How To Grieve Loved Ones When Funerals Aren’t An Option

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it in countless ways. One particularly difficult change is its impact on the way we mourn the loss of loved ones.

“The spread of the novel coronavirus and associated social distancing has made it so that people are unable to grieve their loved ones in the traditional ways, through funerals and family gatherings,” Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California, told HuffPost. “Without this element of face-to-face support and left alone in quarantine, people experiencing losses ― whether coronavirus-related or not ― may suffer more due to isolation.”

Due to stay-at-home orders, many people in mourning are feeling more loneliness than they would have under typical circumstances. Usually the bereaved experience an outpouring of love and support in the form of hugs, home-cooked meals, house visits, help with childcare, flower deliveries and invitations to social gatherings and outings.

“All of those methods of supporting someone in grief that are so ingrained in our society are simply no longer an option, so we find ourselves in uncharted territory on a micro and macro level,” Stuempfig explained.

“People may be more likely to stay in the denial stage of grief for a longer period of time when they do not see other people grieving the deceased individual,” she continued. “The psyche has a hard time comprehending death as it is, and when people are not physically surrounded by others trying to make sense of the loss, it is even more difficult to understand, and eventually accept, that their loved one is no longer alive.”

On top of it all, people are experiencing grief in the midst of a global crisis that brings additional losses beyond the death of a loved one ― the loss of a job, savings, sense of identity and more. It’s also unclear when traditional funerals will be an option in the future.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to process your grief and move forward in this uncertain time. HuffPost asked Stuempfig and other experts to share healthy ways people can grieve a lost loved one during this pandemic.

Because of stay-at-home orders, many people in mourning are feeling more loneliness than they would have under typical circumstances.

Embrace Your Grief

“Don’t deny your grief simply because there isn’t a funeral,” said Dan Reidenberg, a mental health expert and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “Grief is real whether there is a formal wake or funeral. Recognize your feelings of grief, loss and sadness as normal during this time.”

Amid the pandemic, people are overwhelmed with fears about contracting the novel coronavirus or losing more loved ones to COVID-19. These all-consuming feelings may also prevent people from acknowledging their grief, but it’s important to create space for it.

Delaying grief is not healthy and can lead to long-term physical and psychological challenges. Instead of holding grief in, find new ways to go through the grieving process and say goodbye to your loved one within the limits of social distancing. Some traditional ways of experiencing and processing grief are still healthy options ― like having a good cry.

“Individuals grieving during this time should accept their pain and understand it is OK to cry,” said Saniyyah Mayo, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “Crying brings a sense of relief.”

Talk To People

“Even though we can’t support one another in person, I encourage people to reach out as much as they can to family members through phone calls and video platforms,” Stuempfig said. “The best thing we can do for grief is connect with others.”

Friends and family members can gather via chat conference to talk about their lost loved one, share memories or simply cry together and know they aren’t alone in their grief. Sending emails and letters to people in your network is another way to take part in a collective grieving process. The key is to talk to someone else about your feelings, rather than keep them bottled up.

“It’s important to find connection in whatever ways you can. Even starting a text thread with close friends to talk about the person you’ve lost can be helpful,” said Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand.”

“Being intentional about the emotional bonds that are still present can provide some comfort,” said Nicole M. Ward, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “I acknowledge that this is not the same as being able to have a hug or to sit together in close proximity but the virtual connections can be a way in which the emotional connections can be expressed where we are at now.”

Technology allows people in mourning to talk to others about their painful emotions and even plan virtual rituals. 

Technology allows people in mourning to talk to others about their painful emotions and even plan virtual rituals. 

Consider A Livestream Service

Depending on where you live and how you’ve been social distancing, you may be able to have a small service with immediate family, and there are ways to include others in the experience.

“Many funeral homes are offering livestreaming of graveside services,” Stuempfig said. “They are giving the immediate family the right to attend the burial process, while still following the CDC recommendation of no more than 10 people gathering in the same space, and invite their family members and friends to attend the service virtually.”

Stuempfig noted that there may be some benefits to this option.

“One benefit of this is that people who ordinarily might not be able to attend services, due to living far away, finances or even a discomfort with grieving in public, are now able to participate,” she said.

