Grieving During COVID-19: Loss and Complicated Grief
Guest blog by: Robert, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention volunteer*
The content in this article was developed prior to the national protests and organizing following the homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Each Mind Matters recognizes the profound impact of systemic racism in this country, including the mental health disparities and trauma experienced by Black and African American communities. Many marginalized communities and individuals often face complicated grief which stems from acts of violence, bigotry and hate.
A Message From a Suicide Loss Survivor
During this time of COVID-19, I began to reflect on the thousands of individuals who are suddenly being thrust into grief and in this case complicated grief. Complicated grief occurs when you experience sudden or traumatic loss and is often a loss in which you have little or no time to “prepare.” Due to the nature of such a loss, it can be much more difficult to work through, and as a result of physical distancing measures, survivors of COVID-19 loss may feel isolated in their grief. Further, adding to the complicated grief people are experiencing, is the inability to grieve the loss of a loved one and celebrate their life in traditional ways at this time.
No two grief experiences are the same. Some or all the reactions below are often experienced by people who have lost someone. They may come and go like waves or they may feel constant and overwhelming.
• Shock and disbelief
• A feeling of isolation
• Loss of concentration and inability to focus; problems going back to work or activities
• Compulsive behavior such as overeating, excessive shopping, use of drugs, or excessive use of alcohol
• Physical and/or mental exhaustion
• Spiritual struggles
• Deep and profound sadness or depression
Many people who have lost someone are helped by connecting with others who have lost someone themselves. The shared experience and wisdom of others can offer hope to help individuals get through the experience. Drawing from my own experiences I could not help but think of the parallels between a survivor of COVID-19 loss and a survivor of a loss as a result of suicide.
A couple of months ago I was driving my overcommitted self to Venice to facilitate the Suicide Loss Survivor group I had helped start. I climbed into my car, and as I settled in for the 30-minute drive, I thought, why am I doing this, why am I dragging my tired body to the other side of town to talk about grief? I thought surely after eight years, I must be done with this process.
I walked into the silent community room flipping on the lights and air conditioning, set up some snacks, and placed some tissues around the room. I sat in the quiet stillness and waited.
One by one, people walked in slowly, solemnly. I began with the usual talk where I introduce myself and share a few standard group rules. As people began to share, I felt more quiet than usual as if nothing I had to say was needed at the time. “I must just be tired,” I thought. The group continued sharing their losses and slowly silent tears began to roll down my cheeks. I had not cried in some time and it felt good to let go. Some of my tears were for them and some were for me and all seemed very necessary that day.
As the group went on I remembered that a young woman, who had come in the room last, still had not spoken. Just then another group member lumbered into the room. He introduced himself quickly and then looked at the woman and bent down gently next to her. He said quickly, “I do not know you, but I am glad you are here,” and then he shared quietly, “This group will help you.” She smiled for the first time in relief and looked warmly back at him.
The man went on to share it was the anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He felt as if he had regressed to what he called his “dark days,” those days of being stuck in bed, deeply depressed, sometimes missing work and unable to conduct his daily life chores. He was afraid that after a year of coming to the group, he was moving backward. I spoke up and shared with him that grief has a process all its own, and it often moved through us with or without our permission. “We never go back to where we were before the loss,” I said, “not to the beginning, nor to the time of innocence we lived in prior to our loss. However, if we share the experience together as a community, we will move forward.”
It was now fifteen minutes past the end of the group, yet I did not feel my usual urgency to wrap things up. As a closing exercise, I asked the group to go around and share what they had gotten out of being there. When it came to the quiet fearful woman, she looked up at the rest of us and finally spoke up. She shared that she had recently lost her son to suicide, and then shared how much she desperately needed to find this group today. The gentleman next to her reached over and extended his arms and she leaned in to hug him.
One by one, the people filed out and I was left once again in the peaceful stillness of the church community room. As I walked out into the beautiful afternoon sun, I noticed I was no longer tired and I remembered something my overextended self had forgotten: I created this group for me, too. The grief I felt from the loss of my partner, Troy, was still very much a part of me. And I knew that next Saturday, I would take myself to this healing place one more time.
For those of you working to stay on top of your mental health or working to get through your grief during this stressful time, please remember we are never alone, and it is vital to reach out. There are caring groups and people available to help support you through this process, even when you think you may not need it.
Robert’s free group is continuing in a virtual online setting. Please remember during this time of social distancing, reaching out to connect is even more essential for our mental health and well-being. For more information about this survivor of suicide support group please email [email protected].
The Center for Complicated Grief: For professionals, as well as individuals experiencing grief themselves the website offers articles, self-assessment tools, resources and an online therapist search directory.
2-1-1: Type in ‘bereavement’ and your zip code utilizing 2-1-1’s online search function to find local bereavement, grief and/or support groups near you.
Psychology Today: Another tool to identify support groups, as well as therapists who specialize in bereavement and grief near you.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, or concerned about someone else, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 [TALK]. A trained counselor will answer your call 24/7.
Friends for Survival has offered support for those bereaved by a suicide death for more than thirty years. Call the help line at (916) 392-0664 and visit the website for links to resources and reading material.
For resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Support, please visit their website.
*Guest blog: Each Mind Matters provides a platform for open dialogue and varying perspectives about mental health. The opinions of the author of guest blogs don’t necessarily reflect those of Each Mind Matters. If you have questions or comments about a blog written by a guest writer we encourage you to continue the discussion with the author by contacting the organization listed in the bio.
For related content: Grieving During COVID-19: It’s Different for Every Person and Situation