while we all know death is inevitable, experiences of grief are deeply personal; each person grieves in their unique way. Not just that, they take their own time as they make sense of it. The relationship with the loved one, the circumstances of the death, and many more factors impact how we process our grief.

Communicating grief over text is never easy. In a pre-pandemic world, we would go to the funeral, prayer meeting, even be physically and emotionally present for friends and family. These rituals and traditions allowed for mourning.

Eight years ago, when my father passed on, I remember friends and family came for the prayer meeting. There was nothing anyone could say to really make me or my family feel better. But a friend holding my hand, the ability to hug and cry without having to say anything, did make it a little easier to come to terms with the fact that I would never see my dad again. This ability to share grief made it easier to breathe and even give myself permission to feel the loss. The mourning allowed for the loss to sink in.

The pandemic has taken away our mourning rituals. We miss the social soothing these rituals provide, allowing us to accept the loss. The prayer meeting after the funeral is an opportunity for family members to know the deceased through the eyes of their friends and family, which can be very healing. Whether it’s a wake or a funeral reception, they used to help us find some closure and celebrate the legacy of the person who had died. Now, though we have moved to Zoom and other setups for funerals, it seems cold—not the same. As a result, we have lost the feeling of community and social support which allowed a safe space for grief.

If you know someone who’s grieving, respect their space but drop a message communicating that you are sorry for their loss. Ask for permission before you call them. It is, however, okay to offer support, whether it’s logistical support, practical help, or emotional assistance. A friend of mine mentioned how neighbours sent home-made food for about 10 days after they lost their father-in-law.

Since we are still in lockdown, I find it useful to tell grieving friends and family: “I am around and you can feel free to text or call me whenever you want to speak or sometimes even cry.” We need to recognise that there is no hierarchy to grief. So it’s best not to pass comments that compare one experience of death to another. Statements about moving on, taking responsibility for the family and comments about time being a healer don’t work when people are in shock, coming to terms with the loss. They deny people the right to grieve, push them into moving on too quickly. My work as a therapist has taught me that all grief work is relationship work. As David Kessler, author and grieving expert, says, “When someone dies, the relationship doesn’t die with them.” So give yourself and others the permission to heal and process this.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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