Create Your Own Rituals

“Just because you can’t go to a funeral doesn’t mean that you can’t create something on your own as a way to say goodbye to a loved one,” Reidenberg noted. “To do this, think of what helps you most at a funeral, such as readings, poems, pictures or music and create something similar on a smaller scale. This allows you to go through a personalized way to grieve your loss.”

Other expressive rituals include cooking your lost loved one’s favorite meal, lighting a candle while remembering a special moment you shared, or doing an art project. There are many ways to get creative with the grieving process.

Licensed psychologist Tracy Thomas said she wasn’t able to participate in her late father’s funeral last year due to his involvement in a religious cult and her strained relationship with his widow. Instead, she created her own personal tributes.

“My husband and I got a tree and planted in our yard and I look out at it every day and say hello to my dad,” she said. “I created a collage of pictures, and I continue to do things that make me think of my father. I make waffles like he used to make, I eat his favorite candy, and I spend time looking at pictures of him that remind me that we’ll always be connected because I can always choose to think of him and everything he brought to my life.”

Do Some Journaling

Writing out your feelings can be a therapeutic experience in times of grief. You can keep a private journal for your eyes only or even write a tribute to share with loved ones.

“Write or journal and keep it in a safe place to share with others if there is a funeral in the future,” Reidenberg said. “Find ways to get on paper what you can’t share now so that when the real funeral happens others will see how much your loss affected you.”

Plan A Future Memorial Service

Celebrating a loved one’s life in a public group setting with others is a very healing part of the grieving process, but social distancing and stay-at-home orders mean many families must delay memorial services for an unknown amount of time. The uncertainty of when they might be able to honor their loved one in this way is difficult and anxiety-provoking.

“Given the importance of this in-person witnessing of grief, I encourage families to understand that this is temporary,” Stuempfig said. “Whenever things return to normal and we can all come out of isolation, it is essential that families go forward with memorial services and celebrations of life. Even though these will be delayed a few months or perhaps longer, they are still vitally important in helping people move through their grief and eventually accept their new reality.”

Rather than thinking of funerals as canceled, families can consider them delayed and take advantage of the extra time to do what planning they can.

There are many online resources to support people who are grieving. 

There are many online resources to support people who are grieving. 

Turn To Grief-Related Resources

“Grieving people should be aware that many hospices and mental health providers are offering phone and video services to support people in their bereavement,” Stuempfig said. “There are many virtual options for both individual and group support as well as books, articles and blogs about what to expect from the grieving process.”

She particularly recommends grief expert David Kessler’s website, which features educational videos, live groups and links to resources.

“While we are in this moment, there are still resources available online including grief counseling, grief coaching and grief groups,” Ward added. “We may have to be socially distant but we can remain emotionally connected.”

Devine touted the benefits of grief support groups, many of which are on social media and other digital platforms.

“Connecting with online communities of grieving people is a huge help: grieving people know what it’s like to feel alone,” she said. “Being alone, together, changes things: It makes the burden just a bit easier to bear.”

If your grief feels entirely debilitating or just very overwhelming for longer than two weeks or a month, it may be helpful to check in with someone to care for your mental and physical health.

“If it is really hitting you hard, talk to your doctor to see if there is something they can help with for sleep and to ensure that you are physically healthy and not dehydrated or low on vitamins from not eating well.” Reidenberg said.

Know There’s No One Way To Grieve

As always, it’s important to recognize that there is no one right way to grieve.

“During this time you may see people grieving in different ways,” Mayo said. “It is OK to grieve differently from what you thought was the norm. No person’s grieving process is the same.”

Grief is very personal, so follow your unique process. Make sure you have emotional support and are taking care of your mind and body as you experience different physical and psychological reactions to loss. Be open to different ways of grieving.

“Without typical funerals and customs available, it’s time to be creative and to make new ones that may become even better than some of our long-standing customs,” Thomas said. “While many people have continued to do traditional funerals over the years, just as many people have wanted to do different things in the area of grieving and memorializing people, and this is an opportunity to put our modern stamp on how we mark the passing of a loved one, now and for future generations.”

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